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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

State Report Blasts Milwaukee’s Performance in Addressing Childhood Lead Exposure Risks

Susan Bence
Interim health commissioner Dr. Patricia McManus at the Milwaukee Nutrition & Lead Task Force meeting last month.

UPDATE: The Freshwater for Life Action Coalition (FLAC) said during a press conference Friday it found no surprises in the Wisconsin Department of Health Services report. FLAC spokesperson Robert Miranda added,  "Nothing new came out of ciy hall either....We've know that these families have not been treated, have not been provided the services that the state paid for, but yet we have not received any word from city hall or the health department stating what they have tried to do to find these families and help these families."

FLAC spokesperson Robert Miranda at Friday press conference.

When asked if he has lost confidence in city leadership, Miranda said he's reserving judgement until June 30.  That's when Milwaukee is due to deliver its plan to state public health officials. 

Miranda is calling on city leaders to create a comprehensive plan. "It's not just restoring the health department to operate efficiently, it's about what we need to do to remove lead that is poisoning our children, through paint, soil, dust and water," Miranda says.

ORIGINAL STORY:  The Wisconsin Department of Health Services, or DHS, released the report Thursday after taking a closer look at Milwaukee Health Department’s embattled Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevent Program.

It dominated local headlines and conversations as 2018 began. That’s when Mayor Tom Barrett announced the city’s health department bungle.

Between 2015 and 2017 the agency could not verify if it had sent notification letters to families –potentially more than 6,000 of them - whose children tested high for lead.

The poisonous metal can permanently compromise a child’s neurological development.

In swift succession, health commissioner Bevan Baker resigned and Mayor Tom Barrett promised to get to the root of the mishap.

The health department then reached out to the affected families and offered free lead testing at neighborhood clinics.

The Department of Health Services took a deeper dive, looking back at the program from 2012 through 2017.

Over those years, 491 children tested high for lead. The state investigated 108 of the cases to evaluate how Milwaukee's health department followed up.

Among its findings, the Department of Health Services reports that Milwaukee’s health department dismissed more than 90 percent of the cases before a child’s lead levels dropped to what’s considered “safe” by the state.

In addition, the health department did not carry out full risk assessments – such as inspecting homes for lead hazards – among any of the 108 cases DHS reviewed.

WUWM contacted the mayor’s office, common council leadership and interim health commissioner Dr. Patricia McManus.

No one was available for an interview. But McManus later shared a brief written response, “I concur with the findings of the State’s audit….. The health and safety of the children in Milwaukee must be our first concern. I remain committed to working with the State to improve our lead program and ensure we are in compliance with State laws and obligations,” McManus wrote.

A DHS spokesperson confirmed the report shows serious gaps in Milwaukee’s lead poisoning prevention program.

In addition, the spokesperson said Milwaukee has not always followed state public health protocol. For example, while the state says a child whose blood lead level is 15 ppb or higher must be tested twice, more than 90 days apart, Milwaukee followed that protocol only when a child is 20 ppb or higher.

By June 30th Milwaukee Health Department must submit a “plan of correction” that meets statutory requirements. DHS will monitor Milwaukee’s progress in turning the program around.

Later today, Friday, one of the health department's most vocal local critics -- the Freshwater For Life Action Coalition– plans a press conference to outline what it calls the Milwaukee Health Department’s massive neglect and missteps in preventing lead poisoning.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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