Living with Lead in Milwaukee

Old can of Dutch Boy lead paint

This episode about lead contamination in Milwaukee is the third piece in the series Ground Truths: Stories from Wisconsin’s Frontlines of Environmental Action. This six-episode podcast series highlights environmental justice issues across the diverse communities and landscapes of Wisconsin, from Milwaukee to the Northwoods. The series is supported in part by a grant from Wisconsin Humanities, with funds from the National Endowment for the HumanitiesSeries editors: Carly Griffith (lead), Clare Sullivan (lead), Ben Iuliano, Justyn Huckleberry, Marisa Lanker, and Juniper Lewis.

Map of Wisconsin with counties outlined in gray, with Milwaukee County in green
Wisconsin state map. Map design by Carly Griffith.

Lead contamination is a public health crisis in America that many people don’t know about. For young children, lead exposure can lead to lifelong health issues such as behavioral problems and learning disabilities. It’s also an environmental justice issue because lead exposure comes from older infrastructure like homes with lead paint or lead pipes that haven’t been replaced, and it disproportionately impacts lower-income families and communities of color. In Wisconsin, lead contamination is most severe in the city of Milwaukee, where in 2021, the percentage of children tested with elevated blood lead levels was nearly double the state average.

We wanted to better understand the sources of lead exposure in cities like Milwaukee, how lead exposure overlaps with other issues like home ownership, and how lead poisoning impacts children and their families. Over the course of this episode, we speak with people who have been directly impacted by the lead contamination crisis and advocates working on health care, housing, and workforce development policies to address it.

Stream or download our conversation here.

Interview Highlights

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Carly Griffith: First, we wanted to learn about the major sources of lead contamination. We know that the three primary sources of lead exposure are found in paint, soil, and water. Lead-based paints were banned by the federal government in 1978. It can still be found on older homes that haven’t been well maintained. Lead dust from lead-based paint or from leaded gasoline and cars can be found in the soil.

Juniper Lewis: The last major source of lead contamination is through lead pipes that have delivered drinking water. In 1986, Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act, which banned the use of lead pipes in public water systems. But many cities like Milwaukee still haven’t replaced all their lead pipes and lead service lines. To learn more about this issue, I talked to Dr. Beth Neary, a pediatrician involved in lead testing initiatives for children in Wisconsin.

White woman in a striped sweater with a stethoscope around her neck poses with young child in braids and a dress
Dr. Beth Neary is a pediatrician and member of the Wisconsin Environmental Health Network. Photo from Midwest Environmental Advocates.

Beth Neary: It really wasn’t until the 1960s that it became really evident that we needed to do something serious about the children who were being lead poisoned. To me, the travesty is that even though we knew all these things, we still have children who are lead poisoned in Milwaukee today. And that is a travesty because lead poisoning is 100 percent preventable. The sources that we have right now in our environment include paint that was used in homes prior to 1978, so it’s the older homes that are at risk. The second source is water. And that was a source we really weren’t totally aware of until the Flint crisis. And now that has become a major area we are working on.

And what the new literature over the last 15 or 20 years has shown us is that very low levels of lead have a negative impact on the brain. It impairs cognitive development. It interferes with what we call executive function, like the ability to think through a problem and make a decision. If a child is lead poisoned when they’re one or two, we might not see symptoms until they’re four or five, and then they get into kindergarten. And they’re the child who might not be able to sit still, they can’t pay attention, which means that, in turn, they can’t learn. What the literature has shown us over the years is that children who are lead poisoned have lower math and reading scores in fourth grade, have lower graduation rates, and there’s actually links to incarceration rates. So, lead poisoning is not just a problem for the individual child—it’s a problem for our society.

Juniper Lewis: Carly spoke with Shy McElroy, who is a community organizer and the parent of a lead-poisoned child.

Black woman smiling with braids in a red t-shirt and denim jacket
Shy McElroy is a community organizer with the Coalition on Lead Emergency in Milwaukee. Photo by Carly Griffith.

Shy McElroy: The beginning of my knowledge about lead started when my now 14-year-old son was a newborn and had high lead levels in his blood samples. When my son was first born, we were living in a house that was built way before the 1950s. And so, I think for the most part, the exposure that he got to lead came from in that house. I didn’t realize the effects that it had on him until he started going to school. At K-5 my son was held back from school, so he did K-5 twice. And when he had his first Individualized Education Program (IEP), that’s when they found out that, well, maybe he has some cognitive delays and educational delays. So that’s what kind of spiked my interest, like, how did this happen? That’s what this lead thing was about. This is how I’m seeing the effects of his exposure to lead at an early age, and this is the outcome of it. So now it’s too late. He’s affected, you know, he has to live with this. So now it’s basically a game plan of what do we do next?

I’ve been the forefront of making his doctors and his teachers correspond with each other. And we brought up the files from his lead levels when he was a newborn, and so now they’re acknowledging the fact that that contributes to how he is. So now we have an IEP meeting every three months, on my accord, because I demand that meeting—because I demand that his files be revisited every three months, and that he gets the attention and the care now that he needs.

Carly Griffith: Wisconsin Department of Health data from 2017 to 2020 shows that the highest rates of childhood lead poisoning were in the northside neighborhoods of the city. These neighborhoods, which have historically been segregated, are predominantly Black and have low rates of home ownership. Groups like the Coalition on Lead Emergency (COLE) are working to address the lead crisis in these neighborhoods. We spoke with COLE’s chair, Richard Diaz, to learn more about the sources of the problem there. COLE’s work started with a tried-and-true community organizing method of knocking on doors to talk to people about lead exposure and helping them find potential sources in their own homes.

Black man smiles in front of an evergreen tree, wearing a colorful button-up shirt
Richard Diaz is the chair of the Coalition on Lead Emergency (COLE) in Milwaukee.

