Lead exposure, especially from water in older pipes, is a major health problem in Milwaukee. A 2016 Wisconsin state report on childhood lead poisoning indicated that nearly 11% of children tested in Milwaukee showed elevated blood lead levels, which was double the percentage found in Flint, Michigan. Children from low-income families, especially within the African-American community, are disproportionately affected. Earlier this year, a previous employee of the Milwaukee County Health Department, emailed 15 alderman and Mayor Tom Barrett informing them that the department was not testing water in the homes of lead-poisoned children. This launched an investigation which revealed that the Milwaukee County Health Department failed to notify thousands of parents of the high blood lead levels found in their children, resulting in the resignation of the local health commissioner. Moreover, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recently suspended the Milwaukee lead abatement program after an audit revealed many problems.
The Milwaukee Area Science Advocates (MASA) believes it is imperative to address the lead exposure problem, and that doing so requires working collaboratively with Milwaukee community organizations and residents. Thanks to generous support from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) Science for Public Good Fund, MASA was able to work with the Children’s Outing Association (COA) Youth & Family Centers, the Hunger Task Force, the Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers, Amani United, the Dominican Center, the Social Development Commission, the Interfaith Earth Network, and Children’s Hospital to organize and hold a “science in action” lead resource fair on June 23, 2018 – titled Amani Un|Leaded.
Amani Un|Leaded brought together scientists, residents, and community leaders to begin working together to address the lead problem in Milwaukee. The event was held at the COA Goldin Center in the Amani neighborhood, which is an area of Milwaukee with especially high lead exposures. The event covered a wide variety of lead topics and featured workshops entitled: Science of Lead, Lead-safe Homes, Growing Healthy Soils, Nutrition and Lead, Lead in Water, and the Path to 0%. These workshops informed residents on lead chemistry and bodily absorption, policies aimed to reduce lead poisoning, and steps families can take to limit lead exposure. Following the workshops, residents engaged in a strategic discussion with community leaders and organizers regarding lead education and abatement strategies. Topics covered included how public policy can reduce lead poisoning, filter distribution, and cartridge replacement. More than 80 people attended and organizers of the event distributed water filters to remove lead to many residents.
The event led to a new program – “Unleaded” – which is a water filter distribution, follow-up, and education program designed to reach several communities in Milwaukee. MASA and aforementioned community partners are working to increase efficiency in lead filter distribution, installation, and city-wide lead education. Initiatives in this program include an electronic notification and communication system for lead filters as well as door-to-door canvassing to raise awareness of lead dangers.
Thanks to generous support from organizations like UCS, and many dedicated volunteers, Milwaukee is progressing towards a safer and lead-free community. Learn more about Unleaded, or learn about ways to get involved in your community.
Anna Miller is a science writer and philanthropist who focuses on improving scientific literacy and awareness in the community. She currently works on the leadership team at Milwaukee Area Science Advocates. Dr. Miller hold a Ph.D. in Cell and Developmental Biology from the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Dave Nelson is a public health consultant. He worked for many years at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and National Cancer Institute, where he conducted research in cancer prevention, tobacco control, and other health topics. He currently works on the grants team with Milwaukee Area Science Advocates. He holds an M.D. from the Oregon Health Sciences University and an M.P.H. from the University of Michigan.
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