Op Ed

Lead Poisoning and a Listening Session

More funds needed to protect city’s children. And more media attention to the issue.

By - Oct 27th, 2020 04:58 pm
Lead service lines replaced by the Milwaukee Water Works with corrosion control visible in pipe. Image from Milwaukee Water Works.

Lead service lines replaced by the Milwaukee Water Works with corrosion control visible in pipe. Image from Milwaukee Water Works.

On October 6 we participated in the virtual “Listening Session on the 2021 Budget.” For over three hours, Mayor Tom Barrett and Milwaukee Common Council members listened to 100 residents speak for two minutes each about their budget priorities. Council President Cavalier Johnson moderated the session. It was a respectful, passionate, public display of democracy in action. We commend Mayor Barrett and the Common Council for offering this session!

Afterward, we expected to hear from local media about what had happened. Not so! A search of local news archives to this day has not yielded much. Only Urban Milwaukee reported on the issue. Because alderpersons need support from their constituents to pass a revised budget, it is crucial that media report what the public said.

It is also important that our suburban neighbors and people across the state learn about this. In this hyper-partisan time, we need to convince more than our own legislators of the statewide legitimacy of issues such as the re-allocation of resources to health departments to best respond to lead-poisoned children.

A majority of those at the listening session indicated they wanted up to 75 million dollars moved from the police to budget-starved services in 2021 — to the Milwaukee Health Department (MHD), and to mental health, food and housing programs.

The mayor and council members heard several representatives from the Coalition on Lead Emergency and the League of Women Voters of Milwaukee County ask that the MHD be given $3.55 million — the resources needed to assess (never mind the funds to abate) the homes of all 1,800 of Milwaukee’s children projected to be found lead-poisoned in 2021. Such in-home assessments for sources of lead include critical conversations with parents about how to protect their children. Without media reports, how will Milwaukee residents know the MHD is strapped for funds and can now do this for only about 7% of Milwaukee children identified as lead-poisoned? Or that this level of response will continue unless there is a budget change for 2021?

About three-fourths of the children identified in 2016 as lead-poisoned in the state of Wisconsin resided in Milwaukee County. In Ozaukee County, the poisoning rate was only half that in Milwaukee County. But since COVID-19, we’re all familiar with how increasing the number of those tested can increase the number of cases found. Over 20,000 children were tested in Milwaukee County in 2016, while only about 200 were tested in Ozaukee County. Even accounting for the ten-fold difference in population, each child in Milwaukee County was nine times more likely to be tested than a child in Ozaukee County. Lead-poisoned children are found in every county and they are more likely to be found if they are tested. The solution to childhood lead-poisoning requires both local and statewide efforts. Contrary to common perceptions, the state’s contribution to Milwaukee’s budget is too little, given that Milwaukee taxpayers have long returned more to state coffers.

Amplification of requests by Milwaukee residents is critically important not just for Milwaukee, but for citizens around our state. When media like Urban Milwaukee report on such events, citizens are empowered to call their representatives, such as the alders meeting this week to decide the budget. Hearing those informed voices is critical to council members and legislators across our state. Increased MHD funding says the lives of lead-poisoned children matter in Milwaukee. State support to address lead poisoning says the future of Wisconsin depends on all our children. Media coverage is crucial to this process.

More about the Lead Crisis

Read more about Lead Crisis here

Categories: Health, Op-Ed, Politics

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