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After years of improvement, the number of Milwaukee children poisoned by lead increases

MILWAUKEE -- The number of Milwaukee children poisoned by lead has gone up in consecutive years after two decades of improvements, according to numbers provided by the city's troubled Health Department.

In 2017, 859 children in the city had blood-lead levels of 10 mgc/dL, more than two times the federal standard for government intervention. It's an increase from 815 children a year earlier and 760 in 2015.

Health officials have scrambled to explain a growing number of problems within their department. Mayor Tom Barrett has revealed that the agency may not have properly notified thousands of families whose children tested high for lead, resulting in the resignation of Health Commissioner Bevan Baker.

Health officials also said this week they had not fully implemented a lead-prevention plan that was mandated more than six weeks ago. The Milwaukee Common Council approved that plan on a 15-0 vote in November, and Barrett signed it Dec. 6.

Tom Barrett

"Over the last 20 years, we have made remarkable progress in this city. I want to continue that tradition," Barrett told reporters after Common Council spent four hours asking him questions during a meeting that was partly done in front of the public and partly behind closed doors.

The percentage of Milwaukee children with high levels of lead in their blood has fallen dramatically since 1997, when more than 30 percent of the city's children tested high. The percentage fell to 2.8 percent in 2014 before ticking back up for the past three years to 3.4 percent in 2017.

"Incidence and prevalence fluctuate from year to year, and can reflect things like targeted testing efforts in high-risk areas," Sarah DeRoo, a health department spokeswoman, said in an email. "We are watching this data very carefully to see if an increase continues."

Separately, DeRoo said health officials are working to implement the city's lead-prevention plan mandated in December.

Under the resolution, the agency must give written recommendations to clinicians to explain how the city expanded the at-risk population to include children up to 6 years old and women between the ages of 15 to 45. Health Department leaders told Common Council members on Wednesday that the recommendations were "in process."

"We have been working with medical providers to better understand what tools they need to actually carry out the recommended testing and are working with them to develop those tools," DeRoo said.

Health officials said between 500 and 8,000 families may not have received letters from the city informing them that their children had tested high for lead. The problem dates back to 2015, Barrett has said. Health officials do not know where in the city those families live.

Barrett held a news conference Friday to explain the botched response and announced Baker had resigned. He said the city is conducting investigations but has refused to say how many other employees have resigned or been disciplined.

Baker did not sign a non-disclosure agreement and did not receive a severance package other than being paid for unused vacation time, the city's retirement office said Thursday.

Sherrie Tussler

Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the Hunger Task Force, said she didn't think the Health Department officials have been forthcoming about mistakes made at the agency.

"It’s basic information we could’ve given, should’ve given, haven’t given," Tussler said in an interview. "(The Health Department) has made an active decision not to inform people, even when their children have been poisoned."

Tussler's organization is involved with lead-prevention efforts, especially as it relates to providing lead-mitigating foods that are high in iron, calcium and Vitamin C.

She said Milwaukee residents need to get more information about whether lead paint is in their homes and whether they have lead water service lines. A water filter is a good option for the estimated 68,300 Milwaukee homes that do have those lead lines, she said.