CBS 58 Investigates: Lead poisoning in the suburbs
WAUWATOSA (CBS 58) – Lead poisoning is not just a city problem, it can happen anywhere, especially in communities with older homes and buildings and parents need to take precautions.
When Meghan Ariotti’s son, Matty, started crawling, she knew she had to baby proof her house, she also started thinking about other hazards, including, the home itself.
“I know that lead is a potential thing in older homes specifically,” Ariotti said. “This house was built in 1885.”
Ariotti got her son tested for lead poisoning at 6 months and his levels were fine. But when he was tested again at one year his level was 5.9 micrograms per deciliter. The Centers for Disease Control considers anything above 5 micrograms per deciliter to be lead poisoned.
“I was a little panicked,” Ariotti said.
Ariotti lives in Wauwatosa and says she hears about lead poisoning issues in Milwaukee all the time—but not in the suburbs.
“I think people who live outside of the city are just unaware,” Ariotti said.
But lead hazards exist far outside the Milwaukee city Limits.
“If we can start getting the message out there about what the exposures are and what people can do to mitigating those exposures early on, then we’re addressing the problem even before it becomes an issue for kids,” said Ann Christiansen, the health director of the Northshore Health Department, which covers Bayside, Brown Deer, Fox Point, Glendale, River Hills, Shorewood and Whitefish Bay.
Those exposures are typically paint, soil and water, and exist mostly in older homes. Homes built before 1978 are likely to have some lead paint. Homes built before 1986 are more likely to have lead pipes, and homes built before 1953 likely have lead service lines, which bring the water from the main in to the home.
“If you look at our region about 60 percent of our homes were built before 1978 so we’re going to make assumptions that many of those, if not most of those homes have some level of lead paint in them,” Christansen said.
When it comes to service lines, several suburban communities have a large percentage made of lead.In Shorewood 90 percent of homes have lead service lines, West Allis is about 34 percent, South Milwaukee is about 32 percent and Wauwatosa is about 50 percent.
When Ariotti’s son tested positive for lead poisoning, the Wauwatosa Health department visited her home to help find the source.
“They said every surface of this house had lead paint on it,” Ariotti said.
The Wauwatosa Health Department declined to be interviewed for this story.
Ariotti says she also did some research and found her home has lead service lines. So she got a water filter.
“Once we switched to that filter, his lead level again is like undetectable,” Aroitti said. “And we never abated anything. There was never paint removal.”
Christansen says when her health department does home visits they too focus on paint sources, but she adds it’s important to consider every source, including water.
“It’s not one source that people are going to get exposed,” Christiansen said. “We still keep the message on about paint and dust and the hazards there but water can be a source of exposure for people in certain conditions, in certain homes.”
In 2016 about two percent of kids tested in the Northshore Health department region had lead poisoning. In Wauwatsoa about 1.8 percent of kids tested were poisoned, but one problem in the suburbs is fewer kids are actually getting tested.
“In our region as well, we know that the number of kids tested have gone down over the years,” Christansen said.
In fact a 2016 Wisconsin Department of Health Services report shows the number of kids tested declined between 2010 and 2016. And while kids on Medicaid are required to be tested for lead poisoning, others aren’t.
“Parents need to advocate for their kids if they want this test done,” Christiansen said. She adds that her health department is working with pediatricians to encourage more testing.
Ariotti says she had to ask for the test and encourages all parents, no matter what city they live in, to do the same.
Ariotti says she did take a sample of her water and sent it to be tested for lead and she’s still waiting for results.
As for the paint, experts say if you keep it in good condition, not chipping, it can help limit the risk for kids. If you do have it removed, you need a lead certified contractor to do it.
For more information about preventing lead poisoning click here.