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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Manager of Milwaukee's Embattled Childhood Lead Program Suspended

Susan Bence
Mayor Tom Barrett and health department medical director Goeffrey Swain during Monday press conference. Barrett did not mention Lisa Lien's status.

Longtime Milwaukee Health Department employee Lisa Lien, who coordinated the city’s struggling childhood lead program, has been suspended.

Just hours before that news broke Monday, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett held a press event on the topic of lead but didn't say a word about Lien.

She worked in various capacities at the health department for 26 years; nine years ago assuming leadership of its Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program.

The program has been under intense scrutiny since early this year. It was plagued by recordkeeping and administrative issues.

That’s when Health Commissioner Bevan Baker resigned. Soon after the lead program’s primary funder - the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD - essentially shut the program down until the health department could dig itself out of its mess.

Lisa Lien was suspended for the first time last December. The suspension notice stated: “The magnitude of the injustice served to the children of the City of Milwaukee is immense.”

Lien rebutted, writing: "It is clear that MHD Administration was more focused on using me as a scapegoat than safeguarding our Milwaukee children against lead hazards."

She has since been suspended again, and remains on paid administrative leave.

Monday afternoon, Mayor Barrett reiterated the city's position that lead paint is the leading cause of lead poisoning among children. The reason for that message at this time, Barrett said, is because companies that produced and sold lead paint for decades have recently been deflecting its dangers by diverting attention to lead in water.

Barrett also referenced information the city’s health department shared with a Common Council committee late last week.

At that meeting, the Milwaukee Health Department outlined its recommendations on how to best target resources to reduce childhood lead exposure.

“The health department showed that the source of lead poisoning is not equal. Those findings echo my administration’s approach. We take lead very seriously and we follow the evidence to have the biggest impact,” Barrett said.

He said he recognizes lead service lines - the pipes that feed city water from the main into individual homes – as a potential health risk, and touted the "proactive" steps his administration has taken: “In 2016 my administration was a national leader in starting and funding a lead service line replacement program."

But in Barrett’s mind, remediating lead paint in areas of the city where conditions are most acute must remain the top strategy, and lead pipe replacement is secondary.

“Our low income neighborhoods have higher lead poisoning. We believe that is connected to a lack of home maintenance especially in rental properties,” Barrett said.

The mayor said he believes the disparity in children impacted leads directly to lead paint, not pipes. “If you have middle class and upper income people they are more likely to be able to deal with internal paint. In low- income homes, particularly rental properties., you don’t have the same attention often that is paid in middle class and upper income homes."

The local advocacy group Freshwater For Life Action Coalition finds holes in Mayor Barrett’s argument and says Milwaukee hasn’t routinely tested water as a source of lead when a child has elevated blood lead levels.

The health department has come up with short- and long-term recommendations – from funding water filters for vulnerable populations to designing a comprehensive plan to remove all environmental lead hazards. But, it’s difficult to know how effective the health department can be in the midst of a structural reckoning.

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.
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