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Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Cara Lombardo and Dee J. Hall, of the Center for Investigative Journalism. Additional reporting was done by Denise Lockwood.

The City of Racine ranked fifth in the state for the percentage of children testing positive for lead poisoning in 2014. But with the state sending $500,000 to help homeowners pay for replacing 9,000 lead service pipes, replacing them all will cost millions of dollars and could take 45 years to complete under the current state funding levels.

Through a forgivable loan program through the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the city will be rebated the $500,000. Once the money runs out in 2017, however, there is no anticipated local, state or federal funding. In total, the city and property owners will likely spend $70 million over the next 15 years.

But the $500,000 only covers about 200 homes, said Keith Haas, director of the Water and Wastewater Utilities. He expects the project to cost $45 million for the city’s portion and $22.5 million for private property owners over the next 15 years.

“Obviously at the current funding levels we can only deal with about 2 percent of the replacements annually at this time. And the PSC won’t let me fund private service lateral replacements in water rates. And if they are added to the taxes communities are under expenditure restraints from the State that discourages raising the tax rate without a referendum,” Haas said.

Recent lead tests have shown that the water leaving the treatment plant is “virtually lead-free,” according to a press release from the city of Racine.

But lead enters drinking water as a result of corrosion in lead service lines and in older household plumbing. To combat the problem, the city has treated the water with ortho-phosphate. The additive minimizes the corrosiveness of those pipes and this is why the city’s lead levels have been so low, Haas said.

Last year the city started replacing the homeowners’ lead service pipes, but participation in the program has been low.

“Alderman (Terry) McCarthy has been working with us to communicate the program to certain city residents that might live on a street that Public Works will replace in 2017,” Haas said. “In our case 5 blocks of Cleveland Avenue. So this past fall we replaced 118 services in the street and the residents can get their service on private property replaced for likely no cost. Participation has been weak. We are working on another letter to these residents.”

Still, the Water and Wastewater Utility does not have records of what exists on private property as those services are not under their control.

“The EPA wants us to somehow gather that information, but the PSC will not let us spend any ratepayer money on private lead services,” Haas said.

READ MORE: Lead Pipe Issue May Be Buried, Haas says.

Investigation Reveals Funding Shortcomings

Lead service pipes in Racine

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism has found state officials have declined to take actions that could better protect children from lead in drinking water.

Documents and interviews show that:

  • Funding for the state’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program has shrunk to “below optimal staffing,” according to a state Department of Health Services budget request that unsuccessfully sought additional funding in 2015-17. While Gov. Scott Walker’s administration has increased state funding to partially make up for sharp drops in federal grants, the program remains 23 percent smaller than it was in 2011, and there are no plans to ask for more money in the upcoming 2017-19 state budget.
  • A recent public health campaign by DHS on lead poisoning prevention did not mention drinking water as a potential source of lead, despite the dangers illustrated by the Flint, Michigan lead-in-water crisis.
  • State law does not mandate that drinking water be investigated as the source when a child is found to have lead poisoning. A bill that would have lowered the level of lead poisoning that triggers an investigation and require that water, in addition to paint, be examined as a source died in the Legislature in 2016 without a hearing. Currently, an investigation is triggered only after a child’s blood lead level reaches at least three times the amount that indicates lead poisoning — and even then, water is not required to be tested.
  • The DHS is using an outdated, lax standard to determine which lead-poisoned children need medical and public health services.
  • A proposal to study lead-poisoned infants in Milwaukee to determine whether drinking water was the cause was scrapped by the DHS in 2016. The agency said it decided against the study because it would not have differentiated the effects of lead paint from lead plumbing, both of which can be found in old homes.

Lead Poisoning on the Rise In Racine

The risk of lead in drinking water spans dozens of communities across Wisconsin. Statewide, 4.5 percent of children tested were found to be lead poisoned in 2014, compared to the 4.9 percent of Flint children tested in 2015. Blood lead levels of 5 micrograms per deciliter of lead means the child has been lead poisoned.

The percentage of City of Racine children testing positive for lead poisoning is even higher over the past two years.

In 2015, 212, or 9 percent, of the 2,323 children tested had high levels of lead in their blood. And in 2016, 177, or 7 percent, of the 2,495 children tested had high levels of lead in their blood. But lead poisoning can also come from lead-based paint, said officials with the City of Racine Health Department.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has long said there is no safe level of lead in the body,” said Sarah Clemons, Public Health Educator with the City of Racine Health Department. “Lead from old paint hurts kids. It poisons children and reduces their future potential. Lead impacts the normal development of a child’s brain, resulting in intelligence quotient (IQ) loss, learning and behavior problems, developmental delays and lifelong mental and physical health issues.”

DHS spokeswoman Julie Lund rejected the idea that the agency was not doing enough to protect children from lead in drinking water. Lund said DHS has “taken a proactive stance” by working with state agencies, local health departments and the public, offering technical assistance and help with public health messaging.

“While we have made much progress in the detection and prevention of childhood lead poisoning, DHS staff is committed to working aggressively on this issue until the risk of lead poisoning is eliminated for all children,” she said. “For this reason, the DPH (Division of Public Health) is continuing to review all options available and what additional work can be done with existing resources.”

Scientists React To Public Health Response

In reaction to the Center’s findings, three experts said the lack of attention in Wisconsin to protecting children from lead in drinking water is common across the nation.

