March 31, 2016

Get the Lead out, Milwaukee!

By: Sen. Lena C. Taylor

Did you know that almost twice as many Milwaukee kids tested positive for dangerous lead levels than the kids in Flint, Michigan?

This is a drop dead serious issue not enough people are talking about. Lead is extremely toxic and affects the liver, kidneys, reproductive system and nervous system. Lead’s most dangerous impact is on the brain and can cause serious development problems. It’s been linked to everything from violent crime to low IQ.  

Wisconsin Public Television did a great story on the lead issue in which they revealed 4,000 Wisconsin Children tested positive for elevated lead in their blood. 60% of those kids live in Milwaukee. In fact, 8.6% of our kids tested positive for dangerous lead levels compared to 4.9% of Flint Michigan kids. In Flint, Michigan, kids had so much lead in their system that the Mayor declared a state of emergency. Where’s our state of emergency? Where’s our lead poisoning abatement plan?  

Milwaukee’s an old city with old infrastructure. We’ve got lead in our paint, lead in our pipes and probably in our soil too. In fact, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently blew this story wide open when they reported Milwaukee is filled with over 70,000 lead lateral pipes bringing drinking water right into our homes. So where is this lead? It’s in the “old” parts of town. That’s a fancy way of saying where black folks live.

I’m not going to pretend that lead pipes is are only culprit of lead poisoning, but they sure are a major player in this dangerous epidemic. Madison, Wisconsin had this very problem. Madison had about 8,000 lead lateral pipes. In 2001, they mandated the removal of all lead laterals that carry water from the curb into people’s homes. The city then split the cost with home owners through a rebate program. The program was so successful, the city estimates they paid out about 6,200 rebates and now, the city is almost entirely free of lead laterals.

Madison and Milwaukee are not in the exact same boat. Milwaukee has about 70,000 lead laterals. But the difference is that 15 years ago, Madison identified a problem and came up with a progressive and aggressive approach to stop carrying lead water into people’s homes. That was about the same time Scott Walker was Milwaukee County Executive. He didn’t have any interest in solving Milwaukee’s lead water problem then and I’m not going to bet the health and safety of our young people on him solving this crisis now.

The stakes are high.  According to an article that appeared in Mother Jones dated Feb. 11, 2016 titled “Lead, America’s Real Criminal Element” found lead poisoning could be linked to violent crime, lower IQ’s and even the ADHD epidemic. The study found that violent crime reduced when America switched from “leaded” gasoline to “unleaded.”  

We need to get the lead out and we can’t wait on Scott Walker to do it for us. That same article in Mother Jones states that it would cost about $10 billion per year for 20 years to replace lead contaminated windows and it would cost the same amount to get the lead out of American soil. Sure that sounds expensive, but an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. According to the article, savings from crime reduction and healthcare costs could be as high as seven-times what it would cost to get the lead out.

Is Milwaukee too cheap to save money (and likely save lives) in the long run? The City of Milwaukee estimates it will cost between $511 and $756 million to replace the lead laterals like Madison did. The city currently spends $393,000 per year to add ortho-phosphoric acid to lake water to treat it before we run it through lead pipes in order to keep the lead from seeping into our water. But given our kids’ lead levels, that doesn’t seem to be our best solution.

I’m not writing this column to say I have all the answers. But every politician is always looking for a silver bullet answer to solve major problems like violence, illiteracy and health care costs. Seems like the answer is simple; get the lead out. But it’s also an expensive solution. I think our best first step is to create a lead poisoning task force to devise a smart lead abatement plan that just might save our city.   

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