A decades-old public health crisis rises to the surface.
Professor Marc Edwards is the original hard-ass when it comes to the threat of lead poisoning from drinking water. He helped to bust Flint, Mich.’s brown-water crisis wide open and a decade before fought a lonely battle against the federal government over years of poisonings in the nation’s capital. Like both Flint and Washington, D.C., Milwaukee has many thousands of aging lead service lines – about 70,000, in fact, – that carry water from iron mains into homes and other buildings. The danger is that lead from the pipes can leach into the water, or flake off in greater quantities, poisoning drinkers downstream. The Band-Aid remedy is to purchase a water filter, and it’s such a good solution Edwards says he would allow his own children to drink water from the most lead-contaminated city in the U.S. so long as it had passed through one of these filters (see “Filter Facts”).
The filters, which retail for as little as $18.99, work even if the owner forgets to change the cartridge, he says. “I have never seen a case where the filters stop removing lead effectively.”
The city’s efforts, however, to ensure that people acquire these near-foolproof safeguards have been somewhat delayed. In November, officials announced a program that will provide 2,000 units to homes with pregnant women and young children (with $150,000 for more filters in 2017). Everyone else in a lead-affected home is instructed to buy their own darn filters (see Filter Facts for info on a discount being offered by Aquasana). According to Mayor Tom Barrett, that includes anyone living in a home built before 1951, at least until the owner or a city program can remove any lead lateral lines from what are primarily inner-city neighborhoods. According to the research of local activist Bob Graf, the top five affected zip codes – 53215, 53206, 53210, 53208 and 53204 – all include inner-city neighborhoods and account for more than half of the city’s lead pipes.
Is this approach catching on? Maybe not. Prior to the announcement of the free filter program, city Health Commissioner Bevan Baker said his department hadn’t seen an uptick in the number of calls from citizens worried about lead in their water, even though a population roughly the size of Madison is believed to be affected.
The city has pledged the rest of its limited funding, cobbled together from state and local sources, to replacing pipes. But Edwards says that even with full funding (currently only partial is available), removing all of the bad laterals will take 20-30 years. “I think the city should have to buy people a filter and replacement cartridges,” he says.
Edwards has lived up to his reputation as a critic by questioning Milwaukee’s slow response to the problem of lead in water. And it’s been far slower than most people realize. Worries about lead leaching into the city’s drinking water have existed since at least the 1980s – in 1989, a report by a city Health Department official downplayed the issue while citing lead levels up to three times the federal benchmark at the time. Another alarming report, by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, found a statistical connection between “the amount of tap water a child drinks” in Milwaukee and whether the child tests high for lead. Edwards says the result was “buried” in the 2006 report’s appendix.
In children under 6, the heavy metal can interfere with behavioral and intellectual development, even at very small doses, and in adults, it can cause cognitive problems, chronic pain and miscarriages. Citywide, there are still some 385 day care centers and 12 private schools connected to lead lines, the latter of which the city has never publicized. We reached out to half of the private schools – including four parochial Catholic ones serving K-8 – but were unable to connect with a principal or administrator.
In early 2016, Barrett and Baker began making rushed public statements as news stories from the Flint crisis began to raise questions locally. In a February TV interview, Baker most likely misspoke in stating that “Our water is safe. There’s no lead in the water that comes out of your tap,” which is false. Documents released every year by the Milwaukee Water Works show a median level of 10 micrograms per liter, below the federal maximum of 15. In an interview with Milwaukee Magazine, Baker said he was attempting to refer to the water that leaves the Milwaukee Water Works (which is lead free) and is subsequently contaminated inside what, during the TV interview, he referred to as “old infrastructure.”
Baker now says that “lead in water is a great concern and a contributing factor” to lead poisoning, even as programs aimed at lead paint sources have driven down the number of children with elevated blood-lead levels by 70 percent since 2003, under the newest standards. According to city records, about 1 child in 10 under age 6 still tests high for lead, although this data only includes results that have been reported to the city.
The picture remains fuzzy on how much of that poisoning is due to contaminated drinking water. “Milwaukee has never had a comprehensive plan to deal with this,” says Robert Miranda, the organizer of a protest group, Freshwater for Life Action Coalition. “We’re moving at a snail’s pace.” ◆
Although the city adds an anti-corrosive compound to drinking water, it’s not fail-safe if you have lead pipes. To be safe, buy a water filter certified by NSF under Standard 53, which covers heavy metals, including lead, and use it for cooking and drinking water. Tests have demonstrated these to be 99.9 percent effective.
Styles include pitcher, faucet-mounted and plumbed-in models made by Zero Water, Brita, GE and other brands.
For a full list, and to check if your property has a lead lateral line, go to city.milwaukee.gov/water. Residents can also receive a discount while shopping at aquasana.com by using the password “Milwaukee.”
CORRECTION: A earlier version of this story mistakenly listed the number of lead service lines in Milwaukee.
UPDATE: The city announced the new 2,000-filter program described above after the December issue had gone to press. This post was updated to include these new details. Clarifying information was also added on lead testing.
Tune in to WUWM’s (89.7) “Lake Effect” Dec. 21 at 10 a.m. to hear more about the story.