Many of us may assume that lead poisoning in children is a thing of the past, a historic phenomenon that disappeared when lead paint was banned in 1978. At the very least, we would assume that lead contamination is confined to cities like Flint, Michigan, which have been widely exposed to the public for the high levels of lead in their water.
But what’s truly jaw-dropping is the fact that the state of Wisconsin has an almost identical rate of lead poisoning to that of Flint, Michigan. That’s right: our beautiful state, with pristine bike paths and modern architecture, has Flint-like levels of lead poisoning - and it affects children of color the most.
While Flint has a 4.9% rate of lead poisoning for children under the age of six, the state of Wisconsin’s rate is 5%.
Even worse, this epidemic of lead poisoning is heavily disparate between white and Black children in Wisconsin. While white children under six in Wisconsin have a 2.8% lead poisoning rate, the rate of lead poisoning for Black children under six in Wisconsin is a whopping 13.2%.
That’s right: more than one in ten Black children under six in Wisconsin has dangerous levels of lead in their bloodstreams!
A major reason that Black children are more likely to be affected by lead poisoning than their white peers is that poor kids - who are disproportionately people of color - are more likely to be contaminated with dangerous levels of lead than wealthier ones.
For instance, across Wisconsin, children under six who receive Medicaid are three times more likely to be affected by lead poisoning than those who don’t receive Medicaid. This is primarily because low-income families are less likely to have their water, paint, and piping adequately inspected and updated, and have more trouble affording treatment.
The economic disparity is so bad that two thirds of children on Medicaid in Wisconsin have not even been tested for lead poisoning in the first place. This is a failure on the part of our government to ensure that every child is tested for lead poisoning, something that is required by federal law.
This epidemic of lead poisoning has devastating effects on children in Wisconsin. Lead in the bloodstream has been statistically correlated with intellectual and learning disabilities, lower IQ, behavioral issues, diminished brain development, miscarriages, aggression, school suspension, and juvenile incarceration.
This is yet another reminder that racial disparities are not just a matter of fairness - they are a matter of success or failure, happiness or depression, and even life or death.
You’d think that the fact that Wisconsin has similar levels of lead poisoning to those of Flint would be a top story for the news media and would be a major priority for our state and local governments. Instead, however, our representatives are sitting idly by and are not taking the necessary steps to combat the problem.
For example, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett’s proposal to combat lead poisoning would take “several decades to complete” and would only fund “up to 700 full lead lateral replacements out of the known 68,300 residential lead pipes that pose a health risk to the public.” In other words, the plan solves just 1% of the problem, and will take decades to do so.
Surely, when people were concerned about the Ebola outbreak, no one said “let’s wait until 2030 to figure this out.” But when it comes to poor Black children suffering from lead poisoning in Wisconsin, complicity is the norm.
A major reason that fixes to lead contamination are not happening is because of money. Fixing lead contamination in Wisconsin alone would cost over a billion dollars, according to some estimates. For this reason, Wisconsin Senate Bill 48, a bill which passed the Wisconsin Legislature on January 23 and was designed to replace lead-contaminated service lines with lead-free ones, deliberately avoided allocating new taxpayer dollars to solving the problem.
But while Wisconsin Representatives might be afraid that removing lead contamination would be too expensive, what they fail to recognize is that combatting lead poisoning actually saves money. If we were to eliminate lead poisoning in Wisconsin, it is estimated that our state would save about $28 billion as a result of decreased medical expenses, reduced crime and juvenile delinquency, and increased high school graduation rates, among other factors.
It comes down to this: Fear of spending taxpayer dollars to eradicate lead contamination is no excuse for failing to solve Wisconsin’s lead poisoning crisis. Instead of spending money on new police officers and new prisons, we need to be spending our limited dollars on new paint and new pipes, so that children in Wisconsin can truly live up to their full potential.
Build the People, Not the Jails!
In order to make any progress, we have to Build our collective understanding and Build collective analysis to advocate for better collaborative solutions.
You can help by Joining our Coalition of Supporters, or by donating here.