It’s 1969 and Margie Hendson just purchased her first home in Milwaukee, but about a year later is when she got the bad news—her house was filled with lead. Since she owned her home, she had to pay for the repairs. Hendson was forced to replace every single window in her home, and she had to remove the paint from her walls.
“I had to do everything in this house,” Hendson said. “It was a lot of money.”
Her troubles didn’t stop there because her daughter had already gotten lead poisoning in her blood. But how did she know? Hendson regularly took her kids to the doctor and during one of their visits, they found lead.
Now it’s 49 years later and Hendson is attending a meeting about lead, in the same city, but this time it’s in her water.
“They never let us rise up,” said Hendson.
Hendson has been living in Milwaukee her entire life, and she believes the government is poisoning the black community on purpose. She attended a Tenth Talk meeting led by State Representative David Bowen on April 27, about the lead in Milwaukee’s drinking water.
During the meeting, one of the presenters, Professor Dr. Michael Carvan at UWM School of Freshwater Sciences stated that the lead in water affects predominately the black community. There are other places in Wisconsin that are experiencing lead issues but not like the inner-city of Milwaukee.
Read more about lead in Milwaukee water here:
According to a PowerPoint created by Alderman James Bohl Jr. and Aaron Szopinski, in 2016, Milwaukee reported 8.6 percent of the children being screened for lead had high blood-lead levels. Flint, Michigan reported that only 5 percent of their children screened for high blood-lead levels that same year. Neither of these levels is safe, but they speak volumes. There’s been progress, though; the percentage of Milwaukee children testing for lead was 38 percent in 2003, according to the PowerPoint.
More than 44,000 state children were reportedly above the accepted lead levels from 1996-2006.
According to the PowerPoint, 16 percent of Milwaukee Public Schools’ interior faucets or water sources “exceed EPA safe levels for lead.” Lead effects on humans include neurological effects like diminished IQ, and problems with the renal system and blood system, the PPT says. Lead exists in paint as well as water.
The city has spent millions to replace pipes contributing to the problem, including in 365 daycare centers, but the PowerPoint says that limitations at the state level, including “rigid” laws, prevent a city from launching a massive capital improvement project to get rid of them all at once.
Humans have been mining lead for about 6,000 years, and it’s only until recently that the government decided using lead in products isn’t safe. Here is a list of products that have been banned from using lead: paint (1977), gasoline (1986), new plumping (1986), and new plumping fixtures (2014). This data comes from Dr. Carvan’s PowerPoint, but he doesn’t just stop there. Humans have known how harmful lead is for almost 2,000 years yet it took them until 44 years ago to do something about it.
Every year the number of lead poisoning in human bodies decreases, but there is no known safe lead level in the body, especially for children.
But how do we get exposed to lead?
The number one exposure is through peeling and chipping from lead-based paint. Children touch the paint then touch their mouths, and if they keep doing this their sure to experience lead poisoning. Children are at a higher risk of exposure because their stomach absorbs the lead 5-10 times faster than adults, said Dr. Carvan.
According to Milwaukee Water Works, when water leaves the water treatment plant it contains no lead. The lead is being introduced into the water by the home owner’s pipes, their laterals and solders. Dr. Carvan stated because of these things, Milwaukee’s children have a higher lead percentage in their blood than the children in Flint.
Speaking of Flint, they’re not doing so well either.
Flint resident Lizzie Fordham says their water crises isn’t new to the community.
“We’re from the struggle,” said Fordham. “We’ve been dealing with this our whole life…[we’re] making do with what we got.”
Fordham has four children and one of them has eczema. Her daughter’s eczema mixed with Flint’s water, had her daughter in the hospital for five days.
Fordham knows this problem can’t be fixed right away, but she at least would like to see her state care more. The water bottles Flint receives isn’t from their government but from third parties, and this “really pisses” Fordham off.
Flint also held its own meeting to discuss their lead problems, but theirs was a tad bit more serious than Milwaukee’s. The organizers put together a folder of information for the residents, and they also had free breakfast, water bottles, water filters, and take-home bottles for residents to test their drinking water. It’s been three years since Flint acknowledged their water crisis, but they’re still teaching their residents the basics on how to be safe.
“We can’t cry about it we have to fix it,” said Community Outreach Resident Education Program (C.O.R.E) Flint member Shucon Hall.
Hall knew about the crisis 2 ½ years before it was officially announced. One day she was running her bath water and poop began to seep out. Her step-father who lives in California works for a water company, and Hall was able to fix her problem efficiently.
Just like many other Flint residents, Hall can’t “afford to just pick up and leave,” which is why she joined C.O.R.E. She wanted to help her community because they need it, and not everyone’s willing to help.
So, where do Milwaukee and Flint go from here?
There’s no definite answer, but there are a few steps that should be taken. Use filters, but you can’t run hot water through them and they must be replaced every three months. Run your water for at least three minutes to get rid of the lead that’s been sitting in the laterals and solders. Get yourself and especially your children checked for lead poisoning. And the list continues, but do these things really help? According to the higher people up they do, but they’re the reason we have this problem.
In Milwaukee, the government decided to only replace lead service lines that are leaking. They plan on fixing 300 pipes, yet there are about 70,000 that need to be replaced, said Milwaukee Health Department Lead Team, Marisa Stanley. In Flint, they have at least another three years before they began fixing their lead pipes. So, then comes the question: when does this become a moral issue? People’s lives are at stake, but most people don’t care if it doesn’t affect them personally.
Water is essential to life, and if someone isn’t receiving clean water is their life not important?