Watching Out For Lead in Water

 In Feature

by Barbara Haig

Many people who move to Washington Heights are here because of our beautiful housing stock – some homes dating back to before 1900 and almost all built before 1950.

When these lovely bungalows, duplexes and cottages were built, the city connected water service using that era’s standard: Lead pipes. Inexpensive and durable at the time, we now know that the lead can dissolve into the water.

We also know that lead can be very damaging, most notably in children. According to EPA, It can impact normal physical and mental development in babies and young children, cause deficits in the attention span, hearing, and learning abilities of children, and increase blood pressure in adults.

That’s why it’s important to be aware of the city’s ongoing efforts to replace lead service lines with copper and take care with how you use tap water, especially if you have children at home.

Replacing Pipes

Fortunately, Milwaukee is not in a situation like Flint, Michigan, which has had to use bottled water for months because it stopped using corrosion control and lead leached into city water supplies. The Milwaukee Water Works (MWW) has provided corrosion control since 1996 to meet Environmental Protection Agency regulations. In fact, MWW has been honored many times for its work.

But Milwaukee leaders are still concerned, and MWW is starting to replace both the city-owned and privately owned sections of the lead service lines with copper. Right now, this is only required if a lead service line is found to be leaking or is damaged during planned construction. The city will hire a contractor to do the work, and the homeowner will be able to pay the city back over time.

And there’s more changes in the works. In April, the city’s Water Quality Task Force (WQTF) approved a report including nearly 20 recommendations, especially encouraging the city to accelerate the removal and/or rehabilitation of lead service lines. Other suggestions include:

  • Promote and support lead-removing water filtration systems as the most thorough means of lead-water safety.
  • Educate residents regarding internal plumbing as a source of lead.
  • Support mandatory testing of water in schools and day care centers.
  • Continuously evaluate lead service line lining and coating technologies or other emerging technologies that may present themselves as cost-effective and safe alternatives to lead service line removal.

The full council is scheduled to vote May 31 for final approval of the recommendations. The next step is implementation.

Action on lead pipes is a priority for Alderman Michael Murphy, who represents part of Washington Heights. “I’m fully supportive of the task force’s recommendations. Moving lead pipes is a challenge for all cities, and I’m looking to see what the mayor does (in the budget) for 2018,” he said.

Murphy also said he supports a state legislative proposal to allow local water utilities to offer grants or low- or no-interest loans to homeowners to replace lead pipes if the City is already in the process of replacing the section of water service. He hopes to provide more information on all the water issues in a special mailing later this summer.

Action Steps

Short of immediately replacing your lead service lines and household plumbing that may be made of lead (which can cost up to $5,000), here are some actions you can take to keep your family safer:

  • First, next time you have a plumber over, ask him or her to check to see if you have lead internal pipes. They may have been replaced years ago.
  • Always run your faucet until it’s cold, especially after extended periods of no use, such as first thing in the morning, after work, or upon returning from vacation. Showering, doing laundry and flushing the toilet also help clear water from the pipes.
  • Use only cold water for cooking and drinking. Water from the hot water tap can dissolve more lead quicker than cold water.
  • Once a month, clean your faucet aerators to remove debris.
  • Have your water tested for lead.
  • Purchase a home filtration system at a hardware store, or contact the city about its limited supply of free drinking water filter starter kits.

If you have children, here are some additional suggestions:

  • Only use bottled water from a known lead-free source or cold, filtered tap water (use an NSF/ANSI Standard 53 certified water filtration device) to make formula, concentrated juices, and for cooking and drinking.
  • If using water directly from the faucet, use only cold water that has been well-flushed for a minimum of three minutes.
  • Have kids’ blood lead level tested. The City of Milwaukee Health Department advises parents and health care providers to follow the “3 before 3” guidance by testing children for elevated blood lead levels three times before the age of 3.

As much as everyone encourages water conservation, it’s also important to be healthy. The cost to flush four taps for 10 minutes is about 16 cents, and if you’d like, you can collect the water you’re flushing and use it for gardening.

What about Vliet Street?

With all the street construction on Vliet, some residents may be concerned about disturbing lead service lines and dislodging lead.  According to the Department of Public Works, the work on Vliet is activity by private utilities in advance of a high-impact DPW paving project. Water sampling has determined this type of paving does not disturb lead service lines, so notices were not mailed.


Milwaukee Water Works: or (414) 286-2830

City of Milwaukee Health Department: or (414) 286-3521

Water Quality Task Force Report Website 

WQTF Recommendations – 

Lead-Safe Milwaukee –

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