In Milwaukee, more than 10% of children test positive for dangerous lead levels in their blood.
Health experts say the most common culprit is lead paint in old homes. But water that travels through lead pipes also poses some risk. Lead lateral pipes connect at least 70,000 older homes in Milwaukee to the city's water mains.
Whatever the source, Milwaukee’s high rate of lead exposure has devastating consequences for children's learning and development.
The hotspots of lead poisoning in Milwaukee include many low-income neighborhoods, where aging houses pose a silent threat to children. One example is Baily Escobar’s home on the near south side. It’s a duplex that was built in 1899.
“Thank God we’re moving out of this house, very soon,” Escobar says.
Escobar is glad she’s moving because her two young daughters were poisoned by lead. Recent tests show 2-year-old Evalexy’s blood lead level was 5.8 micrograms per deciliter and 1-year-old Everly’s was even higher at 6.2.
No lead level is safe. But the CDC recommends public health interventions if a child tests at 5 micrograms or above.
For the Escobar children, one likely source of poisoning is the peeling paint covering the front porch. That's according to Carmen Reinmund, a lead outreach specialist at Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers. Reinmund visited Escobar's home to help prevent further lead exposure.
“The front porch is in very, very poor condition,” Reinmund tells Escobar. "People are going to be tracking that lead inside on their shoes. So everybody needs to leave their shoes outside."
Escobar’s home is also one of thousands in Milwaukee with lead water service lines. While the city offers some help to replace private property lines in the event of damage, activists say it’s not enough to address the threat of lead in water.
In Escobar’s house, that threat is mitigated with a water filter that was installed months ago. But her children have still been poisoned, likely through lead paint and dust.
During Reinmund’s visit, she explains some of the short-term symptoms of lead poisoning, including poor appetite.
“My [2-year-old] daughter does have poor appetite,” Escobar says. “I’ve been struggling to have her eat lately.”
But the greater concern is the long-term impact. Early childhood lead exposure can cause learning problems, intellectual delays and behavior issues. Sadly, Escobar already knows this. She says her brother and sister were lead-poisoned growing up.
“They had trouble learning as they got older, they were very hyper and they wouldn’t stay still for the life of them,” Escobar recalls. She hopes the lead threat to her own children was caught early enough to prevent similar consequences.
Economist Anna Aizer at Brown University is one of many researchers who have studied lead’s influence on learning. She analyzed data from the state of Rhode Island to assess how student outcomes changed following a government program to fix lead hazards in homes.
“We see that [decreased lead hazards] does correspond to improvements in test scores and declines in the black-white test score gap for example,” Aizer said. “And it also corresponds to a decline in disciplinary infractions that result in suspensions.”
Special education teachers like Eric Gullickson in Milwaukee see the consequences of lead poisoning in the classroom.
“As a high school educator, I get these students after this has been an issue for them a number of years in most cases,” he says.
Gullickson works at Alliance High School. He says at least five of the 17 students in his caseload have a history of lead poisoning, that he knows of.
“They’re not able to reason as well,” Gullickson explains. “The ability to make rational decisions oftentimes can be compromised. Being able to retain knowledge that they’ve learned, being impulsive, behaviors can come with that as well. It depends on the student.”
District officials say Milwaukee Public Schools does not keep data on how many students have a history of lead exposure. The school district is perennially plagued by low test scores. Wisconsin as a state has enormous black-white achievement gaps.
Brown University’s Aizer says local and state governments would benefit from addressing how lead exposure affects those types of student outcomes.
“One of the obvious implications of this research is if you want to improve test scores, you might have to start thinking about things like housing and health — not just classroom instruction and teacher training,” Aizer says.
But dealing with environmental hazards is still a piecemeal effort in Milwaukee. Reinmund with Sixteenth Street says too often, the threat isn’t mitigated until a child’s lead test sets off alarms.
“We shouldn’t be using our children as lead detectors,” Reinmund says.
Unlike some other health problems, once the developmental damage of lead poisoning is done, it cannot be reversed.