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Milwaukee Residents Worried about Lead in Drinking Water Rush to Buy Filters

Ann-Elise Henzl
Ken Converse stands next to a display of water filters and accessories at Bliffert's in Riverwest.

Barbara Miner's ears pricked up last week when Mayor Tom Barrett suggested people living in homes built before 1952 install water filters, especially if small children live there. Miner asked: "Really? Why haven't we heard about this before?"

Credit City of Milwaukee
Lateral diagram

Miner's Riverwest home is among 70,000 with lead laterals. Those are the pipes that connect houses to the city's water mains. As the laterals age, lead can break off and mix with drinking water.

The city says it sent those residents letters in February urging them to "flush" faucets for a few minutes, if they've sat unused. The mayor’s new recommendation to install filters left Miner wanting more information: "This is a public health issue, where's the public health campaign?"

Miner and her husband Bob Peterson decided to buy a filter, but didn't know what kind. So they asked manager Ken Converse at Bliffert's hardware store in Riverwest.

"The most common thing I've been selling is the filters that mount directly onto your faucet," Converse says. One question led to another.

He says the filters cost about $25 up to around $40, depending on the brand and "you have to replace the filter every 2-3 months, depending on the manufacturer."

Peterson and Miner weren't the only ones shopping for filters this past week. "We sold through probably more in this weekend than we have throughout the year so far," Converse says.

FIND OUT: Does your home have lead pipes? Visit the Milwaukee Water Works website.

But not everyone can afford a water filter -- or has heard the city recommends them. That's according to Fred Royal, president of the local NAACP.

"It's just like smoke detectors. It is a marvel idea, but some folks are savvier than others in how to protect themselves and their families," he says.

"We're supposed to be the freshwater capital of the world, and we have this potential lead in our drinking water."

Royal is calling on the city to supply residents with filters as a short-term fix. Long-term, he's urging Milwaukee to replace the lead pipes that connect so many homes to water mains.

"We're supposed to be the freshwater capital of the world, and we have this potential lead in our drinking water," Royal says.

Dr. Mark Kostic works for the Wisconsin Poison Center and Children's Hospital. He says "any lead is too much lead," because it can impact development and behavior. Yet he says he wants to keep the risk related to water in perspective.

"The kids we see who have lead poisoning are not getting it from their water. They're getting it almost exclusively from paint, and these are old buildings with peeling walls or old window sills with dust," Kostic says.

"Someone would have to drink numerous glasses of water in order to absorb as much lead as they'd get from eating a single paint chip."

Kostic says "it's a question of dose." He says someone would have to drink numerous glasses of water in order to absorb as much lead as they'd get from eating a single paint chip.

LISTEN: Milwaukee Struggles With Lead Paint Contamination

Mayor Barrett also is trying to curb concerns. The day after he suggested residents install water filters, he held a news conference to elaborate, saying "this is not an alarmist call."

Barrett said his recommendation came about because he was participating in a water conference at Marquette University, and was moved by comments a national expert on drinking water made.

READ: Flint Lead Crisis Expert Says Filters for Faucets Good Interim Fix for Milwaukee

"Here's an expert who says that these filters are amazingly effective. And so I thought, 'I'm not going to keep that revelation a secret,'" he said

Barrett said the city is exploring ways to help residents who can't afford water filters. And it's working on a timetable to begin replacing lead lateral pipes. He said he'll have details in his budget address this month, but warned there’s no easy fix.

"This is something that's going to take a significant amount of time because it's very expensive," Barrett said. Estimates put the cost at between $500 million and $700 million.

Ann-Elise Henzl became News Director in September 2017.
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