Tag Archives: poisoning

‘Regulatory vacuum’ exposes Wisconsin children to lead in drinking water at schools, day care centers

Almost two weeks into the school year, Melissa Corrigan got an email from the principal and superintendent of her daughters’ elementary school. Water from four West Middleton Elementary School faucets taken Sept. 1, the first day of school, had tested high for levels of lead or copper. As a safety precaution, the school would provide bottled water to students until the issue was resolved.

Corrigan — whose daughters Brooklyn and Carly are in first and fourth grades — thought little of the news, partly because the email told parents of the school west of Madison that it was “highly unlikely” that the water was unsafe to drink.

But West Middleton’s results were high — one faucet had more than six times the federal action level of 15 parts per billion of lead and nearly 19 times the federal action level of 1,300 ppb of copper. Samples from nine of the 10 faucets showed a presence of lead.

Any amount of lead can cause permanent brain damage, including reduced intelligence and behavioral problems, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Infants and children are considered the most vulnerable to lead’s negative effects.

Fresh evidence of the risk of lead poisoning at school surfaced Friday when Milwaukee Public Schools revealed that testing found dangerous levels of lead in 183 drinking water fountains, including at locations hosting early childhood programs. The months-long testing program involved 3,000 water fountains at 191 school district buildings. The district said it had shut down and plans to replace the fountains that tested at or above the federal action level of 15 ppb, even though “federal and state regulations do not require schools to test drinking water.”

The district failed to respond to repeated questions since mid-November from the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism about whether water at the schools was being tested for lead, and calls and an email to district spokespeople Friday were not immediately returned. The testing began in June.

Efforts to protect Wisconsin children in schools and day care centers from lead in their water have fallen short on several fronts, the Center has found. Among the problems uncovered by the Center in documents and interviews:

There is a lack of testing for lead in drinking water consumed by children while away from home. Federal regulations enforced by the state of Wisconsin do not require most schools or day care centers to test at all. A 2016 USA Today investigation found that an estimated 90 percent of schools nationally are not required to test their water.

There has been confusion over proper lead testing procedures at some schools, day care centers and public water systems in Wisconsin, as the Center has reported. This year, the state Department of Natural Resources waited nine months to send an official notice to public water system operators that the EPA had updated its testing recommendations in response to flaws uncovered by Flint, Michigan’s lead-in-water crisis.

Lead service lines, a significant source of lead in drinking water, continue to provide water to hundreds of schools and day care centers around Wisconsin. In other communities, officials are not sure how many schools and day cares have lead pipes.

Because of West Middleton’s rural Dane County location, the school has its own well and is among the minority of schools that must comply with some of the same testing requirements as municipal water systems. Lead generally makes its way into water not at the water plant but as it travels through service lines and indoor plumbing, all of which could contain lead.

Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District Superintendent George Mavroulis said after learning of the testing results, the school immediately shut off drinking water and consulted with a private testing company and a liaison from the DNR.

Two weeks after the initial test, the K-4 school with 400 students had the same faucets — and three water fountains — tested again. The levels of lead and copper returned to below the action level, and students and staff were again allowed to use the water.

“We tried to do everything in our power to make sure everyone was safe,” Mavroulis said.

The school has since replaced two faucets and plans to replace two more over winter break, he said. Perry Hibner, the district’s spokesman, believed two human errors caused the school’s initial water samples to be high in lead and copper: not flushing the system beforehand, as the DNR suggests after long periods of non-use like summer break, and removing the aerators from the faucets, which allowed a higher than normal water flow.

Subsequent samples were taken after one hour of flushing and six hours of non-use.

The EPA issued new nationwide guidance in February clarifying that public water systems should not remove aerators or flush systems before sampling to avoid masking the level of lead in the water. DNR spokesman Jim Dick said West Middleton was in a “unique situation” because of its failure to previously flush the school’s system after the water had been stagnant for an extended period of time.

Going forward, however, the district will need to conduct two rounds of testing in the next year to assure the water is safe — and follow all of the appropriate sampling methods, he said.

After reviewing West Middleton’s test results, Yanna Lambrinidou, a Virginia Tech University researcher who helped train Flint researchers, said telling parents a health risk was highly unlikely was “a stunningly irresponsible statement, especially after Flint.”

