Blood sample positive with lead metal test. (Getty Images)
Gov. Tony Evers is asking lawmakers to include more than $300 million in the state’s 2023-25 budget to address childhood lead poisoning in Wisconsin, including programs for expanded testing and treatment as well as investments in housing rehabilitation and replacing lead municipal water service lines.
Across the state, there are neighborhoods where more than one child in 10 has lead poisoning, according to state health data.
“Lead poisoning is a statewide problem,” said Maeve Pell, an epidemiologist in the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS), at a briefing held in the Capitol Friday.
“We need to invest our resources appropriately so that we have enough to address the need in Milwaukee but also statewide in many communities,” said Brian Weaver, the lead policy advisor for DHS.
The health department briefing was held both to highlight provisions in Evers’ budget proposal to address lead poisoning and prevention and to unveil a new map-centered database showing the prevalence of lead poisoning cases around the state in children younger than 6. The department has posted the database on its website.
No safe level for lead
Weaver and Pell both emphasized that there is no safe level of lead in the human body. At the same time, they said, lead poisoning is completely preventable.
“Even low levels of lead in the blood have been associated with decreased intelligence, behavioral difficulties and hearing and speech problems,” Weaver said.
Untreated lead poisoning in young children can leave lifelong, invisible scars, from learning disabilities to violence — outcomes that “are believed to be irreversible,” he said. “It costs society at large by increasing medical costs and public health expenses for surveillance and case management, increasing use of special education services, increasing high school dropout rates and juvenile crime and producing a lifelong loss of earnings.”
Two principal sources of lead in the environment where children can be exposed are paint in older homes and older water pipes that were made with lead.
The federal government banned the use of lead paint in homes in 1978, but as many as 350,000 homes in Wisconsin still have lead paint. If it’s painted over and well sealed, the risk is small, Weaver said, but in older homes where the paint is peeling or creating dust that can settle on toys or other objects that young children might put their mouths on, the chances of exposure are much greater.
Wisconsin ranks 11 among U.S. states for the oldest housing stock, he added, increasing the likelihood of risk in the Dairy State.
Lead water service lines are another common way children can be exposed — not just from drinking tap water, but drinking anything that is mixed with that water, from infant formula to juice.
Also taking part in the DHS briefing was Maria Beltran, a Milwaukee grandmother who cares for two grandchildren and has been doing outreach for a project in the city to teach residents about hazards of lead in their homes and ways to address the risk.
She said her grandchildren have both been found to have elevated lead levels.
“I still have lead based plumbing in my basement, because my home was built in 1909,” Beltran said. “And I’m also connected to a lead service line.” But she and many in her community have been unable to afford the cost of addressing those hazards, she added.
A statewide problem
Weaver said the state’s new mapping tool for lead poisoning data “can be used to identify where the risk of lead exposure is greater.” Public health agencies can use that to target efforts to test children for lead. It can also be used to monitor progress toward eliminating lead poisoning around the state, he said.
The DHS data shows pockets in all four corners of Wisconsin where, from 2018 to 2021, more than 12% of children under 6 have been found to have 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood.
The incidence of high lead levels detected in Wisconsin children has generally been declining over the last two decades — but at the same time, the federal standards for what counts as poisoning have grown more stringent than the state’s 5 microgram threshold.
The current threshold set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was tightened to 3.5 micrograms per deciliter in 2021. Testing in 2021 and 2022 found just under 3,700 children each year whose blood levels exceeded that level
“We have made a large amount of progress in [reducing] lead poisoning in Wisconsin,” Pell said. “But we still have a long way to go because there is no level of lead in the blood that is safe, and lead poisoning is 100% preventable.”
But fewer children are getting tested, she observed. In 2022, 38% of children enrolled in Medicaid in Wisconsin got tested for lead, Pell said — “significantly lower” than in 2019, when half of Medicaid children get a blood lead test, which was “still not good enough.”
Weaver said Evers’ budget proposal has made eliminating childhood lead poisoning a priority. The governor’s proposal includes lowering the state’s definition of lead poisoning to the CDC standard of 3.5 micrograms per deciliter, and requiring a formal public health investigation for every child under 6 whose blood test shows that level of lead.
With that change alone, “thousands of additional children will be provided critical public health services to prevent further exposure to lead hazards and address any health issues,” Weaver said.
The budget proposals also include:
- A $17.1 million increase in state aid to local health departments, enabling them to respond to childhood lead poisoning cases in their communities.
- A $9.2 million increase in funding for screening children from birth to age 3 for lead poisoning at the new lower level.
- $200 million to replace lead service lines throughout Wisconsin through the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. That would add to more than $100 million that Wisconsin will receive from the federal government under the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law — which by itself would not be enough to replace the 170,000 lead service lines in the state, Weaver said.
- A change to state law allowing local water utilities to provide grants to property owners for the full cost of replacing lead service lines, rather than half the cost as currently permitted.
- A $100 million increase in funding for housing rehabilitation loans through the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority, to abate lead paint hazards among other improvements.
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