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The Flint Water Plant water tower in Flint, Mich., on March 21, 2016. (AP/Carlos Osorio) The Flint Water Plant water tower in Flint, Mich., on March 21, 2016. (AP/Carlos Osorio)

The Flint Water Plant water tower in Flint, Mich., on March 21, 2016. (AP/Carlos Osorio)

By D.L. Davis January 10, 2020

Milwaukee vs. Flint: Which city leads on lead?

State Sen. Lena Taylor, one of several candidates for Milwaukee mayor, has taken aim at four-term incumbent Tom Barrett on a series of topics.

Among them: Gun crimes, reckless driving and even the end of the city’s residency requirement for its workers -- something Barrett opposed when GOP lawmakers moved to lift it.

"We have a clean water catastrophe with lead levels that are higher than Flint, MI," Taylor, D-Milwaukee, said in a Nov. 20, 2019 news release that summed up her gripes with Barrett. 

The non-partisan mayoral primary will be held February 18, 2020. The top two finishers will compete in the April 7, 2020, general election.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to cause developmental delays and learning difficulties in children. Lead exposure also harms adults, who may suffer high blood pressure, joint pain, headaches and an increased risk of having a miscarriage or premature birth. 

Problems in Milwaukee’s Health Department have been no secret, including concerns over the city’s testing of lead levels in children. 

Flint, of course, became a focal point of alarm in 2014, when the city switched its drinking water supply from Detroit’s system to water from the Flint River in a cost-saving move. The change led to a national scandal, with a sudden jump in childhood lead poisoning numbers.

Is Taylor correct about a "clean water catastrophe" in Milwaukee with lead levels in the water  higher than Flint’s?

A tale of two cities

When we contacted Taylor’s office, legislative aide Michelle Bryant provided links to various articles on the topic, including a 2018 article by the Observatory, a fact-checking website staffed by students and faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and a 2017 Wisconsin Public Radio article titled "Milwaukee's Lead Problem Is Complex And Could Cost Billions To Fix."

Bryant also said Taylor was "referring to blood-lead levels."

That presents a problem off the bat, because Taylor’s claim was explicitly about water and the nature of the two situations is vastly different. 

First, Flint’s problems emerged after a change in the source of drinking water, so it was easy to trace a jump in numbers to the change as the cause. Milwaukee has not changed its water source; its drinking water has long been drawn from Lake Michigan.

What’s more, children are exposed to many sources of lead beyond water, notably in paint dust in older homes and even in the soil. 

Even staunch advocates for tackling lead in the water don’t argue that water is the sole cause of elevated lead levels in children.

"Our situation is very different from what happened in Flint -- which involved switching water sources, not using anti-corrosion treatment and criminal negligence," Kirsten Shead, co-executive director of Milwaukee Water Commons, said in an email. 

Milwaukee Water Commons is a network of groups focused on water quality. Its funding includes grants, such as $150,000 awarded in 2018 by the Kresge Foundation.  

In short, Taylor’s claim focused on lead in the water, but by citing the lead levels in children as evidence, she is sweeping in every possible cause for elevated lead levels and using it to bolster a narrower claim. 

So, there are three elements we will look at in evaluating this claim:

-- Lead levels in the water supply

-- Lead levels in the blood of children

-- And whether it’s fair to attribute lead levels in children primarily to a "clean water catastrophe," as Taylor does.

Let’s dive in.

Lead levels in the water supply

In Flint, water in the Flint River was naturally high in corrosive chlorine. The problem was that after the switch, water from the river was not properly treated with orthophosphate, which limits corrosion, according to a July 2018 article by the National Review

In 2015, Flint pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha reported that the incidence of elevated blood-lead levels in children citywide had nearly doubled since the water changeover in 2014 — and nearly tripled in certain neighborhoods. 

By comparing the two cities, Taylor is suggesting Milwaukee’s water supply is even more scandalous.

In Flint, there was bad water introduced into the system at the start, so it potentially affected everyone. In Milwaukee, the dynamic is quite different. 

The Milwaukee Health Department notes, "there is no lead in Milwaukee's drinking water as it leaves our treatment plants, but lead can dissolve into the water as it sits in lead service lines that connect your house to the water main in the street. Lead also may be present in interior plumbing and fixtures." 

In other words, the problem is introduced further down the line -- often, literally, in the water lines that run between city mains and houses. 

