Val Wilson, Annette Spaven, and Malithia Smith barely know each other, but the three women have two things in common. At one time, they all lived in Chesapeake, Virginia, and during that time, each had a series of unexplained miscarriages.
Val Wilson, 40, was pregnant four times between April 1994 and May 1997 with what would have been her first child. Only once did she make it beyond 12 weeks. "In November 1996, I was five months along and everything was fine," Wilson recalls. "One night, I woke up and my water had broken and I was in labor. The baby was stillborn a few hours later. I was crushed."
Annette Spaven, 40, thought her family was complete in early 1998; she had three children, the youngest of whom was five years old. When she discovered she was pregnant again, it was a surprise -- but she and her husband quickly warmed to the idea of having another child. Spaven miscarried at ten weeks. "We were really disappointed, and a few months later we tried again." By August she was pregnant, but she miscarried again at seven weeks.
Malithia Smith, 30, had had one successful pregnancy before suffering three miscarriages between May 1999 and May 2000. Each time, she began spotting at eight weeks, and each time, the doctor could not determine what had gone wrong. "The first time, I just thought, 'These things happen,'" Smith remembers. "The second time, it shook me up, and by the time I lost the third baby, I was really scared." Smith, Wilson, and Spaven had no idea what was causing their miscarriages. But ultimately, each of them gave birth to a healthy child after making one simple lifestyle change: They stopped drinking the tap water.
Chesapeake, population 200,000, is one of several growing communities along the Atlantic Intercoastal Highway that comprise Hampton Roads, Virginia. Chesapeake's architecture is a mix of the modern buildings, stately old homes, and newer track-home developments that symbolize growth and prosperity. It's hard to imagine that this well-to-do community might be plagued by unsafe drinking water -- the kind of problem you might expect to find in a developing country.
However, the issue has dogged Chesapeake and many of its residents for years. As a result, 214 women -- including Wilson, Spaven, and Smith -- have filed a lawsuit, alleging that the levels of chlorinated by-products in the water were sometimes seven times the levels permitted by the federal government. The suit, which is the first ever of its kind in this country, also alleges that the city failed to adequately warn residents of myriad health risks connected to drinking the water, including miscarriages and birth defects.