Sitting in his North Side Milwaukee rental house, Nazir Al-Mujaahid discussed his son Shu’aib’s challenges while the quiet 9-year-old lingered in another room. Shu’aib excels at sports, Al-Mujaahid said, but his speaking skills developed late, and he lags behind his 6-year-old brother in reading.
Al-Mujaahid, 45, believes that lead poisoning is hindering Shu’aib’s development. Confirming where the lead came from is impossible, but Al-Mujaahid suspects the lead pipelines that carried water into his home.
The city for years failed to warn the family of lead hazards in their home — or that Shu’aib registered elevated lead levels as a toddler in 2014, Al-Mujaahid said.
“My awareness of it hasn’t been an issue taken seriously at all.” Al-Mujaahid said. “I found out about it because my son wasn’t developing normally.”
Shu’aib is among 9,600 Wisconsin children younger than 16 found to be poisoned by lead between 2018 and 2020, according to Wisconsin Department of Health Services data. The neurotoxin damages the brain and nervous system, particularly in young children.
Nearly two-thirds of Wisconsin’s lead-poisoned kids live in Milwaukee County, where 5.6% of children tested in 2020 had blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter, which the state defines as poisoning. That’s compared to 3.4% of children statewide.
Gov. Tony Evers and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett have called for aggressive lead pipeline replacements, but their health departments primarily focus on lead paint and dust, calling that the predominant hazard, as do many experts.
Since 2016, when the Flint, Michigan water crisis was declared a disaster, Wisconsin has replaced about 20% of known service lines made of lead and galvanized steel that may contain lead flaking — or other materials that might contain lead, a Wisconsin Watch analysis of state Public Service Commission data shows.
Despite that, Wisconsin does not require local governments to test drinking water during lead investigations, even though it can make up 20% of a person’s total exposure to lead, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — or up to 60% for infants consuming mostly mixed formula.
‘Public health crisis’
Childhood lead poisoning rates in Milwaukee and statewide have steadily decreased in recent decades since lead was phased out in paint and gasoline. Yet Milwaukee in 2020 still had a higher percentage of lead-poisoned children than Flint did in 2015.
Al-Mujaahid is among residents urging Milwaukee to bolster lead poisoning prevention efforts — including by accelerating pipeline replacements.
Wisconsin communities have replaced more than 115,000 utility-owned and privately-owned service line portions since 2016, a Wisconsin Watch analysis shows. An estimated 465,000 pipeline portions made of lead or other potentially hazardous materials remained in 2020.
Madison and Green Bay are among cities that have replaced all of their lead pipelines. But Milwaukee is much larger and installed exponentially more than others, even mandating their installation until 1948.
Milwaukee has replaced less than 1,000 of its full lead service lines annually since launching its effort in 2017. Replacing the remaining 70,000 lead pipes at that pace would take more than 70 years, and the full price tag would cost hundreds of millions of dollars that city officials say they lack.
Federal funding may provide the most hope, including President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill, a version of which the U.S. Senate approved this month.
But some residents are tired of waiting.
“It’s a public health crisis,” said Derek Beyer, a steering committee member of Get The Lead Out, a Milwaukee coalition fighting for speedier replacements. “It’s not an option to wait 30 more years or whatever, to beg for some money that might not ever come.”
Family not notified
The Al-Mujaahid family has rented their home since 2014. The home has lead service lines, city records show. In 2017, a fingerstick test detected 11.4 micrograms per deciliter in Shu’aib’s blood, which prompted the Milwaukee Health Department to warn the family in a letter that Shu’aib was lead poisoned.
It wasn’t the first time that Shu’aib tested positive for lead poisoning. A 2014 test had flagged 6.4 micrograms per deciliter in Shu’aib’s blood. No immediate follow up tests were scheduled, and Al-Mujaahid said he wasn’t notified. The health department could not confirm whether its current notification policy for test results of at least 5 micrograms per deciliter was in place at the time, said spokesperson Emily Tau.
Milwaukee Water Works tested the family’s drinking water after Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service profiled their lead saga in 2018, finding lead levels ranging from 0.35 to 2.5 parts per billion (ppb). That’s below the EPA’s 15 ppb “action level” — the trigger for actions such as pipeline replacement and education.
But many experts call that threshold too high, since no level of lead exposure is safe.
The Al-Mujaahids have turned away from tap water. For drinking and cooking, they use 5-gallon jugs of store-bought water. The family wonders whether lead-tainted water flowed through their previous Milwaukee rental home, where they lived when Shu’aib was first tested. It also has lead service lines.
Their experience wasn’t unique. In January 2018, Barrett announced that the Milwaukee Health Department lost track of whether it had followed up with 8,000 families whose children registered elevated lead blood levels.