Dr. Susan Buchanan, director of the Great Lakes Center for Children’s Environmental Health at the University of Illinois-Chicago, said agency budgets have been hit hard by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s decision in recent years to slash funding for lead prevention efforts. One reason: Lead poisoning among children has dropped significantly since lead was removed from paint in 1978 and phased out and eventually removed from gasoline in 1995.

“Up until Flint happened,” Buchanan said, “I didn’t think much about water (as a contributor to lead poisoning) either.”

Scientist and activist Yanna Lambrinidou said public health officials nationwide have long ignored or underplayed the problem of lead in drinking water.

“My experience, sadly, is that when it comes to lead in water, the public health community is by and large keeping its head in the sand, deeply and doggedly,” said Lambrinidou, an affiliate Virginia Tech University faculty member. “Public health experts systematically downplay the risks of lead in water and succeed in convincing lawmakers, government officials and the public alike that this hazard deserves minimal, if any, attention.”

Lambrinidou’s Virginia Tech colleague, Marc Edwards, agreed.

“Public health agencies have continued to assert that the government-owned lead pipes, which contaminate potable water, pose an insignificant health risk,” said Edwards, an engineering professor who worked with Lambrinidou on the Flint water crisis. “Most of their energy has been directed to making sure that public funding and attention stays focused on lead paint mitigation, which is already a multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry that they are both familiar and comfortable with.”

The effects of lead poisoning, which are permanent, can include reduced mental development, behavioral problems and stunted growth. Children can become lead poisoned by ingesting paint, or lead-tainted water, soil or dust, but prevention and mitigation efforts have historically focused on paint.

Boiling water with lead in it is not recommended as it can actually concentrate the level of the neurotoxin.

But lead can be filtered out, according to a story by the Environmental Working Group.

Health agency downplays lead in water

Wisconsin’s childhood lead prevention program has shrunk since the federal government began sharply reducing funding in 2012. Although the Walker administration has added state money to the program, the overall size of the prevention effort, $1.6 million annually, is now 23 percent smaller than in 2011.

Lund defended the current funding level, saying, “As federal funding was cut, the state has invested more.” She said the agency has no plans to ask for additional money for lead poisoning prevention in the upcoming 2017-19 budget.

The Economic Policy Institute has estimated that each $1 spent on lead hazard control results in net benefits of between $17 and $221 in increased lifetime earnings, higher tax revenue and lower costs for health care, special education and crime. The nonprofit think tank based in Washington, D.C. focuses on the needs of low- and middle-income workers in economic policy discussions.

In October, DHS issued a brochure for Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Week that did not mention drinking water as a potential source. Spokeswoman Jennifer Miller said lead paint is the “primary cause of lead poisoning among children in Wisconsin” and is the agency’s focus for prevention efforts.

“We are unaware of any cases of lead in drinking water as the primary cause of lead poisoning,” Miller said.

Lund said, however, that the agency continues to review new studies about the risk of lead in drinking water and is “re-evaluating public health messaging on this important topic.”

One reason the state finds no documented cases: Wisconsin does not require that drinking water be tested during investigations triggered when a child has severe lead poisoning. Lund said DHS is “considering” whether to require that drinking water be included when a local health department conducts an investigation for a lead-poisoned child.

In 2016, the state Department of Health Services also scrapped a proposed study that would have explored the links between Milwaukee infants who had been lead poisoned over the past 20 years and whether they had lived in homes with lead service lines, according to records obtained by the Center under the public records law. The theory is that infants aged 7 months and younger are not independently mobile and would not have easy access to lead paint, dust or soil.

Lund said the agency dropped the idea because it was “unable to see any discernable patterns in the data that would have significantly helped to prevent or eliminate lead exposure in children.”

Legislative efforts stall

Last February, state Rep. LaTonya Johnson of Milwaukee, who is now a state senator, and other Democratic lawmakers introduced a bill that would have required the state to conduct tap water testing when a child is lead poisoned.

Johnson’s measure also would have lowered the level of lead in a child’s blood that would have required that water be investigated when a child is lead poisoned. The requirement, which would have cost state and local health departments about $4.8 million a year, was never brought up for a vote.

In Wisconsin, investigations are only required if the child’s blood lead level exceeded 15 micrograms per deciliter twice over 90 days or 20 micrograms once —and again, water is not required to be tested. The CDC recommended in 2012 that states lower that level to 5 micrograms.

State law requires Wisconsin to update its threshold for lead poisoning to match the CDC recommendation. Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, one of the bill sponsors, wrote to the DHS twice last year asking why the state had not yet decreased its level to match the CDC recommendation.

In an August response, the agency said it was “reviewing its options.” By December, Lund told the Center that the agency would be updating the threshold. But she emphasized DHS is not authorized to change the requirements for a lead investigation; that is up to the Legislature.

Kit Beyer, communications director for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington), said Johnson and Taylor have not circulated a similar bill for the 2017 Legislative Session.

“We’re currently starting our budget making session,” Beyer said. “Everything is in the Governor’s office right now. So that’s been limiting budget requests over a certain threshold…. there’s a good possibility that why they haven’t brought anything to Robin as an alternative. But the door is always open.”

On a similar vein, however, Taylor and Johnson circulated a bill that would require property owners who rent to residential tenants that use their homes for daycare to disclose lead testing results.

“If lead is found or if the premises contains lead pipes or lead service lines, the landlord must provide the prospective tenant with a pamphlet published by the DNR that describes the risks of lead in drinking water,” according to the bill.

The Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication and news media nationwide. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.