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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Advocates Hope Resolution Will Better Inform Milwaukeeans About Lead Risks

Susan Bence
Milwaukee Public Radio
A moment of celebration following committee vote Monday morning (left to right), Sherrie Tussler, Ald Tony Zielinski, Robert Miranda and Matt Stienstra.

Update, November 20: The Public Safety and Health Committee approved the resolution without debate at its Monday morning meeting.

Update: After this story aired, the City of Milwaukee Health Department contacted WUWM to share this information about the department's lead education efforts:

Among local communities with lead service lines, Milwaukee is the only one to initiate a filter distribution program. The City of Milwaukee Health Department promotes, communicates, and educates the community about filter use, including the use of NSF/ANSI Standard 53 certified filters. This information is on the department's website and in print materials. See LeadSafeMKE.com website and the Milwaukee Water Works website and print materials. The City's public awareness efforts surrounding lead in lateral water pipes that lead to the city's older homes already state that people should run their faucet for at least three minutes before using the water, in order to reduce the chance of lead ending up in water used for drinking or cooking. The City's messaging and materials already inform at-risk populations to drink and cook only with water that has been filtered. In addition, the City's lead testing recommendations are the same as those that appear in the resolution that aldermen will consider.

Original Story, November 16:

Next Monday, a Milwaukee Common Council committee will discuss a resolutiondesigned to help residents living in older homes avoid exposure to lead in water. 

Tens of thousands of the households get their drinking water delivered through old pipes made of lead. It can damage the brain and nervous systems, especially of young children.

>> WUWM's Coverage on Milwaukee's Lead Pipes

For months Alderman Tony Zielinski of Bay View has been saying too few Milwaukee residents understand the danger. He said the health department awareness campaign, called Lead-Safe Milwaukee, fell short.

Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio
Milwaukee Public Radio
Alderman Tony Zielinski confers with FLAC founder Robert Miranda after July 2017 public safety and health committee meeting.

“They don’t go far enough to let the public know that water filtration devices are the better option than running cold water,” Zielinksi said at a July 2017 meeting of the city’s public safety & health committee.

Since last May, the alderman has been trying to convince the Common Council to support a resolution that would require the health department to modify its messaging to emphasize the use of certified water filters.

Over the months, the health department has made modifications, but Zielinski and other critics say not enough.

Recently, the department sat down with Zielinski and a couple advocacy groups, and agreed to further tweaks.

The result is a resolution that a Common Council committee will consider next week.

Sherrie Tussler of the Hunger Task Force was at the table. Her organization has been working to fight lead’s impact through better nutrition.

Credit City of Milwaukee Health Dept & Milwaukee Water Works
Over the months the health department has modified public education materials. This is the first version unveiled to media February 2017.

“The resolution basically says Health Department needs to change up all of its community information to include the filtering messages and the testing messages,” she says.

The resolution emphasizes that certified water filters are “the most thorough means of lead-water safety."

Tussler says it also spells out that families who rely on flushing cold water, must run the faucet a minimum of three minutes.

“We know from the research is that people don’t run their water for 3 minutes and that they actually suffer a potential increase in their exposure to lead if they don’t run it for the entire 3 minutes, because the amount of lead in the water may increase in the first two minutes,” she explain.

The measure before the committee underscores those at highest risk of lead contamination, "And the need for women of childbearing age and infants and children up to age six to be aware of the risks and if necessary tested," Tussler adds, "It’s a big deal.”

The resolution directs the health department to inform at-risk populations living in buildings with lead service lines to “drink and cook only with water that has been filtered.’

It specifies the filter type -- it must be labeled "NSF/ANSI Standard 53 certified."

Robert Miranda also was at the table with the health department and Ald. Zielinski as they crafted the resolution. He founded FLAC, Freshwater For Life Coalition, to heighten public awareness and urge the city to create long-term solutions to the problem of lead pipes in older homes.

“There hasn’t been a comprehensive approach to making sure the public is informed of the hazards and dangers especially as it relates to water,” Miranda says.

Ultimately, crews will need to replace the lines – a daunting and costly proposition.

Miranda says the changes aldermen will consider next week would be a big step forward for the city. “This resolution is a great effort putting us on the cutting edge of establishing a kind of frontline protective defense. It’s a good model for the country to look at and it opens up the opportunity then to come in with the comprehensive policy changes that are needed in order to begin the effort of eradicating lead from the entire community."

At the time of this story, the health department had not commented on the compromise resolution.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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