Lead exposure increases in Milwaukee during pandemic

By Mary Sussman
Shepherd Express
October 28, 2020

While the pandemic rages on, with more than 28,000 confirmed cases of and 300 deaths from COVID-19 in the City of Milwaukee so far this year, the city’s youngest children continue to be exposed to unsafe levels of lead in their homes.

Lead poisoning is a nationwide scourge and a stubborn local enemy. Children under the age of six are the most vulnerable to lead poisoning that can cause permanent neurological damage leading to learning disabilities and behavior problems. But testing can lead to prompt medical and environmental intervention and reduce toxic blood levels in children.

A 2019 study done at UWM’s Joseph J. Zilber School of Public Health found that in Milwaukee more than half of the people involved in gun violence—perpetrators and victims—had elevated blood lead levels as children. The study used public health, education and criminal justice data for 89,000 people born in Milwaukee between June 1, 1986, and December 31, 2003, who had been tested for lead exposure before the age of six.

Testing Declines in 2020

Ten thousand fewer children were tested in the first nine months of 2020 than in the first nine months of 2019, according to data supplied by the Milwaukee Health Department. The decline in testing has left some children with elevated lead levels unidentified because they are missing wellness exams. Some children who had elevated blood lead levels have not had follow-up visits because their families have relocated, and health department officials have been unable to find them.

Because of school closures, children are spending more time at home, increasing their exposure to potentially dangerous lead sources. In addition, disruptions in insurance and housing insecurity brought on by the pandemic are putting more children at risk of permanent damage from untreated lead poisoning. Kaiser Health News (KHN) reports that a drop in testing was widespread nationwide this year.

Though testing slowed in 2020, some good news emerged from the 2019 data. Nineteen percent fewer children under the age of six had elevated lead blood levels in 2019 compared to 2018, according to Wisconsin Department of Health Services data. In addition, 7.8% of the children tested had elevated blood levels in 2019 compared to 9.2% in 2018. But even with lead poisoning down in 2019, 1939 children in the City of Milwaukee under the age of 6, had elevated blood lead levels.

Helen Meier, associate professor of epidemiology at UWM’s Zilber School of Public Health said there are different standards for case management in Milwaukee than in Madison. “In Milwaukee, case management and environmental assessment are only provided to children who have blood lead levels >20 µg/dL,” Meier said. “In Madison, for example, case management and environmental assessment are provided to all children who have blood lead levels >5 µg/dL.”

$3.55 Million Budget for Increased Testing Proposed

MICAH’S Coalition on Lead Emergency (COLE) wants to change that. It recently asked the Milwaukee Common Council and Mayor Tom Barrett to provide the Milwaukee Health Department with $3.55 million in its 2021 budget to cover the costs associated with increased testing and assessment for all children who have elevated blood lead levels.

On October 29 and 30, the Finance and Personnel Committee will consider a budget amendment to fulfill the $3.55 million COLE request. The budget amendment is sponsored by Common Council President Cavalier Johnson, Finance and Personnel Committee Chair Ald. Michael Murphy and other co-sponsors. The $3.55 million would result in environmental testing and trigger more home abatement orders for  more than 1,900 children who have elevated blood lead levels >5 µg/dL. Currently, only the homes of slightly more than 100 children who have blood lead levels > 20 µg/dL are inspected for lead contamination.

Poverty and Low Levels of Home Ownership Affect Lead Exposure
Meier recently published a paper which found “the risk of elevated childhood blood lead levels is greatest in majority non-White Milwaukee County neighborhoods with high poverty and low home ownership.”

“Not only do we have inequities for risk for children in Milwaukee, but that’s been compounded by a lack of access to services for children whose blood lead levels fall between 5 µg/dL and 20 µg/dL,” Meier said. “If  these children lived in Madison, they would get services, but because they live in Milwaukee, they don’t. Meier also found that approximately 10,000 children between 2014-2016 would have received case management for their elevated blood levels if Milwaukee used the Madison standards. She hopes that the $3.55 million requested by COLE will address that inequity.

“The 3.55 million that COLE is requesting will not solve the entire lead problem in Milwaukee, but it would be an important step down that road,” said Rev. Dennis Jacobsen, the COLE chair. “The City has made a lot of progress on lead since the 90s, but I think it’s been kind of stuck in the last few years…”

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