Richard Diaz: Primarily, COLE’s work has been focused in the Amani neighborhood, Lindsay Heights, and Borchert Field. These neighborhoods have suffered tremendous amounts of divestment to the point that it has affected the rates of homeownership. So, you know, we used to have what was it called A. O. Smith Headquarters, right on 27th and Hopkins, that was an industrial manufacturing facility that employed hundreds of thousands of Milwaukeeans, but more importantly, the immediate neighborhood residents. And as we witnessed the factory relocating overseas or to other states, that’s when you start seeing these neighborhoods go from being around 75 percent homeowners to being some of the most transient neighborhoods in the city.

You see that the divestment and workforce development can contribute to people’s ability to own and maintain their home, so the houses in Amani are around the same age as some of the houses in Riverwest or Bay View or the Lower East Side, it’s just that we don’t have the financial resources to make those renovations or to lead-abate our homes without federal, state, or local government support. And unfortunately, one of the ways to get that support is a child has to get sick.

Juniper Lewis: It is clear that lead contamination is a major issue in Milwaukee. So, we wanted to hear about the sort of programs needed to fix this problem—and whose job is it to fix things anyway?

Beth Neary: Okay, whose job is it? And that’s where it gets complicated. It has to be on many different levels. So it’s the city, the state, and the federal government. In January 2022, Kamala Harris came to Milwaukee to talk about the Biden administration’s new infrastructure bill. The plan is they want to remove all lead laterals in the United States over a ten-year timeline. And they’re giving Milwaukee millions of dollars to help get that going. On the state level, the state has some programs to get lead out of the paint in homes. For example, there’s a program called Lead-Safe Homes, which contractors can apply for and basically get the lead out of the home, and they’ll have it paid for. But the other issue that’s really critical here is the workforce. So yeah, we want to get rid of all these lead service lines, but do we have enough trade workers who can do that?

Lead abatement worker in white suit with safety goggles, a protective mask, and blue gloves rolls up black-speckled vinyl flooring.
Lead paint abatement worker. Photo from Wikimedia Commons, 2018.

Richard Diaz: I think the political will is there to make change on a federal level. It shows with legislation like the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which contains $15 billion for lead service line replacement nationwide. That’s still not enough money to do 100 percent replacement, but it’s a start. And then also pieces like the Weatherization Assistance Program, which contains money for lead paint abatement as well. So we’d like to see continued investment in both lead service line replacement and in lead paint abatement.

There will also be money going to the state health department to lower the actionable level by which the department will intervene in lead poisoning cases. Previously, the City of Milwaukee was at about 20 micrograms per deciliter, so if a child had blood lead levels at that amount, they would issue a public health nurse, a lead risk assessor, and then a lead abatement bid for a contractor if they found lead. It’s a shame that it took a volunteer-led organization like COLE to advocate for that kind of big investment to service families because, you know, if you are testing at 20 micrograms per deciliter, some considerable damage is already done. There are studies that show that at three, four, five micrograms per deciliter, considerable damage is done. The CDC recently modified its actionable level for lead poisoning: previously it was five and now it’s 3.5 micrograms per deciliter. So that’s great. That’s the kind of policy change we need, but we also need we need public health to be more robust and more heavily invested in from city, state, and local governments, but also from the private sector.

Juniper Lewis: Shy spoke with us the importance of bringing landlords into the conversation on how to fix the problem of lead contamination.

Exterior of a home with chipping lead-based white paint revealing wood underneath.
Chipped lead-based paint on the exterior of a home. Photo by Bart Everson, 2009.

Shy McElroy: I grew up in a neighborhood in Milwaukee’s north side where few people owned their homes. I saw my neighbors move to a house down the street every other month or two. And when they moved into a house, they would complain: “I’m not paying rent this month because my landlord won’t come and fix this, he won’t seal the windows and it’s cold outside, it’s the same temperature in my house as outside,” you hear these different complaints. And that could contribute to why it’s a high eviction rate in these houses. These tenants get evicted because they won’t pay their rent, but they’re not paying rent because of all these different issues the landlords are not taking care of. And then when you go to court and you get evicted, you still have to pay that money. So now, the landlord put an eviction on my record and it’s going to be hard for me to go somewhere else besides in this area where the same thing is happening across the street. So I think that’s another group of people that needs to come to the table—landlords. Because if the state is willing to work with landlords and give them breaks for lead abatement costs, and then in turn work with the tenants, it’s the landlord working with the tenant working with the state—that’s what we need more of.

Carly Griffith: What does environmental justice look like to you, for the neighborhoods that you serve through COLE?

Richard Diaz: It would look like robust economic development. So, you know, union training facilities, contractors lined out to hire folks who are trained as an entry into the workforce, clean energy sector jobs, and replacing lead service lines. Also, support for homeowners who are older and don’t work and receive a little bit too much from their retirement funds to receive support from the city to access to adequate food, taking care of some of these blighted properties, increased funding for our school systems, and policy that reflects not allowing this to happen again. We don’t need anything toxic in our neighborhood, or developers that are going to produce things that affect our air quality, our water quality, our land quality.

Featured image: Dutch Boy paint can, a source of lead contamination. Photo from Wikimedia Commons, 2010.

Podcast music: “Weatherman” by Wolf Man Summit. Used with permission.

Dr. Elizabeth Neary is a retired pediatrician and a member of the Wisconsin Environmental Health Network, a group that educates physicians about the link between environment and health.

Shy McElroy is a community organizer for the Coalition on Lead Emergency (COLE).

Richard Diaz is the chair of the Coalition on Lead Emergency (COLE) and the Midwest Regional Field Organizer for BlueGreen Alliance.

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