Wisconsin misses chances to cut risk of lead exposure in water

By Cara Lombardo and Dee J. Hall, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Fearing that lead from drinking water had poisoned their children, nearly 30 people gathered on a December evening to press for answers.

The event at the House of Prayer, a small church on Milwaukee’s northwest side, was organized by Tory Lowe, a community activist working to raise awareness of lead-in-water issues.

Evanny Dorsey, one of the mothers who spoke, said her daughter Avanny tested as having lead poisoning three times in the past year. Dorsey’s north side home is among the more than 70,000 homes, businesses and day care centers in Milwaukee with lead service lines.

“My baby is not the average 2-year-old, and I’ve kind of seen her behavior changing,” Dorsey said, adding that Avanny, who has since turned 3, has trouble paying attention and is talking less than other children her age.

Residents like Dorsey believe officials are not doing enough to prevent lead poisoning, which afflicts thousands of Wisconsin’s children each year.

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism has found state officials have declined to take actions that could better protect children like Avanny from lead in drinking water. Documents and interviews show that:

  • Funding for the state’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program has shrunk to “below optimal staffing,” according to a state Department of Health Services budget request that unsuccessfully sought additional funding in 2015-17. While Gov. Scott Walker’s administration has increased state funding to partially make up for sharp drops in federal grants, the program remains 23 percent smaller than it was in 2011.
  • A recent public health campaign by DHS on lead poisoning prevention did not mention drinking water as a potential source of lead, despite the dangers illustrated by the Flint, Michigan lead-in-water crisis.
  • State law does not mandate that drinking water be investigated as the source when a child is found to have lead poisoning. A bill that would have lowered the level of lead poisoning that triggers an investigation and require that water, in addition to paint, be examined as a source died in the Legislature in 2016 without a hearing.
  • The DHS is using an outdated, lax standard to determine which lead-poisoned children need medical and public health services.
  • A proposal to study lead-poisoned infants in Milwaukee to determine whether drinking water was the cause was scrapped by the DHS in 2016. The agency said it decided against the study because it would not have differentiated the effects of lead paint from lead plumbing, both of which can be found in old homes.

The risk of lead in drinking water goes beyond Milwaukee and spans dozens of communities across Wisconsin. Statewide, 4.5 percent of children tested were found to be lead poisoned in 2014, compared to the 4.9 percent of Flint children tested in 2015. Blood lead levels of 5 micrograms per deciliter of lead means the child has been lead poisoned.

In Milwaukee, 8.6 percent of children tested had blood lead levels at or above the level that indicates lead poisoning in 2014 — significantly higher than in Flint.

DHS spokeswoman Julie Lund rejected the idea that the agency was not doing enough to protect children from lead in drinking water. Lund said DHS has “taken a proactive stance” by working with state agencies, local health departments and the public, offering technical assistance and help with public health messaging.

She said the agency is “committed to working aggressively on this issue until the risk of lead poisoning is eliminated for all children” but will do so “with existing resources.”

In reaction to the Center’s findings, experts said the lack of attention in Wisconsin to protecting children from lead in drinking water is common across the nation.

Dr. Susan Buchanan, director of the Great Lakes Center for Children’s Environmental Health at the University of Illinois-Chicago, said agency budgets have been hit hard by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s decision in recent years to slash funding for lead prevention efforts. One reason: Lead poisoning among children has dropped significantly since lead was removed from paint in 1978 and phased out and eventually removed from gasoline in 1995.

“Up until Flint happened,” Buchanan said, “I didn’t think much about water (as a contributor to lead poisoning) either.”

Scientist and activist Yanna Lambrinidou, an affiliate Virginia Tech University faculty member who helped with the Flint lead-in-water crisis, said public health officials nationwide have long ignored or underplayed the problem of lead in drinking water, “convincing lawmakers, government officials and the public alike that this hazard deserves minimal, if any, attention.”

Lead dangerous, damage permanent

The effects of lead poisoning, which are permanent, can include reduced mental development, behavioral problems and stunted growth. Children can become lead poisoned by ingesting paint, or lead-tainted water, soil or dust, but prevention and mitigation efforts have historically focused on paint.

Dorsey said she now buys bottled water for drinking but continues to cook meals with tap water because of the cost. Boiling water with lead in it is not recommended as it can actually concentrate the level of the neurotoxin.

After tests showed Avanny was lead poisoned, health workers advised Dorsey to keep her daughter away from windowsills that might contain lead paint, feed her more vegetables and run tap water for 30 seconds before using it. No one has visited her home to inspect it or test her water, she said.

Dorsey believes she knows the source: lead from service lines that deliver water both to her home and the day care center that Avanny attends.

“You all spend the money on streetcars, and stadiums need to be built, but you all need to be putting this money that you all taking from us taxpayers and put it in our homes,” Dorsey said at the Milwaukee gathering in December as she fought back tears.


Health agency downplays lead in water

Wisconsin’s childhood lead prevention program has shrunk since the federal government began sharply reducing funding in 2012. Although the Walker administration has added state money to the program, the overall size of the prevention effort, $1.6 million annually, is now 23 percent smaller than in 2011.

Lund defended the current funding level, saying, “As federal funding was cut, the state has invested more.” She said the agency has no plans to ask for additional money for lead poisoning prevention in the upcoming 2017-19 budget.


One study has estimated that each $1 spent on lead hazard control results in net benefits of between $17 and $221 in increased lifetime earnings, higher tax revenue and lower costs for health care, special education and crime.


In October, DHS issued a brochure for Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Week that did not mention drinking water as a potential source. Spokeswoman Jennifer Miller initially defended the exclusion, saying, “We are unaware of any cases of lead in drinking water as the primary cause of lead poisoning.”

