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Virginia Tech Researcher Says Advocacy Groups Key To Milwaukee's Lead Strategy

Susan Bence
Milwaukee Public Radio
Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou on March 7 during her Milwaukee visit.

Virginia Tech researcher Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou served as advisor to Michigan's Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee and before that lent her expertise to the  Washington, D.C. lead in water crisis.

Lambrinidou visited Milwaukee for the first time in December 2016.  The Milwaukee Common Council had just passed an ordinance that requires the full replacement of lead service lines - from the main to the owner's home - whenever a break or rupture occurs anywhere on the pipe.

At the time, the Virginia Tech researcher said she thought Milwaukee might be heading in the right direction in addressing its lead issues. "When they do water main work or other street projects, and they encounter lead laterals as they're digging up the streets, it is absolutely the right time to be removing those pipes," Lambrinidou said.

Last week, she returned to Milwaukee; this time to participate in a panel discussion exploring solutions to Milwaukee's lead crisis.  Lambrinidou  shared the stage with representatives from local advocacy groups.

"Milwaukee has the strongest and most effective coalition that is realizing change in the way [lead in drinking water] is talked about," she said.

Last November the Milwaukee Common Council passed what has been called a transparency resolution.  It  requires the health department to both expand and clarify its public awareness campaign to inform families about both the risks of lead and how to protect their children.

"Resident activism is as necessary for arriving at effective solutions, and just solutions, as corrosion control treatment."

Lambrinidou said the resolution demonstrates the power of grassroots activism.

"It is changing the way in which people are supposed to think about lead in water, as something that is prevalent and necessitates protection through filters." She added, "Filters are not heard of or officially sanctioned in other cities."

Lambrinidou said she returned to Milwaukee to support this work.

"Milwaukee is our hope nationally... [showing] that it can be done and what it requires to do it well  by a diverse coalition of people on the ground , grassroot groups and nonprofit organizations and and academics, and people with different expertise and networks and resources  coming together to address this problem in a united way," she added, "I think it is rare and it is bearing fruit."

Early this year, the Milwaukee Health Department's childhood lead contamination prevention program came under scrutiny when news broke that the department failed to notify  thousands of families that their  children tested high for lead.  In the same breath, longtime health commissioner Bevan Baker resigned.

"It is going to be pretty impossible to shift paradigms in our thought and practice without this type of upset in our government agencies." Lambrinidou added, "What the community is asking for is a different way to think about lead in drinking water, address it and fund it."

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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.