Op Ed

How City Should Solve Lead in Water

Issue is not simple. Ald. Bohl’s proposal is good starting point.

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Water faucet. Photo from Pixabay.

Water faucet.

It is no secret that the City of Milwaukee has been grappling with how to reduce our exposure to lead. As the recent experiences of Flint, Michigan remind us, lead exposure can have serious health and social consequences. Recognizing the importance of reducing lead exposure has fueled current debate about how to address the problem here in Milwaukee.

A number of options have been placed on the table. In 2016, Mayor Barrett started a pilot program to provide some of our most vulnerable citizens with external water filers designed to remove lead from drinking water. He also publicly urged many in the community to adopt such systems. In addition, we have been debating the merits (and feasibility) of replacing lead service lines in our water delivery system. On Monday, Alderman Jim Bohl released a proposal to expand the use of external water filters to more city residents at a cost of $3.9 million per year for four years.

Alderman Bohl’s proposal makes a key point: completely replacing lead service lines throughout the city will be extremely expensive, will take a long time, and will not completely remedy the problem of lead exposure through drinking water. His conclusion is in line with current science. Scientists who study this issue agree that lead service lines are only part of the exposure problem. Other sources, including internal plumbing in homes, also contribute to lead in the water. The existing research underscores that simply replacing lead service lines will not remove the possibility of lead exposure through drinking water. In addition, as noted in Alderman Bohl’s proposal, lead paint continues to be the central source of lead exposure.

Given this, Alderman Bohl builds on the mayor’s pilot initiative to provide external water filter systems to residents. He proposes expanding the scope of the smaller pilot program by incorporating more households (just shy of 50,000) and providing more support in terms of replacement filters. While supplying vulnerable residents with external water filters seems like a good idea, there is one important drawback to this approach: we have very little information about how such filters are used by real people in their everyday lives. Indeed, scientists have pointed to a lack of research on the behavioral aspects of external water filter use. Do filter recipients actually install the filters they receive? Do consumers change the filters as recommended? Are children taught to only use filtered water in the home (and do parents monitor this)? The fact is, we don’t have systematic research evidence documenting that real people use filters in their everyday lives in effective ways. Without this, it is difficult to know if large investments in programs to supply filters to residents will produce health improvements.

If external water filters are going to be part of our public health strategy (and we think they could be an important tool) then we urge policy makers to help consumers select suitable filters from the wide range available and build-in evaluation procedures to help us better understand if filter recipients are using these devices as intended. While this will raise the costs associated with providing filters, we argue that this is money well-spent. Maybe we will learn that filters are easy to use and most people use them in ways that maximize their effectiveness. That would be great news that should provide confidence about the benefits of continuing to fund these initiatives. Even if we learn that consumers need more support in adopting proper filter use into their everyday lives, that is important information that can inform next steps, such as educational campaigns, the design of ongoing monitoring systems, or better filter designs.

If the goal is to address lead exposure, then let’s do it right by making sure that our investments—in filters or anything else—will improve our health. Alderman Bohl can be thanked for starting us down a path of evaluating our options against the available research evidence to better understand what is likely to work. Let’s continue this strategy by incorporating evaluation tools to monitor whether filters supplied to residents are being used as intended. That’s the only way we can really know if we are making progress on this problem.

By Noelle Chesley, Associate Professor of Sociology, UWM, Anne Dressel, Assistant Professor of Nursing and Director, Center for Global Health Equity, UWM, John Berges, Professor of Biological Sciences and School of Freshwater Sciences, UWM, and Helen Meier, Assistant Professor of Epidemiology, Zilber School of Public Health, UWM 

This is an expression of our personal opinion and not an official position of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

More about the Lead Service Lines

Categories: Health, Op-Ed, Politics

10 thoughts on “Op Ed: How City Should Solve Lead in Water”

  1. Colin says:

    Why can’t the main issue just be fixed once and for all?

    Please don’t waste everyone’s time and money on stupid filters.

    What does the doctor do if he finds a clot in your heart? Just give you pills to deal with symptoms?
    No he signs you up for a heart cath to get that fixed.

    Sure replacing the laterals costs more money, but it’s the thing that really needs to be done.

    And guess what happens once it’s finally over? We never ever have to worry or talk about lead ever again. Amazing, isn’t it?

  2. LynnH says:

    Was there lead in the water when all of the Baby Boomers were growing up in these old homes, or is this something new?

  3. Dennis Grzezinski says:

    Unless Colin has a sensible suggestion of where the $21,000.000 or more that it would cost to replace the lead laterals serving 70,000 homes, at a cost likely to average at least $3,000 each, he should realize that just saying, “replace them all now” amounts to a few words that will do nothing to protect public health. The op ed makes a good point in recognizing that something more than simply purchasing filters for all the affected homes is needed. There ought to be a comprehensive program, that trains people from the community to deliver and install the filters and provide training and instruction to the homeowners or renters. And, all Milwaukee schools, public and private, will need to teach their students about the need to only drink or cook with water from their filters, if they live in older homes.

