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Lead afflicts more than Flint

Brandon who was hospitalized for severe lead poisoning from paint chips when he was 1, almost 20 years ago, stands in front of the house where he lived in Milwaukee. The photograph was taken Nov. 30. He only wished for first name to be used. Darren Hauck / Reuters

The city of Superior enjoys a colorful history that dates back to the mid-1800s. That can be a problem when it comes to lead.

Until 1939, water pipes commonly contained lead. The heavy metal wasn't banned from paint until 1978. Older houses can carry a legacy of lead, and it's a toxic one.

There is no such thing as a safe lead blood level in children, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect IQ, the ability to pay attention and academic achievement.

The dangers of lead poisoning caught the world's attention after children in Flint, Mich., were exposed to lead in drinking water. In 2015, a year after the city changed its water source to more corrosive river water, the percentage of Flint children with elevated blood-lead levels had risen to 5 percent.

Flint is no aberration, according to a recent Reuters article by M.B. Pell and Joshua Schneyer.

"In all, Reuters found nearly 3,000 areas with recently recorded lead poisoning rates at least double those in Flint during the peak of that city's contamination crisis," they wrote in their Dec. 19 article.

According to Wisconsin's environmental public health tracking program, at least one area in Superior fit that description. Data collected from 2010-2014 shows that about 3.7 percent of children tested for lead in Douglas County had elevated levels in their blood. However, more than 10 percent of the children living in the area around the University of Wisconsin-Superior who were screened had high lead levels. Children from two other neighborhoods had rates of lead poisoning that were more than 9 percent, according to the site.

Reuters found the poisoned places on the map stretched from Pennsylvania to Texas. Like Flint, many of the localities were plagued by legacy lead: crumbling paint, plumbing or industrial waste left behind.

According to the CDC, the threshold for elevated blood lead levels is 5 milligrams per deciliter for children under age 6. The agency is considering lowering that by 30 percent to help better identify children afflicted by the heavy metal. While no level of lead exposure is safe for children, those who test at or above that level warrant a public health response, according to the agency.

The state environmental tracking program showed that nearly 7 percent of the children in one area of Superior (Hammond to Elmira avenues and North 16th street to North 34th Street) had highly elevated lead levels, more than twice the CDC threshold, in 2010-2014. Another 4.5 percent of children tested in the university area had the same high levels.

Life, unleaded

Although water mains got the lion's share of attention in Flint, the CDC pegged lead-based paint and dust contaminated with lead as the most hazardous sources of lead for children in the United States.

"Approximately 24 million housing units have deteriorated leaded paint and elevated levels of lead-contaminated house dust," according to the CDC. "More than 4 million of these dwellings are homes to one or more young children."

What can be done?

Douglas County Health Officer Kathy Ronchi said parents can contact their primary doctors to set up lead tests. The county no longer screens children for lead.

Most Wisconsin children are tested at 12 months of age, but the incidence of lead poisoning is highest a year later. State data reveals that half as many children were tested at age 2, but more than twice as many of the 2-year-olds were first found to be lead poisoned.

Residents should be aware of the condition of the paint in their homes. Chipping, peeling paint can expose children to lead. So can older toys and toys imported from other countries.

Douglas County does offer lead risk assessments to residents with young children who have concerns about their living space. To set up an assessment, call 715-395-1304.

What about water, Flint's bane?

Superior has about 3,500 lead service lines leading to residences and businesses, according to Tim Melby, manager for gas and water operations at Superior Water, Light and Power. But that's only part of the picture. The utility company only manages pipes to the property line.

"We know how many we have," Melby said. "We don't know how many customers have."

When Superior Water, Light and Power replaces a main, they get the lead out by replacing everything to the property line.

"Over the past five years, we've replaced five and a half miles of water pipe," Melby said. No statistics were available on what percentage of them contained lead.

When lead service lines are replaced, Superior Water Light and Power attempts to contact customers in the area to let them know. Because if it's lead on the utility's side, Melby said, chances are it's lead on the homeowner's side too.

The utility company adjusts pH balance to minimize corrosion and adds a corrosion inhibitor to water that forms a thin coating on the inside of the pipe. Employees also test and monitor for lead monthly at sample sites.

"We've never had anything that gets to the concern level," Melby said.

Water can absorb lead from pipes if it sits too long. Both Melby and Ronchi advised residents to run the water for at least 30 seconds to 2 minutes before using it, to clear the standing water from their pipes and reach the "fresh" water from the city lines. For example, Melby said, people could take a shower before making coffee in the morning. Residents should use only cold water for cooking or drinking, as hot water is more likely to absorb lead.

A number of municipalities throughout the state have been awarded funds to replace lead service lines in 2017 through the Safe Drinking Water Loan Program. The city of Bayfield will receive $30,000 and the city of Ashland will get $300,000. The funds were only available to municipalities, Melby said, so Superior Water, Light and Power didn't qualify.

Those with a concern about lead in the water can get it tested, Melby said. They can also call the Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 800-426-4791, or visit www.epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water/safe-drinking-water-hotline.

Some occupations involve working in close proximity with lead. Fraser Shipyards Inc. reached an agreement with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration last week to improve safety and reduce a proposed fine stemming from employee exposure to lead from paint and other sources during the 2016 repowering of the Herbert C. Jackson, a 57-year-old Great Lakes freighter.

According to a Wisconsin Department of Health Services report, 100 shipyard workers were found to have elevated blood lead levels. They did not bring their work home with them, however. The report found that none of their children or household members had elevated blood levels.

Eye on Milwaukee

In one section of their story, Pell and Schneyer focused on Milwaukee. They reported that last year in the city, 11.5 percent of children tested had elevated lead, and in a half dozen depressed North Side census tracts, about a third of tests showed poisoning from 2010-2014.

"Federal law requires owners of homes built before 1978, when lead paint was banned, to disclose hazards to tenants or buyers," they wrote. "Pamphlets and warning statements, however, can't make the dwellings safe. Laws that can require owners to remediate lead from properties vary across the country."

Visit www.epa.gov/lead/protect-your-family-lead-your-home-real-estate-disclosure to find links to Environmental Protection Agency pamphlets on lead.

The city still has 135,000 pre-war dwellings with lead paint, and 70,000 with lead water service lines, Pell and Schneyer reported.

They interviewed childhood poisoning victim Brandon, now 20, who lives across the street from the rental house where he was exposed to peeling lead paint.

According to the article: Health records show before age 2, Brandon's levels reached nearly 10 times the current CDC threshold.

He was hospitalized and received chelation treatment. The drugs remove heavy metals from the body and help prevent further damage, but once a child is exposed, the impact can be irreversible.

Brandon, who is easily excited, was at turns cheerful and mournful during an interview. He never finished high school and hasn't held a job. He has cognitive impairment, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and outbursts of anger. He was recently arrested after a dispute with a convenience store clerk over soda pop, and is now on probation.

"Ever since I caught the lead, I've been messed up in the head. I can't control my anger or feelings," Brandon said. "I could have been better than I am."

Reuters reporters M.B. Pell and Joshua Schneyer contributed to this report. Information was also provided by Dee J. Hall with the Wisconsin Centers for Investigative Journalism.

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