But Lund later said the agency is now “re-evaluating public health messaging on this important topic.”

One reason the state finds no documented cases: Wisconsin does not require that drinking water be tested during investigations triggered when a child has severe lead poisoning. Lund said DHS is “considering” requiring that drinking water be examined when a local health department conducts an investigation for a lead-poisoned child.

In 2016, the state Department of Health Services also scrapped a proposed study that would have explored the links between Milwaukee infants who had been lead poisoned over the past 20 years and whether they had lived in homes with lead service lines, according to records obtained by the Center under the public records law. The theory is that infants aged 7 months and younger are not independently mobile and would not have easy access to lead paint, dust or soil.

Lund said the agency dropped the idea because it was “unable to see any discernable patterns in the data that would have significantly helped to prevent or eliminate lead exposure in children.”

Legislative efforts stall

Last February, state Rep. LaTonya Johnson of Milwaukee, who is now a state senator, and other Democratic lawmakers introduced a bill that would have required that water be investigated when a child is lead poisoned and lowered the blood-lead level that would trigger an investigation to the CDC-recommended level of 5 micrograms per deciliter. The current level is three or four times as high, depending on how the blood is drawn.

The requirement would have cost state and local health departments about $4.8 million a year.

State law requires Wisconsin to update its threshold for lead poisoning to match the CDC recommendation. Lund told the Center that her agency would be updating the threshold, but she emphasized DHS is not authorized to change the requirements for a lead investigation; that is up to the Legislature.

Had lawmakers acted, Avanny Dorsey’s blood lead levels just under 10 micrograms per deciliter would have triggered an investigation into how she got lead poisoned, including whether it came from drinking water.

Evanny Dorsey, who is expecting another child, worries about the dangers using water from lead pipes. She said officials should remove them as soon as possible.

“If it takes breaking down the whole community and rebuilding houses just to get those lead pipes out, that’s what it’s going to take to get the lead out of our children,” Dorsey said.

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.


Milwaukee takes action to reduce lead in water; critics say it is not enough

By Cara Lombardo and Dee J. Hall, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

The city of Milwaukee, with more than 70,000 lead service lines, has taken several steps in the past year to lower residents’ exposure to lead in drinking water, but activists say the city has not done enough.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has acknowledged the city has a lead-in-water problem. The city plans to spend $6.8 million in 2017 to replace lead service lines leading to about 300 day care centers and private schools and 300 residential lines that are leaking or have failed, according to the city budget office. There is an additional $320,000 budgeted for related costs.

The city required the use of lead service lines until 1948 and finally banned them in 1962.

The Milwaukee water utility has estimated the cost of replacing all lead service lines in the city at between $511 million and $756 million. Replacing lead service lines at the current rate would take more than 100 years.

In December, the Milwaukee Public Schools revealed that dangerous levels of lead were found in water from 183 drinking water fountains, including sites housing early childhood programs. The district said it had shut down and plans to replace the fountains that tested at or above the federal action level of 15 parts per billion.

Milwaukee Water Works has notified all customers with lead service lines how to minimize lead in their water. The water utility also has a tool on its website so residents can find out which buildings are served by lead lines.

The city distributed a limited supply of free water filters to low-income residents of homes with lead service lines in 2016, but as of late December, the program had run out of filters. Milwaukee also has adopted a system of replacing both the homeowner’s and the city’s portion of lead service lines to avoid dangerous lead spikes that can occur when only one portion of the pipe is replaced.

Activist Robert Miranda believes replacing these lines must become Milwaukee’s highest priority.

“Tens of thousands of Milwaukee homeowners’ and residents’ drinking water poisoned by lead service lines has cost our community in failing schools, increased violent crime in our streets, high infant mortality, and all Mayor Barrett wants to do is give us filters,” said Miranda, who runs the grassroots Freshwater for Life Action Coalition.

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.

Reducing the risk of lead poisoning in drinking water

There are several steps to reduce exposure to lead in drinking water. These actions are particularly important for pregnant or breastfeeding women or children under the age of 6.

Flush your plumbing. Before using tap water for drinking or cooking, flush your plumbing by running a faucet on cold for three minutes or longer until the water is noticeably colder, especially when water has been sitting in the pipes for six hours or more.

Use only cold water for cooking and drinking. Water from the hot water tap can dissolve lead more easily than cold water. Boiling water will not reduce the amount of lead and can actually concentrate lead. Consider purchasing bottled water from a known lead-free source for drinking and cooking.

Inspect your faucet aerator. The aerator on the end of your faucet is a screen that can catch debris, including particles of lead. It is recommended to periodically remove the aerator and rinse out any debris.

Consider having your tap water tested for lead. Susceptible homes include those built before 1984 due to possible lead pipes or soldering. The state Department of Natural Resources maintains a list of laboratories, some of which do lead testing.

Purchase a home filtration system. Home drinking water filtration systems or water filtering pitchers can reduce or eliminate lead. Be sure to look for products certified by NSF/ANSI under Standard 53 for removal of lead. Recommended filters can be found on the Milwaukee Water Works website.

Replace your lead service line or interior plumbing. Lead pipe is shiny when scraped with a screwdriver, and a magnet will not stick to it. Replacement must be done by a licensed plumber.

Consider having children under age 6 and pregnant or breastfeeding women tested for lead in their blood. There is no minimum lead level that does not cause effects. Most lead poisoned people do not look or act sick. The Milwaukee Health Department recommends testing of children at age 12 months, 18 months and 24 months. Children up to age 6 should be tested if they have not previously been tested, live in housing built before 1978 with recent or ongoing renovation, or if they have a sibling or playmate who has lead poisoning.

Additional information about reducing lead exposure in drinking water is available through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the city of Milwaukee.

— Dee J. Hall