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Milwaukee Health Dept. 'Failed to Ensure Adequate Notification' of Elevated Lead Levels in Kids

Susan Bence
In November 2016, Bevan Baker spoke at a news conference regarding water filter use.

Updated 1/12/18, 5:20 p.m.:

The City of Milwaukee health department is under fire -- amid a management shake-up. It became public Friday afternoon that the department failed to properly notify thousands of families, whose children tested positive for elevated blood lead levels. It also became public that health commissioner Bevan Baker has left his post.

But well before the news broke about the department not sharing lead testing results, Baker had been facing growing criticism. Advocacy groups have blasted him for how the city has been handling the risk of lead in drinking water.

For the last two years, lead in drinking water has been one of the most serious issues the Milwaukee health department has been tasked with addressing. The problem is in older homes that are served by so-called "lateral" pipes that connect the homes to the city's water mains. The laterals in older homes are made of lead, which can flake off as the pipes age -- and flow into the water that people drink.

Advocacy groups argued the health department wasn't aggressive enough in spreading the word about the risk of ingesting lead flakes -- or the importance of installing filters on faucets. They also criticized the content of the health department's public education campaign. Health Commissioner Bevan Baker consistently maintained the department was doing everything it could. But it became public Friday afternoon that at the same time, Baker's department was failing to alert thousands of families that their children tested positive for elevated lead levels. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett says he found out about the problems earlier this week.

“I am angry, disappointed and I am actively working with department staff to fix it right now,” Barrett says.

Barrett says that every year, around 25,000 kids in Milwaukee are tested for lead. Typically, around 3,000 test positive for elevated levels. The health department receives those results and is one of the parties tasked with notifying families and following up with them. Barrett says it's not clear whether the health department consistently followed the procedure. He says he'll make sure the families affected get word about the test results.

The Mayor adds, in light of the problem, he and Bevan Baker agreed -- it was time for the health commissioner to leave his post.

Members of the Milwaukee Common Council say they'll hold the mayor's administration responsible for the -- quote -- "egregious public health failure." All fifteen aldermen released a statement, expressing their displeasure with the situation. Ald. Tony Zielinski calls it "very distressing."

"We're talking about the most vulnerable population in our community. We as a city have a responsibility to look out for their welfare and obviously that hasn't happened in this particular situation so there's going to be some serious consequences," Zielinski says.

Aldermen say they'll begin an investigation next week, to determine what processes and procedures were ignored.

Meanwhile, the groups that were critical of former health commissioner Baker say they're pleased to see him go. Sherrie Tussler is executive director of the Hunger Task Force. It's been fighting lead poisoning on a number of fronts -- including pushing for a resolution to require the health department to change the language in its informational campaign. Tussler says the commissioner had been hindering the progress:

“Hunger Taskforce has been advocating for full explanations on the causes of blood poisoning in Milwaukee since last February. And the Commissioner Bevan baker has not been forthcoming to try to share information,” Tussler says.

Tussler says Baker's departure indicates to her that there's recognition from the mayor's office that the city must be more proactive in educating people about lead -- specifically -- the risk of lead in water.

Update, 1/12/18: The Milwaukee Common Council released a statement Friday afternoon saying under the leadership of health commissioner Bevan Baker, the city's health department "failed to ensure adequate notification of thousands of families whose children tested positive for elevated lead levels in their blood."

Aldermen call the situation "an egregious public health failure that was in direct noncompliance with procedures put forth by Common Council resolution."

It became public on Friday that Baker has left his post.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett held a news conference to address the issues related to the health department. He said that he and Baker decided it was time for Baker to step down. Barrett also said he's angered by -- and disappointed in -- the reports of mismanagement and shortfalls, regarding the blood lead level testing records. He says his staff will work to fix the issue and to notify parents.

Meanwhile, the aldermen say they will thoroughly investigate the matter, beginning at a special Common Council Steering and Rules Committee meeting next Wednesday.

Original story 12/12/18, 1:30 p.m.:

Milwaukee health commissioner Bevan Baker has stepped down.

Baker is the sixteenth health commissioner in Milwaukee's history. He held the post since August 2004, when he was nominated by Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. Baker previously served in the health department as chief operating officer.

The city has not yet released an official statement; however, additional details are expected to be released at 3 pm today, when Mayor Barrett holds a press conference.

Over the last two years, Baker has frequently been criticized by groups that advocate for clean drinking water. They say Baker has responded too slowly to the issue of lead exposure in the water of the city's older homes that are served by lead lateral pipe.

As the lead pipes age, lead can flake off and mix with the water that flows into the homes, posing a risk that people might ingest it.

>> Find WUWM's Coverage of Lead in Milwaukee's Water Here

In February of 2016, the city sent notices to about 70,000 older homes, informing residents that they were at risk. But the issue really caught fire later that year.

In September, Mayor Barrett suggested concerned residents install certain filters, known for removing lead. That got the attention of people like Riverwest resident Barbara Miner, who asked: "Really? Why haven't we heard about this before? This is a public health issue, where's the public health campaign?" Miner was among the people running to hardware stores to buy filters -- causing them to fly off the shelves.

The day after Barrett made his recommendation, he tried to curb concerns. He held a news conference, saying, "This is not an alarmist call."

Barrett said he made the suggestion after hearing the comments of a national drinking water expert who spoke at a conference in Milwaukee. The expert talked about the health benefits of using a water filter, designed to remove lead, on the kitchen sink. "Here's an expert who says that these filters are amazingly effective. And so I thought, 'I'm not going to keep that revelation a secret,'" Barrett said.

Barrett said the city would launch a public education campaign. But advocacy groups began to hound the city, and haven't stopped. They raised concerns when it became public that more homes -- those built as late as the early 1960s -- were at risk. And they said it took the city too long to develop its informational campaign. They also argued about the messaging when the campaign was released, saying it didn't do enough to inform residents.

Ald. Tony Zielinski took issue with the health department's recommendations regarding the use of water filtration devices. He also criticized the recommendations for lead testing in children. Zielinski shared his views at a Common Council committee meeting in July 2017. Commissioner Baker sharply disagreed with the alderman's take. Baker defended the scale of the public awareness campaign, and said the testing recommendations were consistent with national and state standards, and the medical community's current evidence-based practices.

Baker also argued that efforts from elected officials -- like Zielinski -- hindered the department, which Baker said needed the freedom from such pressure in order to fulfill its mission.

Although Baker no longer is heading the health department, the lead issue won't go away any time soon. In part, that's because the long-term solution won't consist of public awareness campaigns or the use of water filters - it will entail replacing the tens of thousands of lead lateral pipes. That will be a lengthy and costly process, which will require property owners to chip in. One estimate says the cost will be at least $500 million.

Ann-Elise is WUWM's news director.
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