Amid Lead Crisis, Milwaukee Fails to Protect Its Most Vulnerable Citizens

As a previous article by Intellegere noted, lead remains a problem in Wisconsin, and no city has it worse than Milwaukee. In 2016, the City of Milwaukee Health Department reported an elevated blood lead level (BLL) in 11.6% of children under the age of six [1]. By way of comparison, the statewide rate of lead poisoning for this demographic was 5.0% in the same year [2]. Lead paint is the leading contributor to poisoning in children. Lead in soil and outdated water fixtures add to the problem [3]. Yet, the highest profile culprit continues to be the city’s lead water service pipes, now estimated to number upwards of 70,000 [4]. Milwaukee officials have been slow in solving this particularly problematic source of lead. The city replaced 610 Lead pipes in 2017 [5] and Mayor Tom Barrett announced another 800 pipe replacements in his 2018 budget [6]. Despite some success, Milwaukee’s response to the lead crisis has been overall disorganized, dishonest, and lacking urgency. After years of effort, Milwaukee continues to fail in protecting its most vulnerable populations.

Who’s At Risk?


Lead affects people of all ages, but children face a greater risk due to their higher absorption of the neurotoxin. Symptoms of lead poisoning include developmental delay, seizures, and other neurological, behavioral, and physical conditions [7].

Low-Income Families 

A 2016 report by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (WDHS) found that lead poisoning disproportionately affects children from families meeting the state’s low-income requirements [2]. The report attributed the trend to a lack of finances limiting some families’ access to newer, lead-free housing. The WDHS’s conclusion holds up in Milwaukee, where lower-income families tend to reside in areas with older infrastructure and more prevalent lead pipes.

milwaukee poverty
        Poverty Map (2013) | Credit Milwaukee Journal Sentinel | “Darker Areas Represent a Higher Percentage of Residents Living Below The Poverty Level”


Lead Service Line Map (2016) |Credit Milwaukee Water Works | Red Dots Represent Properties with Lead Service Lines

Minority Populations

Statewide, African American children are nearly twice as likely as their white counterparts to be diagnosed with lead-poisoning, as evidenced by the aforementioned WDHS report. In Milwaukee, black and Latinx communities tend to be segregated to areas of concentrated poverty in the oldest and most lead-afflicted areas of the city [8].

Lead Poisoning Map
Lead Poisoning Density (2014) | Credit MHD CLPPP  | Red Areas Indicate a Higher Density of Lead Poisoning Cases in Children

Milwaukee Segregation

Milwaukee Segregation
Segregation in Milwaukee (2010) | Credit Dustin A. Cable, University Of Virginia, Weldon Cooper Center For Public Service, Reference Data By Stamen Design

Why Has Milwaukee Failed to Serve These People?

A Scandal in the Health Department

In 2015 and 2016, the Milwaukee Health Department (MHD) failed to follow up with the families of thousands of children who were tested and discovered to have blood lead levels above the CDC reference level for lead poisoning (but not above the pre-2012 level of 10 μg/dL)[9,2]. Health Commissioner Bevan Baker resigned this January in the wake of concern that he mismanaged the lead testing program and set the city back in terms of addressing the problem [10].

Half-Measures in Confronting the Crisis

In the fall of 2016, Mayor Tom Barrett made an announcement advising any Milwaukee residents living in a house built before 1951 to install water filters, noting their tested effectiveness in lead abatement [11]. Campaigns to distribute free filters to affected families began shortly thereafter. As of January 2018, these programs distributed only 3,380 free filters, a fraction of the number needed to aid around 70,000 affected homes [9].

An Ineffective Awareness Campaign

Mayor Barrett announced another initiative around the same time he endorsed water filters: Lead-Safe Milwaukee. Lead-Safe Milwaukee is a campaign sponsored by the MHD, City of Milwaukee, and Milwaukee Water Works with the goal of raising awareness and providing information to those who may be affected by lead poisoning. In July of 2017, Milwaukee Ald. Tony Zielinski criticized the website’s prioritization of flushing cold water (an ineffective method [9]) over installing a lead-certified filter. The website consequently changed the misleading message [11]. Even with the upgrade, Lead-Safe Milwaukee has its flaws. For one, the site’s Spanish version is hard to reach. The “Version en Espanol” (sic) link can be found only on a small dropdown menu and not anywhere on the site’s front page. Further, links to important resources—such as a list of lead filters and a lead service line address search—are all written exclusively in English [12].

Screen Shot 2018-07-27 at 8.02.49 PM

Beyond just the website, the Lead-Safe Milwaukee campaign includes ads on buses, fliers, and billboards [13]. Problematically, many of these alternative ads simply link back to the website. This may prove problematic for educating a city wherein only 48.1% of low-income citizens (defined as making less than $20,000 per year) had access to broadband internet as of 2015 [14]. Though it cannot be considered conclusive evidence of the awareness campaign’s failure, an informal survey by the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service found only two of 19 individuals who live in homes serviced by lead pipelines were aware of the fact [9]. Meanwhile, the MHD reported a lack of funding and necessary downsizing of lead awareness and education program staff in 2017 [1]. In November of that year, the Milwaukee Common Council brought hope for a change by approving the city’s 2018 budget which includes a $20,000 allocation for a MHD Lead Water Service Lateral Information Marketing Campaign [15].

