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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Listen MKE: The Chronic Problem Of Lead Poisoning In Milwaukee

(From top left clockwise) Susan Bence, Talis Shelbourne, Dr. Veneshia McKinney-Whitson and Deanna Branch.
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(From top left clockwise) Susan Bence, Talis Shelbourne, Dr. Veneshia McKinney-Whitson and Deanna Branch.

WUWM has been partnering with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee PBS and the Milwaukee Public Library on an initiative called Listen MKE. Its goal: help north side residents get the information they want and need.

Milwaukee's aging housing stock and its more than 70,000 lead laterals pose a serious public health problem for the city's families, and health experts are worried that the problem may have grown worse.

WUWM's Susan Bence and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Talis Shelbourne moderated a conversation about lead poisoning with expert Dr. Veneshia McKinney-Whitson, a family medicine physician and assistant professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin and Deanna Branch, a mother whose young son has been impacted by lead poisoning.

Dr. McKinney-Whitson says along with lead pipes contaminating water, lead is often found in soil, paint in homes built before 1978 or in the air around construction sites of buildings built before 1978.

Branch says her son was exposed to lead through paint chips in their home.

"The apartment that we were staying in was a very old building with a lot of lead paint, chipped lead paint that they found in the window sills, on the walls," she explains. "At the time I wasn't aware but now that I'm thinking back and doing my research, I can see that the house was a lead magnet."

Despite the landlord renovating the apartment, when Branch and her son returned to the space, he again was exposed to lead — this time through the drinking water. This forced Branch to have to find a new home for her family.

McKinney-Whitson says educating parents about lead poisoning is the best way for parents to make decisions that keep their children safe. She says at minimum, parents should have their child's doctor test them for lead exposure once a year for the first three years of their life.

McKinney-Whitson says because of the pandemic lead testing is down across the United States, including around 30% in Milwaukee. "Parents can definitely, when they go to their well child visits, talk to their physician. Know exactly what your child's lead number was. ... You want that to be less than one," she says.

Branch says she wants parents to know that they are not alone if their child is exposed to lead and resources exist to help their child and the entire family.

READ: What You Need To Know About Lead: A Resource Guide For Milwaukee Residents

"I just want people to know that there are resources, my church was a main resource for me. When my son's lead poisoning got to be severe, it was people from the lead program that would come by my house and do an inspection. At first, it was just like letters and pamphlets that I would get, but once his lead poisoning became severe, I got more help," she says.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.
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