More than 9,000 Wisconsin children were found to have lead poisoning between 2018 and 2020, with nearly two out of three of those children from Milwaukee County.
There are many possible causes for lead exposure and eventual poisoning, including lead-based paints and lead-tainted water, soil, and dust. Lead-based pipes and paints were often used in homes built many decades ago, so it is no surprise that 90% of children with lead poisoning in Wisconsin live in homes built before 1950.
Out of Milwaukee County children tested in 2020, about 5.6% were positive for lead poisoning. Exposure to lead can impair brain and nervous system functions and result in severe learning, behavioral, and growth problems in children.
One concerned father of a child with lead poisoning, Nazir Al-Mujaahid, says that, “I found out about it because my son wasn’t developing normally.” His nine-year-old son, Shu’aib, got lead poisoning when he was a toddler from the old, lead-based pipelines carrying contaminated water into their home. Shu’aib was developmentally affected; his speech advancement is behind that of his peers and his reading skills lag behind his six-year-old brother’s.
Since the Flint, Michigan water crisis drew national attention in 2015-16, Wisconsin has increased efforts to identify lead contamination. About 20% of known lead pipes in the state have been replaced since then. Other areas of potential lead flake buildup within the pipes have been coated with protective zinc.
In 2020, however, Milwaukee had higher rates of lead poisoning among children than even Flint had in 2015.
While other cities moved away from using lead pipes in the 1920s because of discoveries around the harm it causes, Milwaukee continued using lead pipes until 1948. Lobbying from the lead industry delayed a lead ban until 1962. By then Milwaukee had installed thousands of lead pipes over an ever-expanding land area making the pipes more difficult to replace.
Lead pipes are a bigger problem for Milwaukee than for other Wisconsin cities. Madison and Green Bay, for example, have already removed all lead pipes. But about 70,000 lead service pipes remain in Milwaukee. At the current pace of less than 1,000 pipes replaced per year, it would take more than 70 years for the city to be free of lead pipes, continuing a legacy of poor public health, particularly among children, in the city.
[Sources: Channel 3000; wpr.org]