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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Two Takes On Milwaukee's Lead In Water Challenge

Curt Czarnecki
Replacing Milwaukee's lead service lines will be a gargantuan task - some see installing filters as an interim measure.

It’s hard to get away from discussions about lead in Milwaukee this days. Meet two people who understand the issues but have lingering concerns.

Credit Susan Bence

Carol Hayes – Riverwest Resident

Like many people, Carol Hayes’ awareness of the risks associated with lead in water date back the crisis in Flint, Michigan.

She was quite sure her duplex, built in 1924, had lead service lines, but had trouble sorting out how best to filter her water and that of her upstairs tenants.

Hayes went to the City of Milwaukee’s website and says she didn’t find answers at her fingertips. “If there’s a problem, I shouldn’t have to spend tons of time sleuthing out the answers.” She adds, “That’s what government, I think, is getting paid to do."

Later she received an insert in her water bill. She explains, “Saying these are the things you can do, but it didn’t say where can you get appropriate filters. I’m sure I could have done a better job of searching around but I didn’t.”

Last week, Hayes took a deep breath, fired up her laptop, looked up contact information, and picked up her cell phone to call the Milwaukee Water Works customer service line.

Hayes learned the lateral pipes that connect her home to the water main are lead, and with a little prompting, she learned what she needs to look for when she purchases a water filter and where she can get her water tested.

Credit Courtesy of Noelle Chesley
Noelle Chesley (L) with students.

Noelle Chesley – Garden District Resident

Noelle Chesley shows me the water filter she installed in her kitchen faucet well over a year ago. “So that light is supposed to flash green if the filter is okay, yellow when it’s going to need to be changed and red when it absolutely needs to be changed.”

A few months after its installation, the signal stopped functioning, so Chesley has had to resort to keeping track on her kitchen calendar.

She says that’s just one of the challenges of using a water filter properly. “You come up with questions like: Should I be rinsing my fruit in the filtered water or the regular water.?... It’s not clear, and I assume that’s probably true for a lot of people."

Her interest in filters goes beyond her role as a parent; it’s also professional.

Chesley, a UW-Milwaukee professor, has studied the social implications of interacting with technology. “I started to really think about what’s happening with these filters once they enter people’s home,” she explains.

Chesley would like to learn how to help families ensure the filters they install are truly doing what they’re designed to accomplish. “Is it more about educating people or is about some other barrier that I just can’t anticipate? Are we going have to have more help with installation services?" she wonders.

Chesley applied for grants to dig into the topic. “If the funding comes through we’d (Chesley and her students) be in the field talking with filter recipients this summer."

The City of Milwaukee is considering if and how it could deliver filters to thousands of at risk Milwaukee families. They number in the tens of thousands.

Chesley hopes her research can help families get the most out of the filters they may use, she says, so fewer kids' lives are permanently impacted by lead in water.

You can join a community conversation about lead and our health Saturday, April 14 at 10 am at St. Anthony's on South 9th Street.

WUWM is teaming up with Milwaukee PBS and Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service to talk about solutions and how families can reduce lead risks at home.

And, do you have a question about lead that you'd like WUWM's Susan Bence to investigate? Submit below.


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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