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Is there lead in Milwaukee's drinking water?

New committee meets to discuss water safety
Posted at 12:19 PM, Sep 16, 2016

MILWAUKEE -- Milwaukee's new Water Quality Task Force met for the first time Friday morning at city hall. 

Alderman James Bohl, the committee's chairman, said the task force was put together as a precaution to explore the problem of lead in the city's drinking water.

The committee is also expected to investigate ways to ensure the long-term health and safety of Milwaukee's drinking water, and ultimately make recommendations on how to do so.

"We need to look for what's hopefully a timely or realistic fix for the matter at hand," Bohl said

According to the city, Milwaukee's drinking water supply is safe, but some of the service lines that pump that water from the city's water mains to various properties contain lead that can seep into the water. 

Properties built earlier than 1951 are the most likely to be serviced by the lead lines.

Service lines that run from the water main to the curb stop are city property, but the service line connecting the curb stop to the water meter are the property of homeowners.

Bevan Baker, the city's Commissioner of Health, said Milwaukee continues to encourage residents to invest in water filters.

He said the use of a filter, whether it be a pitcher or one that is mounted onto a faucet, reduces the lead hazard of drinking or cooking by 98 percent.

"The addition of home water filtration is an excellent downstream method to reduce lead hazards," Baker said.

Baker said the cheapest filters, which are pitchers, start at around $15.

The city has crafted a list of of filters that are acceptable for preventing lead in tap water. It's available to view here.

Baker said the city is also in discussions with charitable organizations interested in providing filters to some of Milwaukee's low-income residents free of charge.

Committee member Ghassan Korban, Milwaukee's Commissioner of Public Works, said residents would of course be responsible for maintaining and replacing filters once they're installed

Baker said children six and under, as well as women who are pregnant or nursing, are most at risk of lead poisoning.

He said all children six and under should be tested for lead by a doctor.

Baker also said very young kids should be tested three times by the age of three years old.

Bohl cautioned that lead service lines aren't the only way water can become contaminated. He said the plumbing inside a home can also be a factor.

"If we want to say to folks that the only thing to consider is, if you are going to consider a filter, to do so only if you have a lead service line, I don't know that that's fully accurate," Bohl said. "And I don't know that it's fully accurate to say there's a perfect solution of remove the lead service line and we're out of the woods." 

The EPA requires all communities to regularly test their drinking water for lead. 
 
Milwaukee qualifies for what's called reduced monitoring because of the city's previous testing results. It now tests for lead every three years. 
 
The testing is taken at 50 homes that are identified as most at risk for lead content in their pipes. 
 

Residents collect the samples themselves, said Carrie Lewis, Superintendent of Water Works. 

She said the same homes are tested repeatedly in an effort to see if the city's corrosion control treatment is working over time. According to the city website, corrosion control treatment involves treating water with a compound that forms a protective coating inside pipes. 

The treatment, which Milwaukee has been providing since 1996, is supposed to prevent lead from dissolving into the water. 

Bohl said the mayor will soon submit his next proposed city budget. Council members expect it will include a comprehensive plan to guard against lead in Milwaukee's drinking water, including the removal of lead service lines, Bohl said.