Preventing Lead Poisoning in Milwaukee

Sixteen Street Community Health Centers staff conduct lead outreach at a home.

Sixteen Street Community Health Centers staff conduct lead outreach at a home.

Concerns about lead poisoning has been much in the news lately and Milwaukee is no exception.  Lead paint remains the leading cause of lead poisoning in Milwaukee [see news article], and children are especially at risk.  Lead poisoning, which is often undetected, can cause decreased bone and muscle growth, poor muscle coordination, damage to the nervous system, kidneys and hearing, speech and language problems, development delays and seizures and unconsciousness.

That is why Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers (SSCHC) works in partnership with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services and the Milwaukee Health Department to develop and implement a one-of-a-kind, bilingual community lead outreach program.  The outreach program combines free home-based outreach and testing, education, and follow-up medical care for children with lead poisoning. SSCHC staff routinely go directly out into the community to ensure that every family living on the city’s near south side is aware of the hazards related to deteriorating lead paint, specifically lead poisoning. The health center also provides free testing for elevated blood lead levels to all children under the age of 6, who are especially susceptible to absorbing and retaining lead due to their small size and growing bodies. SSCHC’s efforts on this front for the past two decades have generated substantial progress in reducing lead exposure among children.

“We are proud of the accomplishments we have made since our Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program was established nearly 20 years ago,” said  Benjamin Gramling, Director of Environmental Health at SSCHC. “Together with the Milwaukee Health Department and other partners, we have figured out how to take meaningful information about environmental lead exposure out into the community and into the hands of tenants and landlords.  Combined with high rates of screening and coordination of care between the clinic and home settings, our outreach activities have generated an unparalleled success.  Prevalence rates have dropped to 1.9% among our client population (6,095 children tested during our most recent program year, threshold of 10ug/dL); when we founded the program, the community-level rates in our neighborhoods were close to 40%.”

A key culprit are the old houses in Milwaukee’s near south neighborhoods, which were built around 1900 using lead-based paint.  The older the paint the more likely it will chip and flake off.  Deteriorating paint chips and dust are the most common source of lead poisoning for small children. The health center’s outreach staff teach homeowners, tenants, parents and landlords how to identify lead paint and assist in abatement strategies.

“While we have made great strides, our prevalence rate still reflects that 114 kids have screened at an elevated level (and nearly 5 times that if applying the lower threshold of 5 ug/dL),” said Gramling.  “Lead is persistent in the environment and we don’t expect this problem to go away anytime soon, nor do we consider the problem solved.”

A nationwide decline in lead poisoning resulted in a tighter federal budget to address lead poisoning.  Yet for Milwaukee, the problem persists.  According to published reports, there may be as many as 140,000 houses that still pose a lead poisoning hazard.


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