Child sits behind a laptop with a water bottle of brown water beside them.
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A recent University of Michigan study found a correlation between the Flint water crisis and a decrease in academic performance for school-age children.

In April 2014, the city of Flint switched its drinking water supply from Detroit’s system to the Flint River to save money. However, later studies revealed elevated levels of lead in the blood of the city’s residents. The city switched its water source to Lake Huron in 2015, but the damage had already been done—approximately 99,000 residents had already been exposed to lead poisoning. Former Governor Rick Snyder and eight former state officials faced criminal charges for the Flint water crisis in 2021. 

Samuel Owusu, a research analyst at the Educational Policy Initiative, said one of the defining aspects of the study was its use of non-educational data—data not relating to academic, educator, demographic and student information—to show the effect the Flint water crisis had on student performance.

“This is a novel study and uses different types of data,” Owusu said. “It shows the power of leveraging administrative records, but also records from local nonprofits and other stakeholders to do some fascinating educational research…It opens the floodgates for more research.”

Through examining the educational records of Flint students, the authors found a decrease in math achievement for school-age children and an increase in special needs children over the course of the water crisis. However, they found little difference in the academic performance between students living in homes with lead pipes compared to students living in homes with copper pipes, suggesting that there are other components to the trend beyond lead contamination.

Brian Jacob, professor of economics at the School of Public Policy and one of the authors of the study, said a potential factor for the decrease in academic performance could be anxiety about health and safety surrounding the crisis. 

“The main implication is that the Flint water crisis did have an important impact on educational outcomes on school children,” Jacobs said. “It seems like it was due not (entirely) to the lead contamination itself, but due to the other social disruption that resulted from the contamination and political backlash and the legal and other issues in the community.”

However, Jacobs emphasized that it is too early to discount the effects of lead toxicity on student performance. He said it is important to study the children who have been left out of the study’s sample.

“Something important for the future is to be following the children who were infants and toddlers at the time of the crisis,” Jacobs said. “They were too young to be included in our sample and track their academic performance when they get into the school system. The infants and toddlers were even more at risk than the population of students we already looked at.”

Gloria Yeommans-Maldonado, an IES postdoctoral fellow at the Gerald Ford School, discussed some key takeaways from the Flint Water Crisis. She said that one step to prevent more crises like Flint is improving key infrastructure.

“There are specific steps that can be taken to prevent crises such as Flint’s. One is to prioritize the improvement of America’s infrastructure on areas that have been systematically impacted by health inequities,” Yeommans-Maldonado said. “Preventing health crises similar to that of Flint could avert the associated negative academic outcomes and stress that accompany these events.”  

Daily News Contributor Jonathan Wang can be reached at