Landlords and Lead A communication breakdown at city hall

"This is the public health crisis of our lifetime." -- Milwaukee Health Commissioner Bevan Baker

A report by Susan Bence and the 10thirtysix team

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.

DNS Operations Director Tom Mishefske

The city also hasn’t gotten around to creating a comprehensive plan for landlords regarding lead and water. 10thirtysix stopped in at a six-hour landlord training session provided by DNS earlier this month. The instructor briefly mentioned the lead service line issue and offered attendees a new lead awareness and drinking water safety brochure. DNS Operations Director Tom Mishefske said the department would soon offer lead safety curriculum in the landlord training book.

In April, the Water Quality Task Force published a final report outlining 20 recommendations to protect residents against lead in the drinking water. The number one recommendation: “The city should do all in its authority to accelerate the removal and / or rehabilitation of lead service lines within its jurisdiction.”

That won’t be an easy task. Of the approximate 169,000 water service lines in Milwaukee, about 70,000 residential properties and about 6,000 commercial properties have lead service lines, according to the city’s own numbers.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. Photo: Wisconsin National Guard (CC-BY)

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said the city plans to eventually replace all the lead pipes with special priority given to areas where there are schools and daycares.

“This is going to take many years, but you can see that we've implemented a path. We're going to have to find the resources,” Barrett said during the launch of the city’s Lead Safe Milwaukee campaign.

There is some good news for city in the fight against lead contamination. Blood lead levels among Milwaukee children have actually been on the decline since 1997. Moreover, Milwaukee has dropped faster than any of the top 40 largest cities in terms of reducing the amount of lead hazards, according to Baker.

“But there's still work that needs to be done,” Baker said. “We need to be as aggressive as Flint and every other community in the nation that's faced with lead hazards."

Watch the full segment below:

10thirtysix's previous coverage on lead and your health

On March 23, Milwaukee PBS’ 10thirtysix broadcast a one-hour interactive special that offered answers to some of the lead problems facing Milwaukee and several of its suburbs. Milwaukee PBS would like to thank our viewers who tuned in and asked questions. If you missed the news magazine’s special edition, it’s not too late to watch the program and benefit from the experts who participated. Those experts included Milwaukee Health Commissioner Bevan Baker, Dr. Patricia McManus, president and CEO of the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin, James Causey, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter and Susan Bence, WUWM environmental reporter. Health specialists from Aurora Health Care, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin and Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers also participated in answering questions.

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Scottie Meyers

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