Checking water quality

Martha Kuka of Public Health Madison and Dane County records water and beach conditions at Olbrich Park as part of a monitoring program that tracks growth of hazardous bacteria in the water. 

Gov. Tony Evers on Monday announced he would create a new position in his administration to combat lead poisoning in drinking water that has become a concern in some parts of the state.

Through an executive order he signed in Kenosha, Evers will install a coordinator in the Department of Health Services to direct Wisconsin’s state agencies to work together to address lead exposure.

The executive order came the same day Evers and four other Great Lakes governors led by Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer joined in urging 2020 presidential candidates to support a plan to protect the lakes by increasing federal spending on treatment plants and environmental cleanups.

The executive order aimed at lead exposure directs DHS to provide necessary staffing and resources to help local health departments and community organizations to inform people of the risks of lead exposure.

“The Department of Health Services has identified lead-poisoned children in every single county in Wisconsin,” Evers said in a statement. “We know that it will take a collaborative effort to ensure that everyone is able to drink clean water from their tap.”

Wisconsin is one of the top 10 states for the percentage of children found to be lead poisoned after blood lead level testing, according to a 2014 report from DHS.

One in 13 Wisconsin children tested for dangerous levels of lead exposure, according to the report, which also found that 200,000 children under age 6 in Wisconsin have had elevated levels of lead in their blood.

Lead-based paint is a leading source of lead exposure in children’s environments. Such paint was banned in 1978, but persists in many older homes. Lead is also concentrated in some soils, showing up in crops.

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Lead can also be present in drinking water due to water pipes and fixtures made with lead, especially in homes built before 1986.

Lead poisoning happens across the state, but the areas with the highest prevalence include the city of Milwaukee, where about 9% of the children under age 6 tested were found to have lead poisoning, and the city of Racine, where about 6% of the children tested had lead poisoning.

Experts cite old housing stock in those areas as one reason why lead poisoning rates are higher.

Evers’ executive order comes after Republicans on the Legislature’s budget committee cut about $43 million from Evers’ programs aimed at reducing pollution in lakes, streams and drinking water. The governor and Democratic lawmakers wanted to borrow $40 million to help replace lead service lines — pipes that connect homes to water mains under city streets. Republicans rejected the measure, and instead support locally funded programs.

According to Clean Wisconsin, there are about 176,000 lead service lines still in use in Wisconsin, the majority of which are in Milwaukee.

This fall, members of the Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality are expected to propose a series of proposed changes to state law aimed at solving water pollution problems.

The legislation could include added state funding for lead water pipe removal, establishing more protective manure disposal guidelines for vulnerable areas, discouraging spreading of toxic nitrate fertilizer on farm fields where water is susceptible to contamination and establishing remote sensing equipment to detect bacterial algae blooms in lakes.

It also could direct the state to find contamination from hazardous synthetic compounds called PFAS. Separately, the proposal put forward by Great Lakes governors on Monday would call for increased federal funding and standards to address PFAS, which are thousands of toxic chemicals used in household products and firefighting foam that toxicologists have linked to health problems.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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