PAREN(T)HESIS — Milwaukee tap water safety

November 2, 2016

By Jill Rothenbueler Maher

NEW Jill Maher Headshot Dec 2013We often hear that children can drown in a very small amount of water. To help stay safe, parents take their children to swimming lessons at St. Ann Center or Milwaukee Recreation. But recently we’ve been reminded that water can harm children in a very different way: it can contain lead which harms children when ingested. Kids should have zero lead in their bodies and they should be tested for it as many as three times by age three.

Lead can enter our water through several sources, and a big concern is the pipe that runs from the water main into the home. For homes built before 1947, which includes mine and all my local friends’ homes, the pipe contains lead unless it was replaced. When water sits idle in that pipe, it can pick up the lead and carry it into our home and through our faucets.

Water concerns take me back to childhood. People who lived in the greater Milwaukee area in 1993 certainly remember the cryptosporidium outbreak that year. We heard about restaurants getting ice shipped from Chicago to ensure it was safe. Cryptosporidium jokes temporarily replaced ones about the Bears or Vikings.

At my parents’ home in an older New Berlin neighborhood, I was consuming water from a private well unaffected by the outbreak. But hearing about Milwaukee’s water issue from the nightly news on the kitchen TV meant that many of us looked at a glass of water in a different way. Then the fear waned and worrywarts got more concerned with things like BPA getting into food from can linings and plastic bottles.

Local Lead Concern

Now that I live in beloved Bay View, I was concerned when I heard Mayor Barrett warning residents about the city’s drinking water and recommending home filters. The concern doesn’t end at the doorstep. We received a letter that Milwaukee Public Schools is testing the water our daughter sips from the school bubbler, and my husband and I both drink tap water at Milwaukee workplaces.

Friends say they are very worried about the safety of drinking water, especially for their children. It seems reasonable that in smaller bodies, contaminants can have a larger effect. Infants drinking formula made with tap water may be getting constant doses of lead from their earliest days. The way I see it, kids’ health is more of a worry than our adult bodies, which aren’t doing the hard work of growing.

The attitude seems to be worry mixed with feeling overwhelmed, when they research filters. Despite the concern, being overwhelmed can lead to inaction. I myself wonder whether our refrigerator’s filter is adequate but haven’t taken the time to research it. Unfortunately we can’t just fill jugs at the Pryor Avenue artesian well and feel safe because it’s afflicted with excessively high strontium levels.

Recent concern about the quality of drinking water reaches beyond Milwaukee. We’ve probably all heard about massive problems in Flint, Mich., and I recently learned of less publicized problems with well contamination in Kewaunee County and Door County, Wis. There, the issue is not from lead pipes but from contaminants due to agricultural use of manure. As many as one third of Door County’s wells are contaminated according to the Green Bay Press Gazette’s reporting on comments made by State Rep. Joel Kitchens. Door County is typically considered a wealthy area so its problems illustrate that unsafe drinking water isn’t an issue that affects only impoverished urban areas.

Here at home, I plan to keep doing what our home inspector recommended when we purchased our home years ago — make sure we don’t consume the water that was lying stagnant in the main overnight. For example, upon waking in the morning I’m sure to flush the toilet and use water in other ways before pouring it into a tea kettle. I’m concerned that recent demolition in the area could shake lead loose. I’ve called the State Lab of Hygiene at (800) 442-4618 to get a bottle for a lead test. It’ll cost us about $30 and we’ll get results in 10 days.

What You Can Do

You can check whether you home’s water service line has been replaced with a lead-free pipe on the City of Milwaukee website: The page offers information that helps homeowners determine whether or not the previous owners changed the pipe.

Furthermore, the City of Milwaukee Health Department recommends any households with residents or visitors that include children under the age of 6, and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should also:

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 water from the cold water tap that has been well-flushed for a minimum of three minutes.

Test children for blood lead level. Follow the “3 before 3” guidance by testing children for elevated blood lead levels three times before the age of 3. 

More Steps to Consider

Purchase a home filtration system. Find a list of products at   or call Customer Service, (414) 286-2830. Drinking water filtration systems or pour-through filters can reduce or eliminate lead. Look for products certified by NSF/ANSI under Standard 53 for removal of lead and follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for installing and maintaining the filter. 

Replace your lead service line or interior plumbing using a licensed plumber. Call the Milwaukee Water Works, (414) 286-3710, for more information.

Have your water tested for lead from a source like the State Lab of Hygiene at 800-442-4618. Find a full list of laboratories at (click “L” in the alphabetized list) or call Customer Service, 414-286-2830. 

Flush your plumbing after any water utility work or internal plumbing work. Physical disturbance of the lead service line or lead plumbing by activities such as water main replacement, service line leaks, home plumbing repair, water meter replacement, or main breaks may release lead into the water.

List of water filters recommended. 

Source: City of Milwaukee

The author is a freelance writer and mother of one. Reach her with comments or suggestions at

UPDATE: This article was updated to reflect that the water is piped to homes in Milwaukee from the water main, not the sewer, as was originally stated.


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