Editor’s note: This is one of an occasional series of stories highlighting the health risk — particularly to children — of lead service lines, which deliver water from city water mains to about 70,000 homes in Milwaukee.
Sixteen months after funding was made available to replace lead water service lines at each licensed child care facility in Milwaukee — at no cost to the property owner — 184 day care centers in the city are still operating with lead service lines.
“Despite all the shake-ups at the Health Department it still seems as if there isn’t a sense of urgency among some over there, sadly,” said Ald. Bob Donovan referring to the slow pace of the replacements.
“I’m sure it’s impacting our kids,” added Donovan, whose district has day care centers operating with lead water service lines.
In December 2016 the Common Council approved a budget that included funding to replace lead service lines at each licensed city child care facility. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is supplementing the funding. In June 2017, 385 child care centers were eligible for a full replacement at a cost of $13,100 each, though that number has now dropped to 347, according to Sandy Rusch Walton, communications manager for the Department of Public Works (DPW). The number fluctuates as day care centers open and close, she said. Of the 347, 184 were operating with lead water service lines as of April 6.
Forty-eight of the 184 have not responded to outreach from the Milwaukee Health Department (MHD) or MWW regarding the free replacements. The remaining 136 had either scheduled appointments with MWW or the replacement work had been bid out to contractors, according to Rusch Walton. Forty-six replacements are currently under contract, 40 have gone out to bid, and 50 day care centers have scheduled home visits with MWW, she added.
The city has faced challenges funding the private side of the replacements and lining up contractors to conduct them, said Ald. James Bohl, who has been pushing to reevaluate the strategy for dealing with lead service lines. According to Rusch Walton, the $7,100 cost of replacing the private portion of lead water service lines, which connect to one of the city’s main water supply pipes, is $1 million more than the funding provided to MWW from the DNR. However, a plan is in place to pay for the work with DNR funds and collection of outstanding debt, she said.
“The sooner we replace the (lead service) lines at day cares the better. The quicker that happens the quicker we remediate one area of concern,” said Bohl, who also remarked on the apparent lack of urgency to complete the replacements.
Day care centers are not required to replace their lead water service lines, according to Angela Hagy, director of disease control and environmental health at MHD.
Lead water pipes have been found to decay and cause lead contamination in tap water, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Lead exposure can cause behavior problems and learning disabilities in young children and also harm adults, states the CDC. Last year Mayor Tom Barrett urged Milwaukee residents living in a building constructed prior to 1951, which were typically constructed with lead water lines, to purchase a faucet filter. About 70,000 Milwaukee residents are served by lead laterals, according to DPW data.
The city sent a letter in June to property owners where day care centers are located informing them that it would pay to replace lead water service lines to reduce children’s exposure to lead. The letter also stated that children under the age of 6 are most vulnerable to lead poisoning and that no amount of exposure to lead is safe. According to that letter, lead is not present in drinking water provided by MWW and it meets all federal guidelines for safety. However, when water stands in fixtures or pipes that contain lead, lead may dissolve into the water, it stated.
According to data provided by MWW, the majority of licensed child care centers operating with lead service lines are located on the North Side, including District 7, which has the most, and District 15, which has the second highest number.
“More needs to be done to protect our children,” said Ald. Russell W. Stamper II, who represents District 15. Eleven child care centers in his district have not responded to city outreach efforts and 24 have either gone to bid or have scheduled appointments with MWW. Nineteen lead service line replacements occurred at child care centers in Stamper’s district in 2017.
A Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service investigation found that disorganized outreach efforts and inefficient record keeping by MHD, MWW and the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families have hindered the replacements.
The health department manages outreach to child care facilities and is the initial point of contact, according to Rusch Walton. However, both MHD and MWW are coordinating the lead line removals. NNS found several instances in which day care operators said they never knew the property was eligible for a free replacement and only were informed of the opportunity to pick up free water filters provided by MHD. Several property owners also claimed they never were told that they were eligible to receive a full replacement of lead water service lines at no cost. Property owners must provide consent to conduct the lead service line replacement.
Krystal Rouse, owner of Christyle’s Little Learners, 2442 N. 54th St., said she was offered a water filter in late 2017 and nothing else. Jose M. Castro, who owns the property, said he’d never been contacted by anyone from MHD, but would be happy to have the work done. Rouse said that her center serves 10 children.
“If they’re going to do something at no cost for the owner that’s fine for me. Maybe they sent (a letter) over to the (day care) and never sent it to me,” said Castro in Spanish. According to information included in an email sent to the aldermen by Jennifer Gonda, superintendent of Milwaukee Water Works, MHD was not able to coordinate a replacement at Little Learners because it had no contact information for Castro. NNS was able to quickly contact Castro after Rouse provided his phone number.
Tabitha Garner, owner of Touching Tender Hearts, 2523 N. 14th St., also said she was offered free water filters from MHD and picked them up in October. Garner, who doesn’t own the building but said she’s been running a child care center there for 25 years, said she was not told the property was eligible for a full replacement. MHD has since reached the owner of the property, Will Sherard, who stated that he wants something in writing confirming that the replacement is free before he agrees to the project, according to notes included with the data sent to council members.
