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One in 10 of Milwaukee’s young children have some form of lead poisoning. What should be done about it?

The network of Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers operates like something of a mini health department on the city’s South Side, and it’s feverishly fighting a public health crisis that the public, by and large, believes is over: lead poisoning. Sixteenth Street’s five clinics test every newborn and toddler they can, as most live in houses and duplexes built during the first half of the 20th century, when leaded paint was as commonplace in American cities and towns as the white picket fences it covered. The Milwaukee Health Department estimates that to this day, about 10 percent of Milwaukee children under age 6 have too much of the heavy metal in their bloodstream, per the latest standards of concern set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These elevated “blood-lead” levels, classically caused by toddlers inhaling old paint dust or sucking it off their fingers, can inflict withering neurological damage on adults and children, but especially the latter. Element Pb, as lead is denoted on the periodic table, can permanently slow their mental development, lower their IQ, and raise their penchant for impulsive and disruptive behavior.

No wonder doctors at Sixteenth Street were alarmed a couple of years ago when confronted with two months-old babies with near-astronomical blood-lead levels. The first, daughter to a young mother who was herself poisoned as a child, underwent three grueling “chelation” treatments – a somewhat dangerous procedure that forces lead out of the body – before the age of 6 months. “We had never seen anything like this before,” says Carmen Reinmund, an outreach worker in Sixteenth Street’s Department of Environmental Health. “There were paint chips in this little girl’s intestines,” she says, a puzzling discovery, as the youngster couldn’t yet walk or crawl and was exhibiting no outward signs of poisoning (infants sometimes don’t).

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As is standard practice in such cases, Carmen and other specialists completed what they call “interim measures” at the South Side apartment where the baby and mother were staying. This amounted to vacuuming up paint chips and dust, and taping over window frames that were peeling badly. But the mother kept moving. “We kept chasing them,” Carmen says, vacuuming and chelating until the baby’s lead levels eventually went down.

How they’d risen so high in the first place remained something of a mystery. Some of the invading metal in the girl’s bloodstream, if not the paint chips in her intestines, could have crossed over from the mother’s blood and bones during gestation. One of the cruelties of lead poisoning is that the body mistakes the rather large Pb atoms for calcium, and stores them in the dental enamel and skeletons of young children, where they have a half-life of 20 to 30 years.

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‘Residual Effects’ appears in the September 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

The September 2015 issue is on newsstands August 31.

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