Lead pipes in America have been the cause of several ongoing water crises throughout the nation. Every state in the country at one time or another has, is, or will experience the problems of lead toxicity in the water supply. Wisconsin’s efforts to eliminate lead pipes is getting a boost of federal funding, with the state expected to receive $48 million next year to replace lead water service lines. The money comes from the $841 million package approved by bipartisan support, known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
According to Public Service Commission data, approximately 173,052 lead service lines still remained across the state in 2020. More than 40 percent of these lines were located in Milwaukee. Limited funding and labor shortages have hindered the majority of progress within the state, and certain cities, from solving this problem completely. “The bipartisan infrastructure law will help pick up the pace of this work so that we can replace more lead service lines each and every single year, and allow us to expand our program beyond its current limitations,” Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson said at a press conference, “Lead accumulates in the body over time, and it’s got serious negative health effects, especially on our youngest residents.” Children under 6 who are exposed to lead have a higher chance of developing lifelong issues, including brain damage, slowed growth, difficulty in school and lowered IQ.
The issue is especially dire for low-income people and communities of color. “My son was hospitalized not once, but twice due to lead poisoning,” said Deanna Branch, a member of the Coalition on Lead Emergency and the mother of two children who had lead poisoning. “But I am not alone. So many moms and parents are going through the same thing that I went through.” In a 2020 test of about 65,000 children under the age of 6 in the state, 3.3 percent tested above 5 micrograms per deciliter – an amount that contributes to decreased intelligence and behavior difficulties. In the city of Milwaukee, 5.5 percent tested above that level.
Robert Miranda, Get the Lead Out Coalition Steering Committee member, has said the funding is still not enough. “These pipes have a life expectancy of 60 to 70 years,” he said. “The pipes we have in the state and in Milwaukee especially have passed that expiration date two-fold, and as they continue to get older, the particulate matter that is released increases and the danger to the community increases as well.” The Public Service Commission has estimated that it will cost $750 million just to replace Milwaukee’s lead service lines.
Some cities within the state have successfully replaced their lead water lines, such as Madison, where all 8,000 known lines were replaced with copper piping. In 2020, Green Bay completed its five-year project to remove more than 2,000 pipelines.