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'We don't drink tap water at all': Milwaukee families worry about lead levels in home water supply

Posted at 5:22 PM, May 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-26 19:43:20-04

MILWAUKEE — Milwaukee families are battling a problem you can't see, smell or taste. It is lead. In more than 70,000 homes, it is coming from the service pipes.

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Daisy Hill (left) and Melvin Echols talk about the lead pipes connected to their building as Echols' daughter plays in front of them.

“We don't drink tap water. We don't drink tap water at all. We buy water,” said Melvin Echols, who lives near 1st and Center streets.

“I will not drink the water. I don’t want lead in my body,” said Daisy Hill, who lives in the same building as Melvin.

They are two of more than 70,000 families connected to a lead service pipe in the city.

City of Milwaukee lead service line graphic

As water is pumped out of Lake Michigan, it flows through water mains and finally into a service line that connects to a house. In homes built before 1951, those service lines are likely made of lead. As the water sits in the pipe, it picks up lead.

“I don't even want to shower with it, but I don't have a choice,” said Hill.

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Melvin Echols' daughter has been tested for lead exposure because of the service pipes running to their home.

Melvin has a 5-year-old daughter and is very concerned about her being exposed to lead. Doctors say even at low levels, lead exposure can lead to brain damage in babies and young children. Long-term, it can cause behavioral issues, problems learning and long-term health issues. It is why the city’s health department tests children for lead in their blood.

“She has been tested for lead, but she doesn’t have lead,” said Echols.

U.S. Labor Secretary tackles lead pipe replacement

But there are a lot of families in Milwaukee who do have children dealing with lead exposures.

Milwaukee children under age six exposed to lead:

  • 7.5% - All Milwaukee children
  • 16% - Children in District 15

In 2019, 7.5 percent of children under the age of six in Milwaukee tested positive for high levels of lead in their blood. In the 15th Aldermanic District, between 7th and 51st streets and Locust and Wisconsin Avenue, 16 percent of young children tested positive for high lead levels.

It is why Echols says even though they do not drink the water, the health department says they should continue to test his daughter for exposure.

Melvin Echols and his daughter

“They just recommend to still test, just in case,” said Echols.

The city offers free water filters to homes with lead pipes. You can find out if your home qualities here by looking up your address.

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