A Local Anti-Lead Advocate’s Work Turns Personal

While helming an anti-lead campaign, Sherrie Tussler got some surprising news.

On Feb. 13, as children’s faces looked down from the second floor balcony at City Hall, Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the Hunger Task Force, raised a ceremonial “milk toast” to their health. “Here’s to you,” she said, and all throughout City Hall’s central rotunda, local politicians, government officials and school children sipped from small containers of milk. This wholesome scene kicked off a new campaign by the Task Force, “Well Fed
Means Less Lead,” that emphasizes how well-balanced nutrition can reduce lead poisoning. But Tussler had a secret. Her own bloodstream had elevated levels of lead, 11.5 micrograms per deciliter, and she had no idea what was causing it. Her numbers were well below OSHA’s maximum allowed amount per worker, 50 micrograms per deciliter, but well above the CDC’s level of concern for children, just 5, lower because their brains are still developing.

Tussler had gotten the test at the outset of the campaign and had none of the symptoms of adult poisoning, such as difficulty concentrating, abdominal pain, headaches or joint pain, complications that can deepen over time into seizures, encephalopathy and other long-term neurological damage. A round of testing at the Hunger Task Force headquarters found no obvious contamination by water fixtures (except in the men’s room), so she turned her attention to her home, which was built in 1899 and had a lead water lateral running to the street. A few years ago, her renovation of the house had removed all other pipes and paint, effectively decontaminating those areas. And while she’d scraped (or heat-gunned) paint from 40 windows over 9 months without wearing a mask as part of the restoration, that exposure couldn’t fully account for her current poisoning, given the rate at which lead leaves the body. She began to look for other sources and tested her tap water, which came back relatively low and hadn’t managed to poison her two adult daughters who lived with her and whose blood tested at zero.

The city’s Health Department offered to send a lead specialist to her house, but she refused the visit, thinking it signified special treatment, as the reps normally visited poisoned children. Tussler ordered a bunch of lead testing sticks on Amazon and roamed about her house wiping the testing fluid on antique furniture and other surfaces, finding no positives. During a meeting of the task force, the group discussed the hidden threat of lead-tainted candy, makeup and dish ware, and she subsequently discovered that some of her vintage green Frankoma dishes turned the testing liquid the telltale pink. So she bought all new dishes and makeup. Problem solved? Nope.

In mid-April, she went for another blood test, and her lead level had gone up to 17, which left her stunned. Her suspicions turned to the antique sink in her bathroom, a favorite with a marble top, where she swallows pills every morning. While water from it came back higher than that from elsewhere in the house, it wasn’t by much.

Perhaps Tussler had lost a game of drinking water roulette. As with the 70,000 (or more) other lead laterals in the city, small chunks and flakes can periodically break off and flow through to a drinker’s glass, even with the city’s anti-corrosion treatment. Maybe Tussler had caught some of these fragments. There were still other possibilities. Marc Edwards, the lead poisoning expert at Virginia Tech, suggested turmeric, a spice that has in the past been found to be contaminated with lead, and certain coffee makers, and while Tussler said she doesn’t eat turmeric, she planned to test water from her coffee pot.

In April, the city’s Water Quality Task Force called for more money to replace lead laterals. But what if a person’s problem isn’t clearly water, or paint, which is easier to identify? Such people are often left waiting for the next blood test, hoping the results go down. ◆

What You Need to Know

Should I get tested for lead poisoning?
Traditionally, adults are tested only if they are exposed to lead in the workplace, but many people are taking a more proactive approach. Anyone who lives in a house built before 1978 or during the 1950s (or prior) could be exposed to lead paint or a lead water lateral, respectively. The Milwaukee Health Department recommends testing all children three times before the age of three and any child up to age six who has never been tested.

Are adults really at risk?
While adults have less to fear, lead can still cause high blood pressure, mood disorders, joint problems and abdominal pain.

Where can I get tested?
Your doctor can do or order the necessary test. When the results come back, lower is better as no “safe” amount has ever been identified.

‘Lead Levels’ appears in the July 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning July 3, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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Matt has written for Milwaukee Magazine since 2006, when he was a lowly intern. Since then, he’s held the posts of assistant news editor and, most recently, senior editor. He’s lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, Connecticut, Iowa, and Indiana but mostly in Wisconsin. He wants to do more fishing but has a hard time finding worms. For the magazine, Matt has written about city government, schools, religion, coffee roasters and Congress.