Said Lambrinidou: “There is no safe level of lead in drinking water.”

All licensed day care centers in Wisconsin are required to identify and mitigate dangers from lead paint, but only centers that use private wells are required to eliminate lead hazards in drinking water, according to Joe Scialfa, spokesman for the state Department of Children and Families.

The USA Today investigation found that among schools and day care centers that are required to test, Wisconsin recorded the fourth-highest number of lead exceedances, with 24 between 2012 and 2015.

Lead in small doses dangerous

Exposure to even small amounts of lead can cause permanent damage. A 2012 study of nearly 4,000 fourth-graders in Milwaukee showed that those with elevated levels of lead — even below what is considered dangerous — scored significantly lower on reading and math tests than those without elevated blood-lead levels.

The Center reported in February that at least 176,000 homes and businesses in Wisconsin receive water from lead service lines, which can account for 50 to 75 percent of lead contamination in tap water.

Milwaukee says it has removed lead service lines leading to all of its public school buildings. Madison is thought to be the first city in the nation to remove all lead service lines from its water utility service area.

Milwaukee plans to focus $2.6 million from a new $14.5 million DNR program to begin replacing lead service lines leading to 384 licensed day care centers and 12 private schools in the city. In the meantime, the Milwaukee Health Department has advised those centers to reduce lead exposure by flushing water before using it and consider using only filtered or bottled water for preparing formula.

An additional 17 Wisconsin communities ranging from Antigo to Waterloo plan to use money from the program to replace lead service lines leading to their schools and day care centers.

School officials in Detroit, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Massachusetts also have found high lead levels in the drinking water at hundreds of schools.

And day care centers — where infants could be fed baby formula made with tap water or toddlers could eat food cooked in lead-laden water — are of particular concern.

Rep. LaTonya Johnson, a Democrat from Milwaukee, operated a day care business out of her 90-year-old home for several years before running for public office. She recently spent $10,000 to replace corroded pipes throughout her northwest side house, which is served by lead service lines.

Johnson said she used a cooler to provide water to children in her care, but not every day care provider does.

“I’m sure people use sink water,” she said. “It’s right there.”

A ‘regulatory vacuum’

In the Lead Contamination Control Act, the EPA recommends that schools test water at each cold water tap — although no frequency is mentioned — share abnormal results with the public and take action to remediate any problems. But these are not requirements.

News investigations have shown that administrators in Newark, New Jersey, Portland, Oregon and Ithaca, New York knew about lead in water at schools for several months or years before the findings became public. Lambrinidou, the Virginia Tech researcher, and others decried the “regulatory vacuum” surrounding water testing in schools in a 2010 paper titled Failing Our Children.

“If you’re a parent … it’s better to know that they’re not doing much than to have false comfort that the schools are taking care of them,” Lambrinidou said.

School leaders mixed on lead mandate

A Center survey of all 424 Wisconsin school district superintendents revealed a mixture of attitudes toward identifying and mitigating lead hazards. Most chose not to complete the survey at all.

The 47 respondents were split on whether there should be a statewide requirement that all public schools test their water for lead. While some do test — either voluntarily or because they have private wells — others said paying for testing is simply not an option.

A Fox 6 News investigation in May surveyed the 10 largest school districts in southeastern Wisconsin, asking if they had tested their schools for lead. Six answered; all said “No.”

Jon Bales, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, said most of his members support water testing. But if it identifies lead hazards that require costly remediation, he said, “We feel like there ought to be some federal support and state support to do that.”

When officials at Riverside Elementary School east of Wausau discovered that lead from pipes in its foundation was leaching into the water, they opted to remove the school’s drinking fountains entirely. Assistant Superintendent Jack Stoskopf said the school relies on a filtration system for tap water and has spent about $1,000 a month over the past 10 years on bottled drinking water.

“That’s far less expensive than tearing up the foundation of the school and tearing up the pipes,” he said.

Crystal Wozniak, who lives in Green Bay with her 4-year-old son Casheous, said she tried to avoid lead in drinking water when deciding where he would attend preschool. Casheous was lead poisoned when he was 9 months old, possibly from paint.