“If we reach a child care facility owner we offer a filter … and ask for the contact information for the property owner to begin the process of getting the facility set up for replacement,” stated Jean Schultz, environmental and disease control specialist at MHD. “The issue has primarily been with facilities where the child care owner is responsive, but the property owner is not. We continue to reach out to these owners by whatever means we have.”
MHD does not track which day care operators have picked up free water filters or those who said they have their own filter, she added.
Stamper acknowledged the challenge of getting permission from property owners to conduct a replacement. He said he and Ald. Milele Coggs have requested that the city attorney look into mandating that owners of properties where day care centers are located have their lead laterals replaced.
Legislation mandating a replacement would not please Michele Quin Wright, owner of Mae Quin’s Family Learn Center, 3703 N. 24th Place. Wright said the day care center, which is run out of her home, serves between six and eight children a day. She acknowledged being contacted by MHD but said she didn’t want the free replacement.
“Once they start digging, all kind of mice are going to come into my house,” she said. I have cases of bottled water; we boil water or let the water run 15 minutes,” said Wright, adding that she also has a filter.
The initial outreach in 2017, consisting of phone calls to Wright and other child care operators, met with limited success, according to Rusch Walton. That effort was followed by sending a letter to property owners in June. Subsequent contacts included phone calls and a strongly worded letter that the department planned to send last month, she said.
Schultz said that property owners — not child care operators — are the first point of contact for MHD. In many cases, MHD was unable to contact either the day care owner or the property owner, as up-to-date contact information was missing from the records provided to MHD by the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families (DCF).
DCF, which licenses all child care facilities in the state, is in charge of collecting contact information from applicants, according to Gina Paige, outreach specialist for DCF. Once the facility is licensed, the owners are responsible for letting DCF know of any changes, she stated. Paige said that DCF performs annual inspections to assess compliance with requirements and determine whether information is current. However, it’s not clear when the last inspection of information provided by licensed child care centers in Milwaukee was conducted. Many of the day care centers NNS attempted to contact had phone numbers that were no longer in service.
Another major issue with MHD outreach efforts, according to Bohl, Stamper and Donovan, is that the department never conducted personal visits to any of the day care centers, including those that failed to respond to phone calls or letters and those whose contact information was not up to date.
“There’s been no management, poor management and disjointed efforts at the Health Department and we are now reaping what we sow,” Donovan said.
The data included in the email Gonda sent to Donovan and the other alderman in March contained a list of child care centers that had not responded to phone calls or letters, and invited assistance in reaching them. Donovan, who said he didn’t realized he’d been sent a list until informed of it by an NNS reporter, nevertheless said that the onus is on the Health Department to take the extra step.
“They (MHD) ought to be conducting personal visits to the day cares and visiting the homes of these property owners,” he added.
NNS visited six day care centers that had not responded to MHD or MWW. In each case, someone — including several day care operators who were also the property owners — answered the door. Asked why they hadn’t responded to outreach and whether they understood that the property was eligible for a free lead water service line replacement, most stated that they’d recently been contacted to begin the process of scheduling a replacement — after NNS asked MHD about its outreach efforts to day care centers. Some stated that they had their own filters and others said they only used bottled water at the day care centers.
NNS also spoke with several day care owners who said they’d misplaced or failed to fully understand the communications by MHD and MWW. A women who identified herself as the owner of The Learning Factory Childcare LLC, 4235 W. Fond Du Lac Ave., which is on the list of day care centers that had not responded to MHD outreach, said her pipes were repaired and hung up. Some property owners claimed that they had given the okay for the replacement and were still waiting to be contacted by MHD. MHD spokesperson Janalle Goosby said she could not provide details regarding specific licensed child care facilities.
“The Milwaukee Health Department (MHD) is continuing to work with all licensed childcare facilities to make sure that ALL of them have their lead lines replaced,” said Goosby in an email.
According to Bohl, there is much room for improvement in coordinating the outreach to day care centers regarding lead water service lines. For example, the city should look into how many certified child care facilities have lead laterals. Certified facilities are different than licensed day care centers, and can only serve up to three children under age 7 who are unrelated to the provider.
Bohl said he worries that all the focus on lead water service lines could be distracting residents from even larger sources of lead in the community. For example, he stated that lead levels at MPS should be addressed, because of the plumbing at older schools.
“Some of those lead levels at MPS were dangerously high and the source in many cases wasn’t a lead service line,” Bohl said.
Earlier this week, Barrett said that paint is still the primary source of lead poisoning in Milwaukee children and implied that the emphasis on lead in the water is misplaced.
Despite differing viewpoints on where the city’s anti-lead efforts should be focused and the history of disarray within MHD, Donovan said the appointment of Patricia McManus as interim health commissioner in February should help address these issues.
“We’re hopeful that she can turn things around,” Donovan said.
Stamper said he is planning to introduce legislation that would engage community groups on the South Side and North Side to visit each each day care center as well as houses where children with elevated lead levels live to pass out free water filters and information on health services in the community.
“There are many issues we need to remediate regarding lead exposure in our city,” Stamper said. “It’s going to take a lot of work and coordination but there’s no question that more needs to be done.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated on April 22, 2018, to reflect new information that arrived while the article was in production. It also includes an updated graphic.