Researchers at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs have found that women who drink contaminated water were more likely to give birth to premature babies or babies with low birth weight compared to those who drank clean water.
Featured in the Canadian Journal of Economics, the study shows that the effects of contaminated water—which include numerous cognitive and developmental impairments—are particularly significant for babies born to less-educated mothers. These mothers also are less likely to uproot from areas with contaminated water, which, the authors note, suggests a need for serious improvement in terms of communicating with people living in such environs.
"Fetuses are vulnerable to all types of pollution, including water contamination caused by chemicals and bacteria," said Janet Currie, the Henry Putnam Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and director of the Center for Health and Wellbeing. "This contamination can lead to a host of problems, including low-birth-weight babies who can have lifelong cognitive struggles. It's a particular problem for less-educated women who also presumably have less options in terms of housing."
Using data from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), Currie and her team looked at violation records across 488 water districts in New Jersey and found that more than a quarter of districts had water contamination violations affecting more than 30,000 people. These violations included both chemical and bacterial contamination caused by such contaminants as dichloroethane—a solvent often used for plastics or as degreasers— as well as radon and coliform.
The researchers matched the birth records to the water systems that serve the infants' residences. Because weather can dictate the amount of water a person consumes, they also incorporated daily temperatures into their dataset.
"We found that infants exposed to contamination in utero tend to have mothers who are younger, less educated and less likely to be married than other mothers. They are also more likely to be African-American or Hispanic," Currie said. "The results also suggest that mothers who are less educated are less likely than other mothers to move in response to contamination, while older mothers are more likely to drink bottled water or move."
Currie notes that when a water district is affected, the DEP is required to send a notice to all residences. However, for renters, there may be routing difficulties.
"If someone puts something in your mailbox, do you even see it? Does your landlord pick it up?" said Currie. "Notices are being sent that people don't receive. There's an undercurrent here that the way information is sent isn't adequate. We need to get this information to people directly."
Currie suggests that health-care workers include literature about water contamination risks and hazards in clinics and exam rooms to reach more pregnant women.
"If it's going to be harmful for some groups, we need to at least let those groups know about them, so they can avoid it," said Currie.
In the future, Currie plans to continue studying environmental impacts on child health while also pursuing the relationship between home foreclosures and health.