“The water at a school may be more harmful because they’re ingesting the water, and the food there is made with the water,” she said. “All the kids aren’t necessarily going around licking the walls, but they’re drinking the water.”

The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

Wisconsin schools, day care centers slated for lead service line removal under new DNR program

Earlier this year, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources launched a $14.5 million program to help “disadvantaged municipalities” replace lead service lines. Of the 38 recipients, 18 communities, including Milwaukee, planned to use at least some of the money to replace lead lines leading to schools and day care centers.

Below is a list of the communities and the estimated number of schools or day care centers with lead service lines slated for replacement under this program:

Antigo — 4 of 4

Ashland — 5 of 5

Clintonville — 2 of 10

Eagle River — 10 of 10

Town of Florence — 2 of 10

Manitowoc — 15 of 15

Marshfield — 10 of 20

Milwaukee — 400 of 400

Monroe — 5 of 5

Mosinee — 2 of 2

Park Falls — 5 of 5

Platteville — 2 of 2

Princeton — 4 of 4

Randolph — 5 of 5

St. Francis — 2 of 5

Sheboygan — 11 of 11

Stratford — 4 of 4

Waterloo — 3 of 3


Ways people die by state, including drunken falls in Wisconsin

In Wisconsin and nearby Iowa and Minnesota, there are disproportionate instances of accidental falls that are fatal. It’s a phenomenon that has puzzled researchers for years, said Patrick Remington, an associate dean at the School of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Wisconsin.

“We’ve supposed that it’s due to cloudy weather, no sun and so no vitamin D (which promotes bone health), but there’s not been a good answer yet,” Remington said. Wisconsin’s Health Department has a fall prevention program, which points out that the elderly are particularly susceptible to falling.

Elizabeth Stein, a preventive medicine resident at the University of Wisconsin medical school, said low vitamin D levels can lead to both fatal falls and dementia in older people, though studies have yet to confirm a link between those causes of death and the area’s cloudy weather.

But Wisconsin has an unusually high number of people who fall to their deaths while inebriated. A study last year found that in 2012 more people in the state died from falling while drunk (349) than driving while drunk (223).

A study released just a week ago by 24/7 Wall Street found that 7 of the country’s top 10 “drunkest cities” are in Wisconsin, led by Appleton at No. 1. Twelve of the 20 drunkest cities in the nation are in Wisconsin, including Madison (fourth highest) and Milwaukee (17th highest).

“Drunkenness”per city was measured by the percent of the population that acknowledged either binge drinking (4 to 5 drinks at one time) or drinking heavily (15 or more drinks in one week.)

The findings used data from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

Although Wisconsin is the drunkest state in America, alcohol is more likely to be the cause of death in much of the Southwest than in other parts of the country. New Mexico and Arizona, where American Indian reservations have struggled with alcohol for decades, have high rates of alcohol-related deaths.

Varied by region

Although the top causes of death are similar for most states, many states have their own peculiar hard cases —types of deaths whose rates are higher than the national norm, a Stateline analysis of 2014 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows.

The analysis, which relies on a method similar to one used in a CDC journal, shows some understandable disparities in the causes of death in some regions. The South, the epicenter of the nation’s obesity epidemic, has high rates of heart-related deaths. Some are more puzzling.

State and local health officials increasingly plumb such disparities for clues that may help them develop preventive programs and save lives.

For instance, Kentucky and New Hampshire have high rates of death by accidental poisoning, which includes drug overdose. In response, Kentucky has begun a program to monitor the prescribing of addictive painkillers. It has also expanded the availability of treatment for substance abuse.

In parts of Appalachia and New England, drug overdoses account for a disproportionate number of deaths. New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, signed a bill in January calling for stiffer penalties for drug dealers and more tracking of prescription drugs, calling the epidemic of heroin and prescription painkillers “the most pressing public health and public safety issue facing our state.”

Suicide by gun stands out as disproportionately lethal in parts of the Upper Midwest and Alaska.

Sometimes states can only do so much about higher incidents of mortality. Take suicide, for example. Guns often are more available in some western states, said Catherine Barber, who directs the Means Matter Campaign at Harvard University. Their prevalence can drive up suicide rates, she said, not because gun owners are more likely to be suicidal — but because guns are more lethal if a person decides to commit suicide.

