Initial Infusion of Lead Filters Covers a Fraction of Milwaukee Households

Dec 5, 2016

Milwaukee faces an uphill battle when it comes to replacing all the lead pipes that carry city water into residents’ homes. Last week, hundreds of families picked up free filters to tide them over.

The math is hard to dismiss – 70,000 properties are serviced by lead pipes, and the initial infusion of filters addresses only a small fraction, about three percent.

Koscuiszko Community Center was one of the distribution points. The facility on South 7th Street buzzed inside and out, as an overflow crowd spilled into the evening chill.

Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers' staff provided residents with lead risk overview from how to correctly install and maintain a filter to information on lead paint and soil abatement.
Credit Courtesy of Faithe Colas

Yet, people waited patiently at the water filter pick-up that Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers coordinated. Barely one hour in, staffer Kevin Engstrom delivered the disappointing news– all of the units were claimed.

“Hey folks I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news. If you would like to leave your number, when we have more; we’re hoping in 2017 we’ll be able to, we’ll call you,” Engstrom says.

One hundred families penciled their names on the waiting list.

Credit Milwaukee Water Works

Inside, Terry Grogan just made the cut. “I came over here after work and fortunately got the next to the last filter,” he says.

The father of three is concerned. “Our kids, they’re adopted from foster care, so when they came to us they were being tested for lead,” Grogan says.

Initially their youngest child’s levels were high. The new filter will bring some peace of mind. “We have been get our drinking water mostly through refrigerator, it has a filter, but for cooking I would just run it out of the tap and never thought about it,” Grogan says.

He never thought about the old pipes bringing water into his home from the city main – that they’re made of lead, and as they deteriorate, bits of lead mix with the water.

And lead can cause developmental disabilities in children.

READ: Wisconsin DNR Fails To Update Lead Testing Guidance

Mother Mariela Magana and Sixteenth Street environmental health staffer Alejandra Hernandez talk about how to handle old lead paint.
Credit Susan Bence

Sixteenth Street staffer Carmen Reinmund thinks about the vulnerable people who left the filter line, empty-handed. “I felt bad I had to turn away a pregnant woman – so I’m going to be visiting her and I’ll take a filter along,” she says.

Sixteenth Street was already tracking over 1200 families for lead exposure in neighborhoods where old houses can be riddled with risks. The agency helps families figure out how to deal with old chipping lead paint and lead that makes its way into the soil. Now staff has reserved a few dozen water filters to distribute during home visits.

Alejandra Hernandez takes one along as she visits Mariela Magana on South 11th for the first time. The youngest of her six children has tested high for lead exposure.

Magana provides a tour of the 116-year-old house, which her husband is remodeling whenever he finds a free hour.

Hernandez points to cracking “crocodile skin” lead paint in the upstairs windows, and advises the mom especially when it comes to her kids under age six “to make sure that when they’re making changes in the home to keep them away from any dust."

Alejandra Hernandez (right) explains steps to install a water filter unit.
Credit Susan Bence

"If they’re cleaning up some dust to wipe it off with something wet, not dry,” Hernandez adds.

The quiet Magana says she was already aware of the risks of water.

“I’ve buy water to drink and for cooking,” Magana says. She says the new water filter will save her family money and ease her mind. She’s juggling to keep her kids as healthy as possible.

The City of Milwaukee plans another wave of filter distribution in 2017, while crews will replace lead lines leading in licensed day care centers.

The City also estimates changing out around 300 residential lead pipes next year, when ruptures occur.

That measure is tied to a controversial proposal. It would require property owners to replace their lead pipes, whenever a leak springs on either their side or the city portion of the water line. The cost is estimated at $1600.

A Common Council vote is expected December 13.  

The Social Development Commission also distributed to water filters at its North Avenue office. By Friday afternoonDecember 2 its supply had been depleted.
Credit Susan Bence