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Women of Flint: Their reproductive health is in danger

By Dr. TaMara Griffin,

Everyone is fired up and weighing in on some very insensitive comments that were recently made by former NBA player Gilbert Arenas. After reading his Instagram posts (now deleted) about “blocking any girl from #FLINT,” I too must admit that I thought his comments were insensitive. However, when I took another look at the comments, I saw beyond the surface. I saw something much deeper that needed to be addressed. I saw something that I needed to bring awareness to.

By now I’m sure that you all have heard about my beloved city of Flint, Michigan and the water crisis that has thrusted the city into the spotlight. Flint, the former home of General Motors (GM) and a once thriving economic metropolis, now beckons the kindness of strangers to help it survive. The past few decades have been rough for the blue-collar city, which has experienced a economic hardship, drop in population and a rise in violent crimes since GM began closing its plants in the 1980s. Approximately 40% of residents live in poverty. That makes Flint the second most poverty-stricken city in the nation for its size. The last thing the city needed was another crisis!

The Flint water crisis has the entire nation talking about a city that has been polluted and betrayed. “Lead, Legionnaires and liar” has now become synonymous with Flint. In an already challenged city that’s has been plagued by a series of barriers including, but not limited to, political, institutional, religious/spiritual, infrastructural, social, racial and cultural, residents are now lacking a very basic quality of life necessity: clean water.

Outraged, frustrated and angry residents – rightfully so – are forced to utilize bottled water for drinking, cooking and bathing. The lead contaminated water supply in Flint is so unsafe that on Monday the state attorney general warned parents to keep their children far from it – including a warning against bathing.

While children may be at a particularly higher degree of risk, it’s a warning that everyone should heed. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there is no degree of lead poisoning that is considered safe, and many of the effects of lead poisoning are permanent and irreversible. The impact of lead can last up to three generations.

While much of the focus and studies have been on the effects of lead in children, I would like to shift focus to women. Given the fact that the water is so harsh that it has corroded the pipes and the state attorney general has issued warnings against its use, I can’t help but to wonder what the water is doing to women’s sexual and reproductive health.

Studies show that lead may be taken in through direct contact with the mouth, nose or eyes. Studies also show that lead may be absorbed through mucous membranes. As a mucous membrane, the fallopian tubes, uterus, vagina and vulva are also quite adept at absorbing chemicals. Introducing toxic ingredients, such as lead, can have damaging long-term effects on women’s sexual and reproductive health and well-being.

Lead is known to cause a number of adverse outcomes in women. Reported effects in women include:

  • abnormal menstrual cycles
  • infertility
  • low sexual desire
  • miscarriage
  • pre-eclampsia
  • pregnancy hypertension
  • premature delivery
  • stillbirth
  • low birth weight

In addition, lead is able to pass through the placenta and into breast milk. Children born to lead-exposed parents are more likely to have birth defects, mental health challenges, behavioral disorders, or even die during the first year of life.

Sexual and reproductive health is an important part of a woman’s overall health. Vulvovaginal health issues can also cause stress or relationship problems and impact a woman’s self-confidence. If you have any concerns regarding lead and your sexual and reproductive health, I encourage you to consult your physician.

Since several studies have implicated lead as contributing factor to sexual, reproductive and developmental effects, in order to reduce the effects on women’s sexual and reproductive health I definitely discourage women from taking a bath using Flint water given the implication that it can have on women’s bodies.

What’s the solution?

In the meantime, what can women do to protect their sexual and reproductive health? I would love to say that I have a surefire solution, but I do not. The use of bottled water is great, but it can become really costly and may not necessarily be an option for families, who are already strapped for cash or for elderly women who are on a fixed income.

Nevertheless, until there is a resolution to the water crisis, I am including the following tips as a way to reduce and minimize exposure to lead.

  • Instead of sitting in a bathtub full of polluted water, take a shower in an effort to minimize how much contact the water has with the vulvovaginal area.
  • If a shower option is not available, stand up in the bathtub instead of sitting down in the water.

Additional options include:

  • Utilize a shower filter on your shower head.
  • Convert the bathtub into a “shower” by placing a tub shower faucet adapter on the bathtub faucet.

While these tips will not guarantee that a woman will not be exposed to lead, it will help to reduce her risk.

Women’s sexual and reproductive health is a conversation and consideration that needs to take place along with all the other health risks and concerns associated with the Flint water crisis! We cannot afford to ignore the harmful effects that lead poisoning has on sexual and reproductive health. We cannot have a toxic infrastructure and expect to bring healthy babies into the world!

The Flint community requires a complex response! Not just a quick fix or Band-Aid. If the residents of Flint do not begin to take steps to reduce their exposure to lead, then the results will be lifelong, multi-intergenerational consequences. Finally, Flint must stand up! Even in the midst of the crisis, we still have to keep moving forward. When the spotlight is off, the celebrities have moved on to the next big American crisis and the water has dried up, life will still have to go on!

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