Data drives action

After noticing a stubbornly high rate of liver disease, intoxicated-driving and other causes of alcohol-related deaths, New Mexico’s Health Department this year began an alcohol-awareness program that focuses on areas of the state where the problem is most acute.

“The rate was not improving over time,” said Rosa Isabel Lopez, health data dissemination coordinator for the state health agency. “The decision was made to create more data points for community audiences and get this information into the hands of our neighborhoods.”

The state also launched a public website last year that displays data on health issues in small areas of the state, which communities can use to understand problems and target them.

Local detail, plenty of data, and plain language for policymakers are important aspects of successful state efforts to prevent deaths, said Ross Brownson, an epidemiologist at Washington University in St. Louis who wrote a 2010 guide on the subject.

“We like to say, ‘What gets measured gets solved,’” Brownson said. Until recently, he said, communities often didn’t have enough details about health problems to make policy decisions.

In the last few years, he said, there’s been improvement nationally in collecting and distributing health data. The University of Wisconsin’s Population Health Institute, for instance, introduced county health rankings for Wisconsin in 2003, and then expanded them nationwide in 2010.

The rankings noted drug overdose deaths “reaching epidemic proportions” in some areas such as northern Appalachia, and rising 79 percent nationwide since 2002. The Stateline analysis also found high rates of accidental poisoning, which includes drug overdoses, in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

Washington state prepared a plan to address Alzheimer’s disease last year after data indicated it was the state’s third leading cause of death, killing people at a rate two-thirds higher than the national average. Worse, Alzheimer’s was on the rise while other top killers like cancer and heart disease were in decline.

But the apparent rise could be attributed to better data. Washington has a more rigorous method of collecting and verifying death data than some other states. States’ totals for all deaths from dementia, which includes Alzheimer’s, suggests that many might not be reporting the disease as carefully as Washington.

Differences between the states in recognizing and coding the cause of death can muddy the picture, said Francis Boscoe, a research scientist at the New York State Cancer Registry who used differing death rates by state as a “conversation starter” about state-specific mortality issues.

“It seems entirely plausible that physicians or coroners in Washington could be coding as Alzheimer’s what other states might call pneumonia or something else,” Boscoe said. “There are explicit rules for all this, but that does not mean they are all being followed the same way.”

After Boscoe wrote last year about peculiar death patterns in states, he said he heard plenty of feedback about data-collection issues that can make for misleading numbers.

Flawed death certificates

As Stateline has reported, how the cause of death is recorded on death certificates, from which officials draw data, can vary widely even within a state.

In Kansas, for instance, what appeared to be the most distinctive cause of death — hardening of the arteries, or atherosclerosis, killing people there at seven times the national rate — was actually more of a data-recording problem than a medical one.

“This is a classification issue,” said Cassie Sparks, of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. She said the state plans to emphasize better reporting and classification in training materials for medical examiners and others who sign death certificates.

But even if some data is flawed, cities and states can get life-saving or life-extending results by taking action on the evidence of health problems that do emerge. Brownson of Washington University in St. Louis points to New York City as an example.

The life expectancy in the city grew faster than the national average, paced by drops in heart disease, cancer and HIV from 2001 to 2010, a study published in the currentJournal of Public Health Management & Practice found.

New York has focused in recent years on using health trends to guide new, albeit sometimes controversial, public policy — from restrictions on trans fats and tobacco to unsuccessful bans on oversized portions of sweetened drinks.

“The city health department is really a prime example of evidence-based policy, of making the policy dependent on the data,” Brownson said.

Stateline is a news service of Pew Charitable Trusts. Louis Weisberg also contributed to this story.



Lead poisoning would trigger tap water test under proposal

Two Democratic lawmakers from Madison and Milwaukee are proposing a bill that would require the state to conduct tap water testing when a child is lead poisoned. The measure also would lower the level at which the state would be required to investigate the source of lead in a child’s blood.

Current law requires the Wisconsin Department of Health Services to investigate paint, dust and soil as sources of lead and then only when the blood lead level of a child is 15 or 20 micrograms per deciliter or higher, depending on the testing method, according to the bill draft.

