A Milwaukee area landlord who wants to protect her tenants from potential lead contaminated drinking water says it's been a frustrating process trying to get accurate and timely information from the city.
“I feel like the system should work a little bit better than it seems to be working at the moment,” said Mary Talsky, owner of two duplexes in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood, both of which have lead service lines.
“You still can’t get the specific answers that are helpful. That just seems pretty ineffective. It’s a little frustrating,” she added.
Milwaukee PBS and our partners at WUWM uncovered a serious communication breakdown inside city hall concerning what Milwaukee health officials themselves have called a public health crisis.
The effects from even small amounts of lead can last a lifetime. Studies show that lead exposure in young children can reduce IQ and attention span, learning disabilities, developmental delays and a range of other health and behavioral effects.
As reported by our partners at Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, 4.5 percent of children tested across the state in 2014 were found to be lead poisoned. That number nearly doubles in Milwaukee, where 8.6 percent of children tested were found to have had blood lead levels at or above the level that indicates lead poisoning in the same year.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration last week warned that some common blood tests for lead poisoning manufactured by Magellan Diagnostics gave falsely-low results. Health officials are encouraging parents to have their children retested.
“This is the public crisis of our lifetime. There's no acceptable level of lead for the human body,” Milwaukee Health Commissioner Bevan Baker said back in March during 10thirtysix’s live, hour-long special on lead and drinking water.”
Talsky watched the special and said it heightened her concern, particularly because one of her tenants has a baby. She wondered if she was doing enough by simply giving her tenants water filters. Was she fulfilling her legal responsibilities as a landlord?
Mary Talsky takes her job as a teacher and a landlord seriously. Photo: Maryann Lazarski
In April, Talsky began seeking answers. She spotted the lead information inside her water bill and followed its instructions, noting that as the utility payer, her tenants would actually never see the insert.
She first called the city’s Department of Neighborhood Services (DNS) and was told to call the Milwaukee Health Department’s lead resource line at 414-225-LEAD, the same number that at the time was listed on the website of Lead Safe Milwaukee, the city’s big education campaign launched in February.
The number was disconnected.
Photo: Noah Vaughn (CC-BY)
Talsky next spoke with someone at Milwaukee Water Works who said she had several options including test the water, let the water run for a few minutes before using, apply a water filtration device and, if possible, to replace the lead service line altogether.
According to city ordinances, if Talsky’s pipe broke or ruptured, or the adjoining main line needed work, she would qualify for Milwaukee’s cost share program and would pay no more than $1,600.
Because there was no break in the line and Talsky simply wanted to be proactive with a replacement, she was told it might cost her as much as $3,000. But there could be some relief, according to the representative from Water Works. Talsky was told she could spread the cost over 10 years on her property taxes.
That’s not accurate. Property owners only qualify for the 10-year-payment plan if the lateral breaks or the water main needs repair, according to the city ordinances.
Ald. Michael Murphy. Photo: City of Milwaukee Public Information Division (CC-BY)
Because she didn’t get clear answers, Talsky contacted Ald. Michael Murphy about her frustrations. Murphy emailed her back promptly saying, “I will discuss this with a few department heads to figure out improvements in the process.”
In addition, Murphy’s aide left Talsky a voicemail apologizing for the disconnected phone number. Another city official said the Health Department needed to change the main number for its lead program because the original number was not on the city’s phone system.
But the Health Department’s new lead program number, 414-286-5987, doesn’t appear well staffed either. Milwaukee PBS reporters called the number several times over the course of weeks. The phone calls were never answered by an actual personal and always went to a generic voicemail that made no indication that it was a city department line. Inquiries weren’t returned until more than two weeks later.
During the Water Quality Task Force’s March meeting, Health Department spokeswoman Sarah DeRoo updated members on the interdepartmental public information campaign that included a new website, bus billboards, online ads in community newspaper websites, brochures and partnerships with local health organizations and agencies. Given the severity of the problem, some members of the task force asked if it were enough.
Ald. James Bohl, the task force’s chair, asked why the health department wasn’t partnering with Milwaukee Public Schools to bring curriculum into the classroom, much like the fire department did in the ‘90s to prevent fire deaths.
“Is this issue not of similar if not greater importance?” Bohl asked during the meeting.
Area property owners, like the one in the the video below, have also sounded off, telling task force members that the city seems to lack a sense of urgency to fix the problem and wasting resources on a new stadium and streetcar.