How City Should Solve Lead in Water
Issue is not simple. Ald. Bohl’s proposal is good starting point.
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.
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.
- City Hall: Milwaukee on 70-Year Pace To Replace Lead Laterals - Jeramey Jannene - Mar 13th, 2020
- City Hall: Audit Gives Water Works High Marks - Jeramey Jannene - Mar 12th, 2020
- League of Women Voters Presents Forum on Lead Poisoning March 6 - League of Women Voters of Milwaukee County - Mar 2nd, 2020
- AG Objects to Relaxed Lead Pipe Rules - Melanie Conklin - Feb 14th, 2020
- City Hall: Former Health Director Blames Barrett - Jeramey Jannene - Dec 24th, 2019
- Statement of Bevan K. Baker - Bevan K. Baker - Dec 23rd, 2019
- Mayor Barrett Proposes $2.2 Million in Block Grant Funds for Lead Abatement - Mayor Tom Barrett - Dec 4th, 2019
- City Hall: Health Department Probe a State Matter - Jeramey Jannene - Nov 14th, 2019
- City Hall: Proposal Uses Lead Abatement Funds for Marketing - Jeramey Jannene - Nov 7th, 2019
- Op Ed: Everyone Deserves Clean Water - State Sen. Jon Erpenbach - Nov 4th, 2019
Read more about Lead Crisis here