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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

As Milwaukee Considers 2021 Budget, Call To Better Address Childhood Lead Poisoning Amplifies

Erin Cadigan
Currently in Milwaukee, a childhood blood lead level of 20 micrograms per deciliter or higher triggers a nurse being assigned, an inspector evaluating the family’s home and, if necessary, removing lead hazards, such as old and chipping paint.";

Milwaukee aldermen are in the process of sorting out the city’s budget for next year, divvying up dollars leaders say are increasingly scarce. Among public concerns, an increasing number of people want more funding to go to the city’s health department, specifically to serve children impacted by lead poisoning.

READ: Mayor Tom Barrett's Budget Proposal Cuts 120 Milwaukee Police Officers

Pastor Mary Martha Kannass of Hephatha Lutheran Church was one of many calling for action at a budget hearing earlier this month.

“Our congregation sits on census track 66 where nearly 30% of children under age 6 have blood levels above 5. This is the worst lead poisoning in our city. On behalf of these families and children, I ask you today to seriously invest in health department funding,” Kannass says.

Right now, a childhood blood lead level of 20 micrograms per deciliter or higher triggers a nurse being assigned, an inspector evaluating the family’s home and, if necessary, removing lead hazards, such as old and chipping paint.

Kannass is one of the founders of the Coalition on Lead Emergency (COLE). It wants public health nursing and inspection to be activated for any child with readings as low as 5 micrograms per deciliter.

Two days after Kannass spoke, Milwaukee Health Department Medical Director Heather Paradis told the city’s Finance and Personnel Committee that no amount of lead in a child’s body is safe.

“For every 1 microgram per deciliter of additional lead in the body, there are measurable IQ changes that happen,” Paradis says.

Alderpersons including Nik Kovac quizzed health department staff about its capacity to expand the childhood lead program.

“How could there be a more urgent concern than child lead poisoning that we know is going on in our city? We should drop everything and deal with that. People on this committee and the council are gonna move what we have to move in other budgets to get you that money. And you guys do think if we got you that money, you could implement that?” Kovac asks.

Deputy commissioner of environmental health Claire Evers says the lead program has 'some staffing challenges.' Nineteen percent of its 37 positions are currently unfilled.

READ: Milwaukee Health Department Reassures Aldermen About Childhood Lead Program - Once Again

“It’s not just getting a body in the position. It’s getting the right person in the position, supporting them, paying them adequately and having adequate workloads,” Evers says. “I think once we get those problems solved and we can keep our staff, yes, I agree with your statement.”

On Thursday, the committee will consider amendments to the city’s proposed 2021 budget.

Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic will be pitching a proposalshe says will better protect Milwaukee children from lead exposure — by giving owner-occupants subsidies to remove lead paint along with another potential source of poisoning, lead pipes that deliver drinking water into many older homes in the city.

Credit Lisa Jones / MICAH
Deanna Branch (left) whose son has been impacted by lead poisoning and Pastor Mary Martha Kannass of Hephatha Lutheran Church spoke at a Coalition on Lead Emergency prayer vigil in the rotunda of Milwaukee City Hall a year ago.

One of the people planning to tune in is COLE member Deanna Branch. Her son – now 7 – was profoundly impacted by lead contamination. At age 2, a WIC clinic screening showed a possible problem.

“After that blood work was done, he was pretty much rushed to the hospital to be hospitalized. ... The highest it ever got was up to 60,” Branch says.

Branch says her heart broke when she realized in that time of crisis her child was safer in the hospital than at home. But she’s determined — Milwaukee’s childhood lead outreach needs to expand, but also needs to educate more intentionally.

“I would like low-income families and mothers who are suffering with their child with lead poisoning to be provided more resources to help them in situations like that,” Branch says. “Because that was really traumatic for him.”

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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