Understanding the Psychosocial Effects of the Flint Water Crisis on School-Age Children in Michigan

In early 2016, the Flint Water Crisis captured national attention; major news outlets reported that the city’s tap water had been contaminated with lead since April of 2014. While Flint residents alerted officials about the changes to their drinking water, city and state officials insisted that the water was safe. A landmark study on children in Flint published in 2016 demonstrated that the fraction of children identified with blood lead levels above the CDC’s acceptable threshold (5 µg/dL) roughly doubled from 2.5% to 5%, with the greatest increases in neighborhoods with highest water lead levels. Given the well-documented detrimental effects of lead exposure in early childhood on cognitive development, many worried that the academic progress of Flint's youngest residents may have been impacted. While several years have passed since Flint's water crisis garnered national headlines, the need to improve substandard infrastructure remains salient. Also, over the past few years, important data has become available, allowing researchers to rigorously study and measure impacts of the lead water crisis on children in Flint.

Key findings

1. Overall, average math achievement for school-age children in Flint decreased noticeably during the time of the Flint Water Crisis. When compared to students in Michigan districts with similar characteristics to Flint, researchers found a 0.14 standard deviation decrease in math achievement for school-age children in Flint, an effect size considered moderate.
2. The proportion of school-age children with special needs increased in Flint as a result of the water crisis. Compared with districts similar to Flint, the crisis led to a 9% increase in the proportion of students with qualified special educational needs. Special needs designation rates in Flint were increasing before the crisis, and the water crisis led to a more pronounced increase relative to other similar districts.
3. There was little difference in the academic outcomes of school-age children living in homes with lead pipes compared to observationally similar Flint children living in homes with copper pipes. This finding suggests that lead exposure through home plumbing was not a significant contributor to the citywide achievement effects documented


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