Milwaukee given grant for lead hazard control

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the City of Milwaukee Health Department $4.5 million in Lead Hazard Control funds in hopes of combating the city’s everlasting efforts in lead reduction. The initiative will focus on 900 Milwaukee housing units in the coming 42 months.

According to HUD’s “Complete Individual Project Summaries,” the funds are to be used by the health department to “identify and control lead-based paint hazards in privately owned rental or owner-occupied housing.”

This will occur in areas that have been identified as high-risk communities — those with a high number of identified and potentially lead-exposed and poisoned children.

According to the health department, 4.8 percent of children tested in Milwaukee had lead levels equal to or above the acceptable level claimed by the Centers for Disease Control in 2008, 10 nanograms per deciliter. This is triple the national average of 1.6 percent of children.

In 2009, Milwaukee reported a decreasing number, but still remained nearly triple the average with 4.4 percent of children with lead levels greater than the CDC’s advised limit.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett was delighted with the fact that the city received the funds, and he anticipated Milwaukee was a prime candidate for them.

“I am pleased with the funding that has been received by the Health Department’s Home Environment Health Division because it will allow us to continue our fight to protect Milwaukee’s children, who we know are most at risk for lead poisoning,” Barrett said in an e-mail.

Paul A. Biedrzycki, director of Disease Control & Environmental Health for the city’s health department, explained that in Milwaukee, lead poisoning disproportionally affects children of color and low socioeconomic status, but affects everyone regardless.

“We are currently outreaching to the communities in the north and south side of Milwaukee and children ages 6 and under who are at the greatest risk,” Biedrzycki said. “We are using these funds to fight lead poisoning in children before it is contracted.”

The health department is advertising to property owners, not residents, about the federal grant and the impact the renovation of the homes will have, but it is up to the tenants to decide if they want the work done.

If a child is tested for lead poisoning and the result shows a high risk of lead poisoning,  it is reported and the health department orders the tenant to allow renovations.

“The tenants are doing what is best for the families,” Biedrzycki said. “They pay a small portion of the cost, but the federal grant allows us to cover the majority of the certified contractors, windows, labor, etc. This is a primary prevention program, not a last resort.”

Biedrzycki also said 99 percent of homes made in the 1950s or earlier were painted internally and externally with lead-based paint, but it wasn’t until 1978 that lead-based paint was banned.

As a result, Milwaukee and other older cities have numerous homes that need to be made lead safe.  By 1997, 15,000 homes had been made updated by the health department, but there are many more to be changed.

Norah L. Johnson, an assistant professor in the College of Nursing, prioritizes educating her students on lead poisoning and the effects it has on children.

“The most crucial period of development of your brain is from 3 months to 6 years, and this happens to be the prime age in which someone contracts lead poisoning,” Johnson said.

She said children contract lead poisoning in numerous ways. They can touch windowsills, blinds or paint chips, inhale fine dust from baseboards and floorboards, or touch their mouths. Lead passes from a primary source directly to the children’s bodies.

“Children ingest the toxin slowly, and the effects are not witnessed until later.  Commonly, the strongest effects are neurological, and the cognitive ability of the child decreases,” Johnson said.