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Lead pipes

Corroded lead pipes in Flint, Michigan. Individuals reporting on the water crisis in Flint earned a previous Hillman Prize.

Late last week there was an article in the Wisconsin State Journal announcing that lead testing conducted in the Madison Metropolitan School District revealed that six schools in Madison have lead levels higher than the national standard, including East High School, Sherman Middle School, and Lapham and Lowell elementary schools. The other two of the schools listed in the article — Blackhawk Middle School and Gompers Elementary School — are not only located in the heart of my 48th Assembly District, they are where all of my kids have gone to school.

I was, quite frankly, terrified by the news that my children — our children — are sent to school every day, where simply taking a drink from a drinking fountain could have detrimental, lifelong consequences.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Lead and Copper Rule dictates that if a collected water sample has lead levels exceeding 15 parts per billion, treatments to corrosion control and source water, lead service line replacement, and public education are needed. All six Madison schools had at least one water fountain that tested above 15 ppb.

However, for young children who are still developing and growing, the Centers for Disease Control has determined that no blood lead level is safe. Any lead is too much lead. Period.

And the Centers for Disease Control has also found that Wisconsin children have higher lead levels than children in many other states.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, lead exposure consequences can range from subtle effects on a person’s nervous system, to severe impacts on brain, kidney, and reproductive systems, to acute poisoning causing death. Even minor lead exposure can cause irreversible damage to the child’s mental and physical development, often resulting in reduced attention span and learning disabilities. Those consequences, then, don’t just stop at the individual’s own health: A report by the state Department of Health Services shows lead poisoning in children is correlated with higher high school dropout rates, delinquent juvenile behavior, and ultimately more significant costs to our society and our state.

It’s time for the Wisconsin Legislature to stop playing politics to start addressing the lead crisis in Wisconsin. As MMSD’s recent lead level tests demonstrate, even cities like Madison, which replaced all of its lead pipes 16 years ago, are not impervious to serious lead-related issues. But the fact is, most cities in Wisconsin aren’t Madison; many communities do still have lead pipes.

From Douglas to Manitowoc, Milwaukee to Marathon, and Brown to Rock, counties across Wisconsin have more than 176,000 lead services lines delivering water to homes and businesses. And it’s not just our water and pipes — Wisconsin’s number of old homes with lead-based paint is higher than average, and soil in areas around Wisconsin have high lead concentrations, affecting our locally grown crops and agriculture.

Although several lead-related bills have been introduced this session, many of which I personally support, we can and must do more to substantively address lead contamination and exposure. We’re far from leading on this issue, and the longer we kick the can down the road, the more disastrous the crisis and the more it will cost our state in the long run. Lead poisoning is 100 percent preventable, and addressing it now is not only good public policy, it’s also cost-efficient.

We need meaningful, comprehensive solutions to prevent the continued exacerbation of lead-related issues, and I can think of no better issue to demonstrate the Legislature’s capacity to transcend partisanship than on addressing the lead crisis in Wisconsin.

Melissa Sargent is a state representative in the Wisconsin Assembly, representing the 48th Assembly District, which covers the east and north side of the city of Madison and the town of Maple Bluff.

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