Senator LaTonya Johnson knows firsthand the challenges posed by toxic
drinking water in her community.
Shortly after she was elected to office, the faucets in her home slowed to a trickle. After bringing in a plumber to fix what she assumed was a simple problem, she was confronted with an $8,000 plumbing bill. Lead corrosion had filled her pipes with poisonous lead debris – and she needed to replace them.
For Johnson, and her Milwaukee constituents, toxic drinking water is not an abstract concern, it’s a daily reality.
“In Milwaukee, of 26,000 children under 6 tested – 2,200 had elevated levels of lead in their blood. That is 8.6 percent,” Johnson said. “In Flint, it was only 4.9 percent.”
That’s nearly double the Flint crisis, which has since become a national call to action for clean drinking water. Yet, here in Wisconsin, 81 water systems contain unsafe levels of lead – from Milwaukee and Wausau to Fond du Lac and Lake Mills.
Elevated lead levels – which can accumulate via lead in water and in paint – carry a host of frightening health consequences, and most vulnerable are infants and children.
Children with elevated blood lead levels can suffer profound and permanent health problems, including damage to brain development.
In Milwaukee there are added consequences. As a former day care owner, Johnson witnessed the multiplying effect poverty creates when there’s lead in the water. Often, sugary, flavored drinks are cheaper than clean bottled water, leading to a host of problems including childhood obesity.
Worse yet, a recent study linked behavioral problems in school to high blood lead levels. This is important to Johnson because many of her constituents are renters. Because filtration systems are expensive, and because landlords aren’t required to replace lead pipes, many mothers are feeding their infants and children lead-laden formula and food.
This cycle has left Milwaukee’s children vulnerable to not only the physical brain damage lead causes, but the behavior dysfunction it produces including increased suspensions from school, increased violence, and decreased academic performance.
A price tag of $8,000 to replace lead pipes is a challenge for many families, but for lower income families it’s an impossibility. And, even if a house has its pipes replaced, thousands of homes still have city-owned lead service lines.
Not just a Milwaukee problem
It’s not just a problem in Milwaukee. Lead service lines exist across Wisconsin.
Recent EPA data shows 81 water systems in Wisconsin contain lead levels higher than the recommended levels.
More than four percent of all the lead service lines in Wisconsin are in Wausau, a city of just 40,000 people. Wauwatosa, Lake Mills, Racine, Kenosha, Manitowoc, and Superior all have lead service lines. As do many more.
The DNR openly admits its fund for replacing these lead service lines is absurdly inadequate. One DNR official said in June that even if the fund were quadrupled it still wouldn’t be enough to address the problem.
Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters is working to ensure safe drinking water for all Wisconsin families. Last year, our members and donors helped us push the Leading on Lead Bill – which helps families replace dangerous lead pipes – through the legislature. They also helped us ensure that blood lead level standards to trigger an investigation are set at levels that protect our children.