Milwaukee Families Share Concerns About Lead In Water

Jan 31, 2018

As the Milwaukee Common Council continues to sort through what's amiss with the health department, WUWM talks with parents concerned about lead contamination in their children.

Wahkunna Smith was confused when she received a letter from the City of Milwaukee Health Department that read: “Dear Parent or Guardian, One or more of your children had a blood lead test result within the last few years…"

Back in September, her son had just turned two and was diagnosed with elevated lead levels and she followed up with the WIC clinic right away.

Smith was one of about 6,500 parents the health department feared might have fallen through the cracks. Because of spotty record keeping, the Milwaukee Health Department wasn’t sure if it had notified families with children who tested positive for elevated lead blood levels between 2015-2017. 

So off went the letters, and the health department scheduled free lead clinics.

Smith went to Keenan Health Center on N. 36th Street just to be safe. By the time by the time she left, she says she was much better informed. For one, she found out a lead pipe feeds drinking water into her home. At least 70,000 Milwaukee families are in the same boat.

“I just found that out today, because I wondered how did he get lead, how was that even possible? I bought bottled water or I was boiling some of his water. I didn’t know you can't get rid of lead by boiling water, I found that out today.” Smith adds, “It wasn’t described in detail when we were here back in September.”

Clarence Wesby wants to ensure his water is safe for his grandchildren to drink.
Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio

Clarence Wesby’s kids are grown, but he’s the proud grandfather of four. “Eight months, one year, three and five,” he says.

Wesby already knew the house he recently moved into has lead service lines. “So I thought, let me get on this because like I said, my grandkids come by and say ‘Granddaddy, can we get some water.' Now you can get some water."

He was impressed that the city pulled together the free clinic and is glad to get a water filter to protect his grandchildren, but wants city leaders to come up with a comprehensive plan for lead service line replacement.

“This is for our health and safety,” Wesby says.

Water as a source of lead poisoning is newer to Milwaukee’s public health vocabulary.

The city has called water a secondary source. Chipping, peeling or cracking lead-based paint is number one.

The health department points to progress made on the paint front. At last count, more than 18,000 housing units have been made lead safe in Milwaukee, thanks to HUD and Community Development Block Grant dollars.

Right now, there is no ready funding source to replace miles of lead pipe.

As the city kicked off its special lead clinics last week, Mayor Tom Barrett focused on paint. “I want to stress that this is primarily a lead paint issue,” he said.

That message exasperates parent Tory Lowe. He’s certain his young son’s lead contamination resulted from water.

Before Lowe moved in, the landlord replaced windows and removed lead paint. So, Lowe carried out his own lead investigation. “Once they tested him and said his lead levels where up, I followed him for a couple of days. I watched what he was doing.” When his son headed into the bathroom, Lowe says, “He finished washing his hands and he would make that cup and started sipping and I hurried up and yanked him from the sink and I said 'I didn’t know this could happen.'”

Lowe says he asked the health department to test the water, but his levels weren’t high enough. His son tested at 5.9. Twenty triggers an in-home lead risk assessment.

Milwaukee’s protocol matches the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s.

Lowe bought a testing kit that picked up lead in his water. “My son and many others’ children have to grow up with a disadvantage. If anybody knew about it and didn’t speak and try to help these children that’s a crime,” he says.

Lowe says he takes responsibility for his job as a parent, and he wants city leaders to exercise theirs. He wants equal emphasis placed on the threat of lead in paint and in water.

In his mind, the public health message is straightforward: “Stop drinking the water if you’ve got a house with lead laterals, make sure you get your child tested… and make sure you put a filter on the sink."