Madison Rep. Chris Taylor and Milwaukee Rep. LaTonya Johnson began circulating a draft of the bill Friday. It would lower the level requiring an investigation to 5 micrograms per deciliter or higher, which is the definition of lead poisoning used by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2014, nearly 4,000 Wisconsin children registered at those levels.

The measure also calls for an additional $500,000 for lead investigations. One hurdle to passage could be the $20 million limit that Gov. Scott Walker has proposed on additional spending this session.

The public health crisis in Flint, Michigan, has demonstrated the dangers of lead-tainted drinking water. Lead is a powerful neurotoxin that can cause permanent brain damage, including lowered intelligence and criminality in adulthood. A study of Milwaukee schoolchildren tied behavior problems in school to high blood lead levels.

“These levels are in rural, suburban, urban. They’re in Republican communities. They’re in Democratic communities,” Taylor said. “We really need to address this issue all over the state.”

Taylor said her proposal comes in response to the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s ongoing Failure at the Faucet series, which found that tap water is rarely investigated as a source of lead poisoning despite the well-known risks of drinking water from plumbing containing lead. The lawmaker said she discovered that Wisconsin’s approach was out of date with federal CDC standards.

“We require three times the poisoning of children before there’s a requirement that the environment be looked at by DHS,” she said. “That’s just way too high. That’s serious, serious lead contamination.

“What our bill does is to try to get it (standard) updated, it but it also says you have to test for lead in the paint and the water.”

Taylor said she is not sure how many investigations are currently conducted by DHS, and agency spokeswoman Stephanie Smiley was out of the office Friday afternoon.

The Center also found that Wisconsin has at least 176,000 lead service lines leading to homes and buildings. In addition, many older homes have internal plumbing containing lead, including faucets, solder and pipe connections.

Milwaukee has about 70,000 lead service lines. Nearly 2,200 children in Milwaukee — or 8.6 percent of those tested — had elevated blood lead levels in 2014, according to the most recent figures available. Statewide, the percentage was 4.5 percent. Madison is thought to be the first major city in the nation to replace all of its lead service lines with copper.

The crisis in Flint was sparked in part by a doubling of the percentage of lead poisoned children to 4.9 percent of those tested, an increase tied to lead that leached from pipes after the city’s new water source was not treated with anti-corrosives.

Last month, Milwaukee informed state agencies that it planned to halt replacement of water mains in portions of that city because such work has been shown to dislodge lead from service lines, causing dangerous spikes in drinking water.

In a statement announcing circulation of the bill, Johnson said she had witnessed the devastation that lead can cause for children under the age of 6 whose developing brains are most susceptible.

“I ran a child care for some of Milwaukee’s poorest families for 10 years, and have seen firsthand the heartbreaking damage that lead wreaks upon a young child,” Johnson said. “Wisconsin needs to take Flint’s crisis as a wake-up call.”

She said unless the state steps in, children will be “poisoned and have their lives forever diminished.”

The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

Document: Snyder administration trucked in water to state buildings in Flint a year ago

The Snyder administration quietly trucked in water to state buildings in January of 2015 — 10 months prior to when the governor publicly admitting there was reason for concern in Flint, according to a document obtained by Progress Michigan.

The document is a Facility Notification sent by the state Department of Technology, Management and Budget in response to poor water quality in Flint.

The notification stated that water coolers were being installed on each occupied floor next to the drinking fountains so that state workers could choose to continue to drink Flint water or a safe alternative.

“It appears the state wasn’t as slow as we first thought in responding the Flint Water Crisis. Sadly, the only response was to protect the Snyder administration from future liability and not to protect the children of Flint from lead poisoning,” said Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan. “While residents were being told to relax and not worry about the water, the Snyder administration was taking steps to limit exposure in its own building.”

An email chain connected to the document shows that the Department of Environmental Quality was aware of the notification and action taken to limit state workers exposure to Flint’s water.

“Another day and another example of the Snyder administration’s lackluster response to this crisis. Worse yet, this shows that the response was not only late and so far ineffective, but it was also unequal,” Scott said. “Governor Snyder needs to explain to the people of Flint why his administration trucked water into a state building while allowing residents to drink unsafe water.”