Milwaukee has 70,000 residential lead-lined service lines, accounting for about 40% of the total in the state. The city treats its water with anti-corrosive material -- something Flint did not do. Nevertheless, lead can still leach into the drinking water before it reaches faucets. 

What about the levels in water at homes? 

Regular testing is required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, though the approach varies somewhat between the cities.

The sampling is from confirmed "tier 1" sites -- single-family homes with lead service lines or lead in indoor plumbing.  

In measuring for lead in the water, there is no amount that is considered "safe," but federal regulations state that at least 90% of water samples tested under the Lead and Copper Rule must have lead measuring at or below 15 parts per billion (ppb).

In Flint, at the height of the problem, results were off the charts. 

During 2015 testing at one home, stunned researchers tallied 2,429 ppb lead -- with one reading at an astonishing 13,200 ppb, according to a research team of professors and graduate students at Virginia Tech

Since then, levels have gone down dramatically. 

Flint’s water-lead level was at 6 ppb in a testing period that ended in December 2017, according to the state of Michigan. 

Meanwhile, 2017 testing in Milwaukee found lead levels at 7.2 ppb, according to Milwaukee Water Works spokesman Brian DeNeve. 

So, by that measure Milwaukee comes out higher than Flint now, but far below Flint’s levels at the height of the crisis.

Beyond that, it is important to note that the levels in Milwaukee are more than 50% below the threshold deemed acceptable by the EPA. That, too, undermines the "catastrophe" element of Taylor’s claim.

Lead levels in the blood of children

The CDC recommends public health interventions if a child tests at 5 micrograms per deciliter of lead in blood, or above. The agency has determined children from low-income families, living in older houses or who are ethnic minorities are more likely to have elevated blood-lead levels. 

In both cities, testing efforts are focused on children in households that receive Medicaid, or are in low-income areas. Every child is not tested.

In 2018, 2,897 children under age 6 in Flint had blood tests for lead. 

Of those, 69, or 2.4%, had levels at 5 micrograms per deciliter of lead in blood, according to Lynn Sutfin, public information officer for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. For children age 6 to 17, of the 1,117 who were tested, only 7 -- or 0.6% -- had elevated blood lead levels. 

In Milwaukee in 2018, meanwhile, 9.1% of those tested had levels at 5 micrograms per deciliter of lead in blood, according to Claire Evers, deputy commissioner of environmental health.

She noted levels had improved for all children tested under the age of 6.

Still, by this measure as well, Milwaukee’s levels are higher than Flint. But this remains a bit off point, since Taylor’s claim was focused on lead in the water.

That said, lead levels in children is a problem Milwaukee health officials have spent decades trying to address. The ongoing policy debate is not whether something should be done, but how best to tackle it.

Water vs. paint and other factors

In her claim, Taylor put the blame for Milwaukee’s lead levels squarely on water.

But there are other major factors at play.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, unlike in Flint, where the city’s lead problems were traced to the switch in the city’s drinking water supply, Milwaukee water problems can be traced mainly to the city’s older housing stock, specifically old lead-based paint.

"Wisconsin’s children continue to be affected by lead poisoning," a 2016 DHS report said. "Lead-based paint in older homes is the primary source of lead exposure in children’s environment. Lead-based paint is a particular problem in Wisconsin, due to its high prevalence in older housing stock."

Indeed, maps that show the parts of Milwaukee with the most too-high levels results track with neighborhoods that contain the city’s oldest housing stock. Often, city records show, those houses are not well maintained -- with many subject to fix-up orders from the Department of Neighborhood Services. 

To be sure, those same Milwaukee neighborhoods have a high prevalence of lead-lined laterals that go from the city’s water mains to individual properties. 

Of note, several other old-line suburbs that receive water from Milwaukee have lead-lined laterals, but do not have nearly the same prevalence of lead levels in children. That underlines the fact that other factors are at play.   

Shead, the co-executive director of Milwaukee Water Commons, said that does not mitigate the need to address lead in the water. 

"Exposure to lead in our drinking water through our lead service pipes is a risk and needs to be solved, in Milwaukee and across the State of Wisconsin," she said. "We believe that replacing our old lead infrastructure needs to be prioritized and happen within a generation. And this work can only be done by our city government."

Our ruling

Taylor said Milwaukee has "a clean water catastrophe with lead levels that are higher than Flint, MI."

Milwaukee does top Flint in two key measurements: Water tested at homes and lead levels in the blood of children. 