    And, I suspect, if Alderman Bohl’s program buys filters in quantities of tens of thousands, the cost, including installation, ought to be much more affordable than he’s estimating. And, the advantage of the filters is that they deal with the lead solder used in joints in much indoor plumbing, which wouldn’t be addressed by a program that spent tens of millions of dollars focused on only replacing lead lateral service pipes.

  4. Kliff says:

    I have a question: are there risks with lead in the water with bathing, brushing teeth, doing dishes, laundry, etc? What affect do these lead levels have in the use of water beyond just drinking it? I guarantee someone has access to these studies. Maybe UM already wrote about this in another article. I doubt I’m the first person to ask if the lead levels are too high in certain areas to give a newborn baby a bath.

    Another question: this article states that lead paint is still the central issue. Are there particular neighborhoods where this is a more concentrated problem or is this in random spots throughout the City. I’m taking a hypothetical approach here, but what if the homes with lead in the walls are the same homes that are continuously resold at the Sheriff’s Auctions when those unethical landlords buy dump homes, refuse to fix anything, fail to pay taxes, and eventually end up being seized by the City and resold to the next unethical landlord. Enough has been written on the topic that we’ve identified these people, their various umpbrella companies, and how they work together; and how this contributes to poverty in our City, etc.

    There has to be a way to handle these layers of problems and using the lead problem could be strategically used to get these slumlords and horrific housing conditions removed from the City. I bet if you put the right people together on this project, it might be a blessing in disguise. To do this we need the right people (and it would be best to use the younger brains to get the job organized, the older officials to to make it happen, use our City employees to do the job, and apply for Federal grant dollars to make it a reality). There are plenty of grants out there. Let’s get them while we can. If we can do it for a streetcar, we can do it for higher priorities. Use the young, bright minds we have here before they give up and move.

  5. John says:

    Colin,
    I think you have the analogy wrong.

    What happens when the doctor finds you have atherosclerosis (those fatty deposits that can clog arteries)? Does he recommend surgery to replace your arteries or jump immediately to doing bypasses? These measures are extreme, expensive and have serious consequences.

    So, too, do mass lateral replacements. For example they will disrupt existing piping and put lead into circulation that could affect people who *don’t* have lead laterals. And it won’t solve the problems for all those homes with lead in the solder that is connecting their copper pipes.

    Use of filters works immediately and completely. It’s effective, *so long as people replace their filters regularly*. This is a key issue and a concern. It is not the ultimate solution, but it could solve the immediate risk to our kids health the minute we do it.

    Incidentally, do you know if you have lead pipes in your home?
    Here’s a way to find out:
    https://apps.npr.org/find-lead-pipes-in-your-home/en/#intro

  6. John says:

    Kliff,
    Lead is a hazard when it is ingested. Unless you are routinely swallowing large amount of water in the bath/shower or while brushing teeth, this should not be an issue. In fact, simply running the tap for several minutes will markely decrease the lead in water. For this reason, dish washing and laundry (where there is large-volume rinsing involved) should not constitute a hazard. It is drinking water where the risk lies.

    And lead is most hazardous for those who are actively growing (i.e. children), and relatively less hazardous for adults.

    It’s important to recognize that in Flint, MI and some other places, lead was only *one* of the the water problems the people experienced. Bad tastes, acidic water, strange coloration…these were all separate issues. We don’t have these in general.

  7. John says:

    LynnH,

    Yes, the problem was there when we were growing up. Did we get exposed to lead? Yup…and there were lots of other lead sources, like all that leaded gasoline that was being burned. Isn’t it a wonder we turned out OK? But some of us probably didn’t huh?

    Water treatment companies have for many years added phosphorus to our water. This generally helps ‘coat’ the pipes and keeps the lead out of our water. But it’s not a perfect solution. Lake Michigan water (where a lot of our drinking water comes from) is basic, not acidic and so it works well. They did the same phosphorus treatment in Flint, but the problems came when they changed the source of the water from lake to river. River water is acidic. With acidic water, the phosphorus treatment doesn’t work so well…the lead was liberated and the problems emerged.

  8. LynnH says:

    John,

    Kinda like asbestos – some things should be left alone. As long as it securely wrapped, you’re safe – start removing it and the dust goes everywhere.

  9. galeb says:

    Unfortunately, what happened in Flint has skewed the reality of where the true threat of lead poisoning lies in a community like ours. The dialogue is all about water when it needs to be all about paint. the threat caused by lead paint is multitudes worse than that caused by water. Alderman Bohl is correct that we should spends millions on filters rather than billions on replacing pipe. but the truth is that every penny spent on water is a penny not spent on paint, where the greater threat lies. Milwaukee needs to stop being influenced by sensationalism and get back to the solution- a nationally recognized lead abatement program that made thousands of homes lead safe and eliminated the threat to a whole generation of children.

  10. Kliff says:

    John, thank you for answering my question.

    Everyone else, how do you feel about my suggestions? Can we build on that? I would love to hear feedback.

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