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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Lots Of Discussion But Little Agreement At City Meeting On Lead

Susan Bence
A crowd gathered for Friday's Public Safety & Health Committee.

What was different about Friday’s meeting than the many before it was that community members and city department leaders were equal participants at the Public Safety and Health Committee session.

Chairman Bob Donovan said he was hoping for some resolution. The city has been at odds with activists for several years over the city’s response to the risks of lead in lateral pipes that carry city water into private property.

“ I know my colleagues agree with me when I say we have an obligation to get to the bottom of things and improve the fractured relationship that exists between some of our city department and some of these community groups,” Donovan says.

Donovan is specifically referring to FLAC – the Freshwater for Life Action Coalition.

It has persistently accused city leaders of not adequately educating the public about the risks of lead in water and how to protect themselves.

More recently another group sprouted to life – the Get the Lead Out Coalition.

Is joined FLAC’s call for a comprehensive plan to replace the lead pipes that take water from city mains into more than 70,000 households.

Tom Welcenbach with Get the Lead Out said he’s studied city and state records and maps reflecting public health data.

He’s particularly concerned about a stretch of North Avenue – between 34th and 43rd Street.

Welcenbach says he dissected the information and his research uncovered 50 cases of infant deaths that he says occurred between 2012 and 2016 along that stretch.

Welcenbach believes the deaths might have been caused by disturbances in lead service lines along the corridor and wants the city to investigate.

“And so the high spike in infant death along North Avenue is a significant study area that is critical to understand in order to prevent future spikes locally and nationwide,” Welcenbach says.

Dr. Geoffrey Swain responded to the claim about the infant deaths. Swain is medical director of the Milwaukee Health Department.

"This claim is incorrect, it's wrong. it’s just a failure to understand and explain how density maps work,” Swain says.

Credit Susan Bence
Alderman Michael Murphy says science must guide city officials as they grapple with Milwaukee's lead challenge.

Alderman Michael Murphy had other concerns on his mind.

He says city leaders have to figure out how best to spend limited dollars to address lead risks - posed by old lead paint and water pipes.

He questioned Robert Miranda with the Freshwater for Life Coalition. “Do you believe the poisoning of children with lead in Milwaukee is mainly attributed to the lead pipes,” Murphy asked.

“No,” Miranda answered.

“How big of a percentage do you think it is,” Murphy asked.

“If we go by national trends and the CDC, 30 percent of the poisoning nationwide. Now in Milwaukee I believe that percentage is higher,” Miranda continues, “ I base that on discussion I’ve been having with families for the last four years in our community. Families that have had lead poisoning. The families tell us when a home assessment is done, their home is assessed for paint, soil and dust, but never were they tested for water.”

Murphy called Miranda's information anecdotal.

Dr. Jonathan Meiman with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services applauded progress being made by the Milwaukee Health Department in restructuring its childhood lead program – it focuses on eliminating risks of lead paint.

But Meiman had something to say about lead in water. He says figuring out how much it contributes to a child’s total lead exposure is an area of ongoing research.

“And it’s still not completely understood. Studies of populations have shown that associations between lead in water and the lead found in children’s blood. This research has not been able to provide consistent numerical estimates of exposure. So because of this, scientists have used mathematical models to produce estimates and these modeling studies suggest that water is a minor contributor to children greater than 12 months of age, but water can contribute a larger source for children zero to six months of age,” Meiman continues, “So overall the ingestion of lead in drinking is estimated by the EPA to account for about 20 percent of the average person’s total lead exposure,” he adds, “ however it can be as much as 60 percent for infants who consume mostly formula mixed with tap water.”

Dr. Heather Paradis (far left) with Children's Hospital of Wisconsin says early testing of children is critical when addressing the threat of lead contamination.

People in the packed meeting room might have been more confused than enlightened after Meiman spoke, but that changed when pediatrician Heather Paradis with Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin shared her concerns.

Her message was crystal clear. She’s worries about the children she and her colleagues treat who test extremely high for lead.

“We have actually seen the number of children in our community who are hospitalized because of pediatric lead poisoning, hospitalized in need to chelation therapy, those children we have levels of 45 or higher in their bloodstream, rise every two-year period since 2013,” Paradis added, “Yes I said the children in our community with the most extreme lead poisoning has risen since 2013.”

Paradis says has the city puzzles out it public health policy, increasing the number of young children who get tested is critical.

The meeting stretched over several hours. As it ended, committee chair Bob Donovan called it a big step in opening lines of communication.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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