Milwaukee Alderman Wants Public Health Officials To Increase Lead In Water Awareness Efforts

Jul 21, 2017

Alderman Tony Zielinski is concerned residents don’t fully understand both the risks and how they can protect themselves from lead exposure. His says his proposal would direct the Milwaukee Health Department to communicate more effectively – starting with the importance of water filters. Zielinski introduced the resolution at the Public Health and Safety Committee meeting Thursday.

At least 70,000 lead pipes deliver water to older homes throughout the City of Milwaukee, putting families at risk – especially very young children and pregnant women.  

It will cost millions of dollars and take decades to replace the old lead pipes. The city has not yet developed a plan to make that happen.

In the meantime, Zielinski wants the public to become better informed. He points to the city's Lead-Safe Milwaukee website:

“They don’t go far enough to let the public know that water filtration devices are a better option than running cold water.  Here's the website right here, it says ‘number two, run your water until it’s cold if you live in a home with lead pipes.’ Okay, there’s nothing on this site, where it talks about water filtration. They do talk about water filtration as other possible recommendations in a much less prominent portion of their website,” Zielinski said.

His resolution would also expand the health department’s lead testing recommendation up to age six, currently it’s three times, by age 3.

“As we know populations under age six are especially vulnerable to lead in their systems," Zielinski adds, "The other change is we want to have a media advisory and we are very specific about how we want to disseminate this information."

Health Commissioner Bevan Baker sharply disagreed with Zielinski’s assessment of the department's public education efforts - and defended its strategy.

“We have made recommendations that are consistent with national and state and the medical communities’ most current evidence-based practices and we far outpace many cities in the nation by having some of the most stringent rules when it comes to lead hazards,” Baker said.

Baker reminded committee members that the department mailed 70,000 letters to alert property owners with lead service lines.

“We sent nearly 160,000 inserts in Milwaukee Water Works bills through May of 2017,” Baker said.

The health department and community partners have distributed more than 4,000 water filters, and Baker added, "Our public awareness campaign – we have website, video and print materials has receive 6.3 million impressions or views."

Baker says to fulfill its public health mission, the department needs the freedom to do its job without pressure from elected officials.

“Here’s where I have concerns. We issue recommendations to providers…We need to make sure…when we issue these recommendations to providers that they’re anchored in science and not politics. Public health cannot be trumped by politics,” Baker said.

Baker and Zielinski’s debate continued, until committee chair Alderman Bob Donovan cut off the conversation. He urged the two to take a breath and try to come to an agreement outside the chamber.

Alderman Tony Zielinski (left) talks with Robert Miranda after the meeting. Miranda is one of the people who would have spoken during public comments if given the opportunity.
Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio

“I would prefer holding this, get a meeting to the table and work things out, because filters are good for people, Bevan, and I know you claim you say it,” Donovan said.

The meeting room was packed. Donovan thanked the people in the gallery for their concerns, calls and emails, then moved on to other business.

Brenda Coley with a grassroots coalition called Milwaukee Water Commons, walked away flabbergasted. She was one of the people who raised their hands, wishing to comment.

“They’ve never seen these many folks from the community come here to express their concern, get their questions answered and the council shuts it down. So you talk about politics, that’s politics. Not hearing what the community has to say,” Coley said.

If given her three minutes to talk, Coley says she would have advocated for a comprehensive education and water filter program - beyond the steps the city is taking.

Yet the meeting might have had some impact. Later Thursday morning the health department modified the front page of its Lead-Safe Milwaukee website to include filter information.