A 2020 Public Health Foundation audit found the department made progress in fixing lead poisoning prevention problems, but it flagged lingering issues related to surveillance systems for blood testing, risk assessments of lead exposure, waits for safe housing for lead-poisoned children and budgeting accountability.
“Overcoming these challenges and rectifying any mishandlings of cases is a tremendous task that will take time,” Tyler Weber, Milwaukee deputy commissioner of environmental health, told Wisconsin Watch in a statement, adding that his team is “dedicated to urgently achieving” that goal.
Even amid calls to replace pipelines quicker, health officials continue to prioritize paint over drinking water when investigating home lead hazards.
“The Milwaukee Health Department’s focus is on lead abatement in paint and soil, as lead-based paint hazards are the primary source of lead exposure in the Milwaukee community,” Weber said. “However, we know lead poisoning can also occur from contaminated drinking water, so the Milwaukee Health Department distributes free water filters to anyone in the city of Milwaukee who needs them to eradicate the danger until Milwaukee Water Works is able to replace the service line.”
Elizabeth Goodsitt, a Wisconsin Department of Health Services spokesperson, told Wisconsin Watch in an email: “Water is not an issue in Wisconsin the way paint is when it comes to lead poisoning.”
Wisconsin local health departments in 2019 identified lead-based paint as a hazard in 97% of investigations of elevated blood levels, Goodsitt noted, and they flagged other primary hazards just 3% of the time. In 2020, 99% of investigations implicated paint.
But Wisconsin health departments investigate only a fraction of lead poisoning cases.
The state mandates investigations and case management services for children only when one venous blood test detects at least 20 micrograms per deciliter of lead — or if two tests conducted at least 90 days apart find lead at 15 micrograms per deciliter. That’s far above the 5-microgram threshold that the state defines as poisoning.
In an email from spokesperson Jennifer Miller, DHS called it “uncommon to have water samples collected during an investigation.”
Milwaukee offers drinking water testing for families during lead investigations, but doing so requires consent from all building tenants, Tau said. Water must stay stagnant in service lines for at least eight hours, and some tenants opt out.
Henry Anderson, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor and expert on environmental and occupational diseases, said prioritizing paint hazards made sense.
“There’s so much more lead in a paint chip than there is in a glass of water,” Anderson said. “When there’s an old house, it has paint chipping off the walls, they (children) are crawling around, putting their hands in their mouth.”
But Virginia Tech University engineering professor Marc Edwards, who helped expose Flint’s water blunder, contends that governments downplay drinking water’s role in lead poisoning. Edwards said governments face a “massive government conflict of interest” in parsing dangers from paint from those in drinking water, because governments often own the pipes.
“If it’s true lead paint is a danger, then lead in water is a danger, too,” Edwards said.
Paying for replacements
Who pays for replacements? Wisconsin homeowners typically own the service line portion from the curb stop to the home, while utilities own the stretch between the curb stop and water main. State law bars municipal workers from performing private construction projects, and partial service line replacements can worsen lead exposure.
Milwaukee in recent years mandated replacements for lead pipes found to be disrupted or leaking — and those that serve private schools and child care providers. For mandated replacements, a city cost-sharing program limits the tab for property owners to $1,843. Properties with more than four units are not eligible for cost sharing. Also ineligible for the subsidy: Milwaukeee property owners who choose to replace service lines when not required.
Al-Mujaahid said his landlord has no interest in paying for a replacement, and Al-Mujaahid doesn’t want to pay for work on a property that he doesn’t own. The city should bear responsibility for lead pipelines it once mandated, he said.
Said Robert Miranda, a spokesperson for the Milwaukee-based Freshwater for Life Action Coalition: “There’s no excuse at this point for the situation we find ourselves in today. It’s criminal.”
But Karen Dettmer, Milwaukee Water Works superintendent, sees “good progress” in replacements, and she cited the utility’s compliance with EPA’s embattled Lead and Copper Rule since the 1990s, when it began running corrosion control chemicals through its pipes. Still, Dettmer said she understands calls to pick up the pace on replacements.
Barrett has suggested earmarking pandemic stimulus funds for fixing lead paint hazards, and he’s waiting to see whether Biden’s infrastructure bill will deliver additional funding for pipeline replacements, which the city estimates would cost $800 million to fully complete.
But Al-Mujaahid has lost faith that his home’s lead pipeline will be removed. He’s contemplating moving.
“My thing is to just get up out of here,” he said. “Minimally somewhere without these lead lines. Ideally out of this country.”
Diana Butsko was an Edmund S. Muskie reporting fellow for Wisconsin Watch. She is studying at Southern Illinois University through a Fulbright scholarship. Madeline Fuerstenberg of Wisconsin Watch contributed reporting. The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch (wisconsinwatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.