By Dylan Deprey
Never in Brenda World-Patterson’s dreams would she have thought that as a toddler her son would get lead poisoning.
“I remember thinking ‘he’s not eating out of the window sill, he couldn’t reach. How did he get this in his system,’” World-Patterson said.
Her house, like many in Milwaukee, was over 100 years old. Laying just below the house was lateral pipes made of lead pumping water used for cooking, cleaning and drinking.
She took her son to the hospital and he was treated for lead poisoning.
Years later Jordan Patterson suffered Renal failure, and needed a new kidney. His mother was the match, and World-Patterson gave her son her kidney. Patterson is 18 years-old and is still receiving treatment.
Lead poisoning has no age limit. The soft malleable metal that holds the 82nd spot on the periodic table can wreak havoc on the body if untreated in children and adults.
“There is no safe level of lead in the body, it’s toxic at all levels,” said Dr. Annette Stokes during November’s Community Brainstorming at St. Matthew C.M.E. Church regarding the future of Milwaukee’s water and lead poisoning.
Stokes noted how lead is not normally a corrosive metal until it is combined with acidic water. As Milwaukee’s drinking water flows from Lake Michigan, it is treated and sent through city water mains. It is then distributed to homeowner’s lead lateral pipes buried beneath their house, where water sits in the pipes potentially collecting lead particles with acidic water.
“Lead is very smart, it has the ability to cross the blood brain barrier, which is undeveloped and not as keen as it is in adults compared to children,” Stokes said.
Children 6-years-old and under are highly susceptible to neurologic damage and developmental problems with long term exposure to lead. Lowered IQ, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), hearing impairment, irritability and periphery neuropathy (numbness in hands and feet) are all neurological issues children may experience with increased amounts of lead.
“Lead serves no useful purpose in the body, and lead toxicity can affect every organ in your body,” Stokes said.
Although children under 6 years old are most at risk, lead can stay dormant in the adult body in storing in red blood cells as well as replacing depleted calcium in bone and teeth.
Triggers like kidney disease, increased stress, breastfeeding, menopause and bone fractures can activate dormant lead in the body. Lead levels are not normally checked in adults and children over 6 years old
Freshwater for Life Action Coalition (FLAC) co-founder Robert Miranda compared the lead pipes plaguing Milwaukee’s north and south side to the Zika virus plaguing Brazil.
“Basically what we’ve got is 70,000 mosquitos out there that have a toxin that can be devastating to fetuses, the unborn and children under 6,” Miranda said. “To some it may seem extreme, but it’s reality.”
Miranda said that the lead’s malleability allows particles to pass through aerator screens in faucets and accumulate in drinking or cooking water. He noted that although boiling water kills bacteria, it concentrates the lead making it more toxic.
In a 2009 study conducted by Dr. Mark Edwards of the Washington D.C. water crisis, he found that after boiling a pot of pasta in contaminated water less than 5 percent of the lead particulate poured off. By having one serving of the pasta one would ingest around a dime size lead paint chip.
“For anyone that says drinking water from these pipes is safe are disingenuous. The water is not safe,” Miranda said.
As the price of lead line replacement falls directly on the homeowner, the city has been working to find funding for the replacements. In the recent 2017 City Budget it included funding for filters and replacement of some service lines.
A proposal to mandate full service line replacement in emergencies and other situations was also presented by the Finance and Personnel Committee Nov. 14.
In the meantime, Brenda Coley, co-director of Milwaukee Water Commons, offered two easy preventative steps: flush the water before drinking or cooking and use a water filtration system.
Flushing the faucet relieves the pipes of any water with lingering lead particles. Filters clean around 97 percent of the particles, and can be picked up for around $30 or free from the City of Milwaukee and its partnership with A.O. Smith Corp. and United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County.
Miranda said that flushing the pipes and water filters were crucial, but were only temporary until the City figures a way to pay for all the lead laterals whether it is the homeowner’s or city owned. FLAC has offered the idea for the city to focus on the pipes and homeowners put money towards lead fixtures lingering inside the house.
“The City created this problem, so the city needs to fix this problem,” Miranda said.