But characterizing the situation as a "clean water catastrophe" goes too far. Milwaukee’s situation is far different from Flint as it relates to the water supply, and numbers from tests at homes fall below allowable levels. What’s more, the claim of a "clean water catastrophe" ignores the role that lead-based paint and other factors are known to have on children.

Our definition of Half True is "The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context." That fits here.

Our Sources

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "State Sen. Lena Taylor announces 2020 challenge to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett," Sept. 3, 2019.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Mayoral challenger Lena Taylor blasts Tom Barrett over public employee residency issue; Barrett campaign calls criticism ‘absurd,’ 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "CDC Blood lead Reference Value

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "Not Flint: Waukesha testing pipes and water quality in advance of switching to Lake Michigan supply," Sept. 10, 2018.

NRDC "Flint Water Crisis: Everything You Need to Know," Nov. 8, 2018.

U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health "Elevated blood lead levels in children associated with the Flint drinking water crisis: A spatial analysis of risk and public health response," February 2016

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "Blood lead levels in children,"July 30, 2019.

PBS Frontline "The EPA says Flint’s water is safe -- Scientists aren’t so sure," Sept. 10, 2019.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "Milwaukee health officials privately worried that problems in ‘messed up’ lead program would become public," Sept. 11, 2018. 

Milwaukee Water Works "Overview of Milwaukee Water Works."

Michigan Live "Flint tells state it needs more time to complete testing for lead in water," Dec. 31, 2019.  

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "Protecting Milwaukee’s children: What we know about the latest problems with the city’s lead poisoning prevention efforts," May 31, 2018. 

National Public Radio, "Lead-laced water in Flint: A step-by-step look at the makings of a crisis", April 20, 2016.

USA Today, "Flint and its water crisis drawing presidential candidates promising attention, aid,"  July 15, 2019.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "Milwaukee mayor calls for $2.2 million block grant funds to go toward lead abatement efforts."Nov. 30, 2019.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "City of Milwaukee receives $5.9 million in federal grant funding for lead abatement,"Oct. 1, 2019

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "Top deputy in Milwaukee Health Department pushed out, marking further turmoil in department,"Dec. 4, 2019.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "Former Milwaukee health commissioner Bevan Baker blames other departments for lead crisis," Dec. 23, 2019.

WisContext, "DNR Lead Pipe Fund Doesn't Always Align With Greatest Needs" June 2016.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "1,900 lead service lines replaced as Milwaukee Water Works contends with contractor shortage," July 18, 2019. 

City of Milwaukee "Mayor Barrett proposes $2.2 million in block grant funds for lead abatement,"Dec. 4, 2019.  

State Department of Health Services "Assistance for Fixing Lead Hazards"

Phone call, email, Brian DeNeve, Milwaukee Water Works, Jan. 6, 2019

Email, Lynn Sutfin, Public Information Officer Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Dec. 6, 2019. 

Email, legislative aide Michelle Bryant for Sen. Lena Taylor, Dec. 16, 2019. 

Email, Kirsten Shead, co-executive director of Milwaukee Water Commons, Jan. 3, 2019

Wisconsin Public Radio, "Milwaukee's Lead Problem Is Complex And Could Cost Billions To Fix," May 31, 2017.

University of Wisconsin -- Madison School Of Journalism: The Observatory, "Wisconsin’s rate of lead poisoning worse than Flint, Michigan’s" May 10, 2018

 IFLScience "The Science Behind the Flint Water Crisis: Corrosion of Pipes, Erosion of Trust,"

City of Milwaukee Health Department "Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program Progress Report" Dec. 31, 2018

National Review "No detectable lead poisoning in Flint after all," July 24, 2018

2016 Wisconsin Department of Health Services "Report on Childhood Lead Poisoning in Wisconsin," 

Milwaukee Health Department, "Lead and Water

Milwaukee Water Works "Lead Service Line Records."

Wisconsin State Journal "Officials: "Replacing lead pipe worth the cost, whatever it is,"Sept. 8, 2016. 

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency "High Lead Levels in Flint, Michigan - Interim Report," June 24, 2019. 

Milwaukee Water Works "2018 Consumer Confidence Report

Michigan Department of Health & Human Services "2016 Data Report on Childhood Lead Testing and Elevated Levels" Michigan,"Nov. 26, 2018.

Flint Water Study "COMMENTARY: MDEQ Mistakes and Deception Created the Flint Water Crisis," Sept. 30, 2015.

Kresge Foundation "Grants Awarded," 2018

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