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Milwaukee Launches Lead Testing Clinic as Belated Letters Warn of Possible Exposure

Marti Mikkelson
The city of Milwaukee held a lead tsting clinic at the Southside Health Center

The city of Milwaukee is holding free clinics this week for children who may need additional testing for lead levels in their blood. The city sent out more than 5,000 letters Monday to people whose children tested positive for lead exposure in the past few years.

The correspondence went out as a precautionary measure, after it was discovered that the Health Department may have failed to send the follow-up letters years ago. That led to the resignation of Milwaukee Health Commissioner Bevan Baker earlier this month.

Monday’s clinic was held at the Southside Health Center near 23rd and Lapham. It’s the first of several clinics being held this week. The place was packed, but not with people who needed testing or additional services for lead exposure, but rather with parents who were bringing in their kids to be immunized and for other assistance. Only one person brought their child to be tested for lead, but declined an interview.  The city sent out 900 letters on Friday, and 5,500 on Monday, but many people haven’t received them yet.

Mayor Tom Barrett held a news conference in the middle of the activity. He said it’s important for the city to exercise an abundance of caution in sending the letters to families, that the Health Department isn’t sure it contacted initially.

“I believe that most if not all families, were contacted by their primary care physician. What we don’t know is whether they were all contacted by the city of Milwaukee. They may have been. This was an insurance policy so that everybody whose child was tested over the past three years now has been contacted,” Barrett says.

Barrett says the letters were sent mostly to people who live on the south side and the north side – where there are many older homes that contain lead paint. Also on Monday, the city launched a hotline that people can call to find out more information about lead testing. Barrett says about a dozen people had called the hotline by late Monday afternoon. He thinks more people will call and stop in at the free clinics as the week goes on.

He says the initial test is a simple pin prick that indicates different levels of severity of lead in the blood. If there’s a positive result, then additional steps are needed.

“Then we want them to follow up with the Venus testing which is the confirmatory test. If they are above five of course, they’ll get the letter from the city now. If they’re above 10 to 19, then they’ll get another letter. If they are at 20 or above, that’s when the home visit comes in,” Barrett says.

Barrett says people can also pick up free drinking water filters at the clinics this week, if it’s determined that their home has a lead service line. Joanna Bosch drove down from Brown Deer to visit the clinic. She says she’s here to get her child immunized, but thought she’d check with the health department to see if her home has a lead service line or lead paint on the walls. She says the staff at the clinic was able to verify that her home isn’t affected.

“I feel so relieved that it’s not even near my area or near my house, there’s no lead. I felt so good because of my kids,” Bosch says.

The Milwaukee Common Council last week launched an investigation into the Health Department’s lead abatement efforts. The Mayor’s office is also conducting a probe.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.
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