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Lead's Other Toxic Toll: Fertility

New research sounds the alarm on how high levels of lead in topsoil can reduce birth rates.
In East Chicago, Indiana, where lead levels in the soil are high, the EPA warns against contact with the dirt.
In East Chicago, Indiana, where lead levels in the soil are high, the EPA warns against contact with the dirt.Tae-Gyun Kim/AP

The relationship between lead and infertility has long been known in the U.S.: Over a century ago, pharmacists sold lead pills to women looking to end their pregnancies, and women who worked with lead in factories knew that they were less likely to have children and more likely to miscarry than those who didn’t.

More recently, research on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, showed that fertility rates dropped by 12 percent and fetal deaths rose by 58 percent after lead contamination spiked in the city’s drinking water. A recent working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, “Toxic Truth: Lead and Fertility,” confirms this connection by providing, for the first time, causal evidence of the effects of lead exposure on fertility for large portions of the U.S. population, both male and female.