Milwaukee Struggles With Lead Paint Contamination

Feb 8, 2016

While the country remains riveted to Flint, Michigan because of its contaminated drinking water, other cities, including Milwaukee, have huge lead problems of their own.

An estimated 10 percent of kids under age six in Milwaukee have unhealthy levels of lead in their blood. The culprit: lead-based paint.

It’s long been banned, but thousands of older houses, especially in low-income areas, still contain it.

The Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers is tracking more than 1,200 families for lead exposure, because it can cause developmental problems in children.

Carmen Reinmund has poured her heart and soul into the project. Today she’s checking a house on South 14th Street. A mother recently moved into the rental and is worried that lead-paint might threaten her three young kids.

Reinmund takes in her surroundings, looking at the outside of the house first. She gives the owner good marks for re-siding the house and replacing its old porch with unpainted wood.

But when she opens the storm door, the inner frame reveals remnants of lead paint. “See right here the entrance? See the lead chipping and peeling? And right here too, so when they go inside they track it on their shoes,” Reinmund says.

Reinmund says young kids are often attracted to lead chips. “You know those sweet tarts candy – that’s what it tastes like. Kids under six have this philosophy if it’s sweet and it’s good, I can have it,” she says.

She doesn’t yet know if lead-based paint covers any interior walls or windows because no one answers the door or her phone calls. So Reinmund will return another day.

Carmen Reinmund (middle) meets with parents Luz Solorzano and Victor Hugo Hernandez about precautions to lessen their children's risk to lead in the environment.
Credit S Bence

Later we visit Luz Solorzano and Victor Hugo Hernandez. Their family used to live in a house just like the one on 14th Street.

They did everything they were supposed to, including having their children’s lead levels checked routinely.

The three older kids always tested in the normal range, but the fourth, Emily, tested high at age 8 months.

It meant a greater risk of brain and nervous system problems.

Mother Luz says the property owner made improvements. Workers painted the exterior of the house, replaced its windows and deteriorating radiators.

Ultimately, the family decided to purchase this house on North 23rd Street.

Credit S Bence

Carmen Reinmund says it’s considered lead safe. Yet, recently now four-year-old Emily’s blood lead level spiked.

She bounds into the room – wearing a flouncy pink princess costume. Her enormous eyes sparkle.

Emily’s dad is a construction worker. Reinmund says he might be carrying dust and bits of lead into the house on his work clothes.

She instructs him to change in the basement and leave work clothes there before greeting his family.

The parents worry about Emily, about the baby they’re expecting in summer, and their extended family.

“Now my brother has a new baby, we tell him you have to be careful…We don’t want him to have the same problem,” Luz says.

Leaving the house, Reinnmund says she’ll return in six months to check on the family - including Emily’s diet.

"Because if the kids are not eating the proper nutrition and they are eating junk food – potato chips and fried food – it’s not going to allow the lead to attach to the protein and the vitamins and come out of the body. It’s just going to block, so it’s going to continue to increase,” Reinmund says.

Ben Gramling heads Sixteenth Street’s environmental health department. “The threat associated with environmental lead is real in communities around the country right now. The number one threat continues to be lead-based paint in the residential setting,” Gramling says.

Typically where old, deteriorating housing stock prevails. “Because lead is simply falling apart and it becoming more accessible to young children and getting into their systems,” Gramling adds.

Sixteenth Street is not alone in fighting the problem, so is the City of Milwaukee. Yet they face a monumental challenge.

The city’s health department reports that while more than 17,000 housing units have been made lead safe in Milwaukee, an estimated 130,000 built before 1950 may pose a threat to children living in them.