Officials accused of failing to notify families of elevated lead levels in kids; mayor is “angry, disappointed”

MILWAUKEE -- Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett announced on Friday, January 12th that officials with the Milwaukee Health Department (MHD) failed to adequately notify families of children who have been tested for lead -- and exhibited elevated levels of lead in their blood. The mayor said there has been "mismanagement and significant shortfalls in how (the MHD) follows up with families."

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett

"I am angry, disappointed," said Mayor Barrett."

The mayor indicated every year approximately 25,000 children receive blood lead tests from a clinic or health provider. In Milwaukee, Barrett said around 3,000 of those tests come back as "elevated." Barrett said each health provider has a duty to notify any families of results indicating elevated lead levels -- and then conduct follow-up testing. The mayor believes this has indeed been happening.

Mayor Barrett said the Milwaukee Health Department receives the same reports -- and is supposed to notify the family of the result  -- and take appropriate action. That notification could be in the form of a letter or a home visit.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett

"It is not clear whether this occurred consistently," Barrett said, referring to the health department's part in the two-part notification. "Out of an abundance of caution, we are sending a communication to every family with a child with an elevated blood level."

The city will be sending out approximately 8,000 letters.

"In addition, 6,000 of these letters are going to families with lowest threshold of elevated lead levels," Barrett said.

These letter cover three years of testing.

Bevan Baker

Mayor Barrett said he was made aware of this lead testing problem last week. Alderman Michael Murphy said he got wind of the lead testing problem in late December -- and sent a letter to Health Commissioner Bevan Baker.

"I've asked the mayor to be transparent and forthright with the citizens of this community -- and at the same time, I believe it's appropriate for the council to investigate this matter and get to the bottom of it," Murphy said.

The mayor said he met with Baker -- and both agreed it was best that he resign.

The Milwaukee Common Council issued the following statement related to this issue:

"Today members of the Common Council learned that officers of the Milwaukee Health Department failed to ensure adequate notification of thousands of families whose children tested positive for elevated lead levels in their blood. This is an egregious public health failure that was in direct non-compliance with procedures put forth by Common Council resolution.

"We will move forward to hold the executive branch accountable for this very serious failure and we will investigate in depth to determine what processes, procedures, or other matters, if any, have been ignored, not complied with, or have been mishandled by the Health Department. The protection of our children must remain our highest priority. Our review of this matter will be handled with a seriousness appropriate to a failure of this magnitude.

"This marks a new day in the Common Council’s dealings with this administration with regard to policy, in general, and with appointments, in particular. We will exercise a new level of scrutiny and we will demand a new level of accountability.

"Our fact-finding and review efforts into these matters will begin during a special Steering and Rules Committee meeting open to all Council members at 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday, January 17, 2018."

Alderman Mark Borkowski

Alderman Mark Borkowski issued the following statement:

"For an extended period of months, citizen activists have sounded an alarm about the City of Milwaukee’s lead water crisis and the slow response to it by the Barrett Administration. The single most serious threat to public health (maybe of all time) yet there have been times when things just didn’t seem right or add up about the city’s response.

"Today, we learn that the Milwaukee Health Department failed to ensure adequate notification of thousands of families whose children tested positive for elevated lead levels in their blood. This huge failure stretching back to 2015 – according to the Mayor – was just brought to his attention earlier this week.

"I find it a bit strange that the Mayor waits until today – Friday – (and the afternoon) to address the media about this huge failure. I have a feeling that there’s something strange going on here and I am certainly not buying everything the Mayor is telling us right now.

"Some of us on the Council question all of the numbers that the Health Department has been dispensing, and I think the fair question is “are any of the numbers released by the Health Department over the past 15 years accurate?”

"We have a primary, critical duty to protect the health and safety of our citizens and especially our children. I look forward to the Council’s investigation into this matter and, if need be, will encourage an investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office or the state Attorney General to understand the totality and depth of this crisis.

"Anything short of that will be a gross failure on the part of the city."

The problems with the lead prevention program have aldermen looking for answers.

"One thing that is for sure, is there's going to be some very dramatic and very serious action that's going to take place," said Milwaukee Aldermen Tony Zielinski.

Others are demanding more accountability.

"I don't want to say that this is going to be the next Flint, Michigan, but you know what? It sure kind of looks like it," said Milwaukee Aldermen Mark Borkowski.