Lead-Safe MKE
A Billboard in Milwaukee | Photo by Jabril Faraj

Expecting Residents to Foot the Bill

Lateral or service lines, the pipes which connect houses to public water mains, are considered city property only so far as the residential property line [16]. In replacement projects, homeowners are expected to pay the cost to replace their portion of the line up to a maximum of $1,600, an amount which can be spread out over a ten-year period if necessary [4]. A bill passed into law this February now permits water utilities to use tax money to pay for both public and private lateral line replacements [17]. Still, the Common Council has taken no effort to lessen the burden on homeowners, many of whom are—as previously mentioned—the most impoverished of Milwaukee’s residents.

Is There a Solution in Sight?

The lead problem in Milwaukee is complicated. So far this year, several members of the Common Council have come forward with potential solutions, none of which have been agreed upon [18]. Former Ald. Jim Bohl, an active voice in the debates, changed his mind from his 2016 calls for a total pipe replacement earlier this year, instead suggesting Milwaukee roll out 50,000 lead filters to homes affected by lead lines at no cost to the residents [19]. He left office in May, leaving his strategy behind [20].

The largest stumbling block by far is the cost. Estimates for total lead line replacement range from $511 million [9] to $750 million [4] to more than $1 billion [19]. Most of this cost must come from taxpayer money. Even with an additional $2.6 million allocation from the state [21], this year’s budget included only $8.8 million to be spent on replacing 800 lead service lines [6]. Is this the best Wisconsin can do? To put it in perspective, this year, the total tax money to fund this city-wide health crisis which continues to affect 70,000 homes will reach a number $3.7 million shy of the yearly tax dollar expenditure to fund a new Bucks stadium [22].

Milwaukee must take action to protect the groups who face the most danger from lead poisoning. The city’s low-income residents are particularly vulnerable. The Milwaukeeans who live in impoverished neighborhoods are predominantly black and Latinx. These families may not have access to Internet resources regarding lead, or if they do, they may face a language barrier preventing them from accessing important materials. Those who are aware of the issue cannot be expected to pay to resolve a danger which they are ignorant to and blameless of. Milwaukee must do everything in its power to secure the easiest road to safety possible for these already marginalized families.

Contact information for the Milwaukee Common Council can be found here.

Contact information for Mayor Tom Barrett can be found here.




[1] https://localtvwiti.files.wordpress.com/2018/01/mhd-lead-report-1-29-18.pdf

[2] https://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/publications/p01202-16.pdf

[3] https://localtvwiti.files.wordpress.com/2018/01/mhd-lead-report-1-29-18.pdf

[4] https://urbanmilwaukee.com/2018/01/24/eyes-on-milwaukee-750-million-to-replace-lead-pipes/

[5] ibid.

[6] https://city.milwaukee.gov/ImageLibrary/User/crystali/Budget-Books/2018_Adopted_Budget.pdf

[7] https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/lead-poisoning/symptoms-causes/syc-20354717

[8] www.wuwm.com/post/data-draws-link-between-metro-milwaukees-segregation-and-poverty#stream/0

[9] http://milwaukeenns.org/2018/02/28/special-report-city-leaders-call-for-comprehensive-plan-to-address-lead-poisoning/

[10] https://www.wpr.org/mayor-milwaukee-health-commissioner-bevan-baker-resigns

[11] www.wuwm.com/post/how-far-has-milwaukee-come-resolving-its-lead-water-crisis#stream/0

[12] http://city.milwaukee.gov/leadsafemke-espanol

[13] https://www.jsonline.com/story/news/local/milwaukee/2017/02/03/milwaukee-launch-lead-awareness-campaign/97437352/

[14] http://www.governing.com/topics/transportation-infrastructure/gov-digital-divide-low-income-households.html

[15] https://urbanmilwaukee.com/pressrelease/budget-includes-money-for-key-lead-water-lateral-marketing-campaign/

[16] https://www.jsonline.com/story/news/local/milwaukee/2016/12/10/residents-oppose-paying-lead-pipe-removal/95267054/

[17] https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2017/proposals/reg/sen/bill/sb48

[18] http://www.wuwm.com/post/city-leaders-struggle-solutions-milwaukees-lead-crisis#stream/0

[19] https://urbanmilwaukee.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Combined_Files_Release-Ald._Bohl.pdf

[20] https://www.jsonline.com/story/news/local/milwaukee/2018/05/16/ald-jim-bohl-expected-take-city-job-setting-off-scramble-seat/608834002/

[21] https://www.jsonline.com/story/news/politics/2018/07/18/scott-walker-announces-4-million-help-milwaukee-replace-lead-pipes/794071002/

[22] https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/scott-walker-approves-spending-250-million-on-milwaukee-bucks-arena/2015/08/12/5cd72d54-4055-11e5-9561-4b3dc93e3b9a_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.c055db423a32

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