In 1991, the U.S. Congress passed the Lead and Copper bill 1 requiring cities and other municipalities to control lead in drinking water systems. Lead causes brain damage especially in children six and under whose brains are in a vital stage of development. Lead pipes had been used in older home plumbing systems bringing drinking water from water mains into homes. Lead in gasoline has been eliminated since 1995 and lead in paint was forbidden in 1978 and has been abated in cities across the country. Now the focus is to eliminate lead poison in the drinking water.

Cites dealt with lead in water coming from lead lateral pipes in different ways. One option was to add phosphates 2 in drinking water that would coat the inside of lead pipes, thus cutting back on amount of lead leaching in drinking water. This is the option the City of Milwaukee took starting 1996 when they began adding phosphate into the drinking water.

Madison has no more lead laterals

Officials in Madison Wisconsin 3 wondered about this option since they had just been warned by the State to cut back on any phosphates in water. Phosphates cause algae in lakes supplying drinking water and are very expensive to remove in a treatment plant. 4 So the City of Madison developed a strategic plan to replace all lead lateral pipes. They did so between2001and 2012. Now Madison has a minimal amount of lead in water, coming from other sources, not lead pipes. Many cities chose the phosphate option but some chose to replace lead laterals.

Inside Flint’s Lead Laterals

Poisoning children with lead tainted water might have continued to be ignored if it was not for the water scandal in Flint, Michigan. To save money the state officials decided to stop purchasing water from Detroit (Great Lakes) and switch to water from a local river. The river had been a dumping ground for all kinds of chemicals from industry and the water, although treated, smelled and tasted bad. The river water was laden with iron, something Great Lakes water has a low content of. 5 Iron in water rusts the lead lateral pipes thus bringing more lead in the drinking water to homes. When the drinking water hazard was exposed in Flint in 2015, state and Federal government ran to the aide of Flint. Besides restoring drinking water from Great Lakes and adding phosphates to their drinking water, there is now a plan in action to replace all the lead lateral pipes.

As lead paint was abated the lead levels of children 6 and under declined in Milwaukee from 30% of children with high levels of lead to about 8.6 % in 2014. 6 However in the older racially segregated and poor areas of older homes with lead lateral pipes, North Central (African American) and South Central (Hispanics) Milwaukee, remains high, about 10–20% of children tested six and under still have dangerous levels of lead in their blood. Full disclosure of lead poising of children in the identified 70,000 homes in the City of Milwaukee with lead laterals is available but is being kept from the public. However, we know that zip codes like 53206 with a high number (7881) of homes with lead lateral water pipes have a high number (19.9%) of children, six and under, testing at dangerous levels of lead in their blood.

Failure of Government

Milwaukee City Officials, the Mayor and the Common Council, all knew of this dangerous poisoning of lead by toxic drinking water but choose, for the most part, to play the issue down. One alderman in 2011 over the veto of the Mayor was able to pass a bill offering insurance for homeowners. The reason for insurance, replacement of lead pipes, was never explained to people and after two years the Mayor and Department of Water Works Commissioner discontinued the program. In January 2016 at the Rules and Steering Committee of the Common Council on the issue of lead in the water an Alderman who had voted to allocate tens of millions of dollars for a three mile long downtown trolley line and tens of millions for a new sports arena declared that Milwaukee city officials should not consider the matter of lead lateral pipes an emergency. He said, “We have known about the problem with disturbing lead pipes and how that may increase the leaching of lead into the water for decades.” 7

High Finance

Other cities decided to look at their water and many have begun the replacement of lead laterals. However, in Milwaukee the Mayor and the City Common Council have committed no city funds for lead pipe replacement but have committed millions of city funds to help the Wall Street billionaires build a new sports arena, for downtown development for those who can afford to live there and have given tens of millions of city dollars to a downtown streetcar system that will serve, white millennials and others who live downtown.

Brain Damage

“EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) agree that there is no known safe level of lead in a child’s blood.8”From a fetus in a mother’s womb, as a new born infant and child up to 6 the brain is developing and any lead in water can cause irreversible brain damage for life. Headaches, Irritability, Constipation, learning problems, muscular weakness, reduced growth, pain in the abdomen and constipation, anemia, kidney damage, are also other problems caused by lead in one’s system.

Levels of Poison Lead in Children

In 2015, at the height of the Flint, MI water crisis 4.9% of children had dangerous blood levels of blood, above 5 micro-grams per deciliter, the level at which children are known to suffer health problems. However, in Milwaukee 8.6 % of children had dangerous levels of lead in 2014. 9 Recent 2015 numbers indicate that despite years of reduced numbers the dangerous levels of lead is increasing in areas with lead laterals. 10


Lead laterals in mostly
Black and Hispanic areas

Milwaukee ranks as the most segregated city in the U.S.A. and these segregated areas have high rates of crime, unemployment, extreme poverty and hunger. 11 The percent of children poisoned by lead is much higher in the segregated sections of the city with the greatest numbers of older homes with lead lateral pipes. The neighborhoods with houses with lead lateral pipes are concentrated in North and South Central Milwaukee. The North Central area is predominately low income African-Americans and the South Central side is predominately low income Hispanics. For example, 53206 the most distressed part of Milwaukee, has 19.9 % of children six and under testing at dangerous levels of lead in their blood. 12 Lead poisoning is one more environment hazard of being a person of color in Milwaukee. Development by City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County by government and private developers are focused solely on predominately white downtown and suburbs.


Two professors from Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley published a report that “cities that used lead water pipes had homicide rates that were twenty-four percent higher than cities that did not”. 13 The city of Milwaukee, like Chicago, and other cities follow this pattern with the areas with the most lead lateral pipes having high homicide rates. The authors of this study conclude that “even if lead removal will not reduce crime, it will remove a dangerous toxin from the environment. Other strategies to reduce crime may not have similarly positive side effects”


After the Flint, MI water crisis the Lead and Copper Working Group of the National Water Advisory reported in December of 2015: There is no safe level of lead.” Utilities should be required to replace lead service lines. 14 Yet the Milwaukee water utility, Milwaukee Water Works, gives the city of Milwaukee’s General Fund twelve million dollars a year from what the utility collects from water revenue. 15 The Mayor and the Common Counsel ignore city funding to eliminate poison in our water while funding new downtown development like the recent twenty millions of city money for an extension of the future city subsidized downtown streetcar so it can go to the city subsidized new sports arena. The Mayor and the Common Council seek Federal and State grants for replacement of lead laterals that are poisoning our children but have failed to develop a strategic plan and commit city money to replace lead lateral water pipes.

Frederick Douglas said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

The only way to convince Mayor Barrett and the Common Council to commit city funds and resources to replace all lead lateral pipes seems to be for the people of Milwaukee to demand it be done.


1 EPA, Lead and Copper Rule, (↑)

2 Water Treatment for Corrosion Control, (↑)

3 (↑)

4 (↑)

5 How Tap Water Became Toxic in Flint, Michigan, CNN, (↑)

6 City of Milwaukee, Report by Public Health Commissioner (↑)

7 Rules and Steering Committee, Video, Jan. 2016 (↑)

8 EPA Basic Information in Drinking Water, (↑)

9 Wisconsin Watch, Jan. 2016, (↑)

10 Report of City of Milwaukee Public Health Commissioner (↑)

11 Milwaukee Top Ten Worst City List, (↑)

12 City of Milwaukee, Report by Public Health Commissioner (↑)

13 Lead Exposure and Violent Crime in the Early Twentieth Century, March 2016, (↑)

14 (↑)

15 City Water Commissioner (↑)

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