Milwaukee Opens Free Lead Testing Clinics After Families Go Untold About Potential Lead Exposure

Nearly 100 Families Call Milwaukee's Free Lead Hotline By Day 3

A registered nurse draws a student's blood for a lead test.
Carlos Osorio/AP Photo

The Milwaukee Health Department launched a lead hotline and began offering free lead testing this week to families that may not have been notified that their children tested positive for lead exposure within the past three years.

The move comes as the city remains under scrutiny for its management of the city’s continued lead problem.

The hotline will be available during daytime hours all week and the three separate clinics are going to run three hours a day, four days a week. There is no scheduled end date for the hotline and free lead testing clinics.

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Milwaukee resident Theresa Abelew brought her 3-year-old son to one of the clinics Tuesday on the south side of Milwaukee to take the health department up on the offer. She lives in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Milwaukee’s north side where lead exposure is more common.

One of the three free lead testing clinics the Milwaukee Health Department has opened. This one is located on the south side of Milwaukee. Ximena Conde/WPR

“We’ve been going through the system for a while now, and we just thought this would be a better opportunity, rather than paying out of pocket for all the lead testing we’ve done in the past,” Abelew said.

Abelew said she lives in an older home where lead paint has been a problem for her son.

“We’ve got a 5-year-old daughter and her lead levels are fine,” Abelew explained. “So it’s a little frustrating having two different levels in the same house and not knowing exactly what we need to do.”

On Monday, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett stressed that lead paint is the larger source of exposure compared to lead in the drinking water.

Parents can learn how to reduce lead exposure by calling the hotline.

By the end of the day Wednesday, roughly 100 families had called the hotline, said Sarah DeRoo, a spokeswoman for the Milwaukee Health Department. That’s a big jump since Monday, when Barrett said a dozen calls were received.

DeRoo said the city has yet to tally how many families have gone to clinics. But when Abelew and her son went, only a handful of families were there to get tested.

The free clinics and hotline follow the resignation of Bevan Baker, the city’s former health commissioner, who left the post earlier this month after it was reported the Milwaukee Health Department couldn’t confirm it had reached out to about 1,500 potentially affected families that their children may be in need of follow-up testing. The city’s health department sent out a total of about 6,500 letters Friday and Monday to potentially affected families notifying them of the free lead testing clinics.

Barrett said primary care physicians who ran the tests revealing exposure at the time likely followed-up with most if not all families for additional testing when the results first came in. Barrett said the letters were out of an “abundance of caution” because the Milwaukee Health Department should have followed up too.

The bulk of the 6,500 letters announcing the services were sent out Monday of this week.