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policy & Advocacy

Preventing Childhood Lead Poisoning

As a member of the Coalition on Lead Emergency, MEA is advocating for policies and new sources of funding to address disproportionately high rates of lead poisoning in certain Milwaukee neighborhoods. COLE’s mission is to prevent and respond to childhood lead poisoning in Milwaukee, and its advocacy is guided by the parents themselves.

Issue Summary

Childhood lead exposure can lead to lifelong health issues such as behavioral problems and learning disabilities. It is an environmental injustice that disproportionately affects lower-income families and communities of color in the United States. 

In Wisconsin, lead contamination is particularly severe in the City of Milwaukee. Decades of disinvestment have contributed to disproportionately high rates of lead exposure among communities of color and lower-income families on the city’s north side. In 2021, 6.7% of children tested in Milwaukee had blood lead levels at or about 3.5 micrograms per deciliter (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention definition for lead poisoning), compared to 3.7% statewide.

Childhood lead poisoning occurs most often in neighborhoods that have been subjected to housing discrimination and disinvestment. That’s because chipping and peeling lead paint in deteriorating homes is the main cause of lead poisoning.

Advocating for Increased Funding and Accountability

In 2021, MEA helped COLE develop an ambitious proposal to invest American Rescue Plan Act funds in job training for lead abatement work in impacted neighborhoods. COLE parents and other local residents successfully advocated for the proposal, and thanks to their grassroots advocacy, the Milwaukee Common Council has allocated $26 million to help impacted families remediate lead paint in their homes.

In 2022, the Milwaukee Common Council adopted an ordinance that creates greater accountability for landlords whose rental properties contribute to the problem. The ordinance helps prevent lead exposure poisoning by increasing penalties for landlords who fail to remediate lead hazards. It also prevents landlords from evicting tenants in retaliation for reporting lead issues. MEA was honored to work with COLE partners to help make this happen.

Taking Legal Action to Make Government More Responsive

In November 2023, the Wisconsin Supreme Court accepted an amicus, or ‘friend of the court’ brief from MEA in Clarke v. Wisconsin Elections Commission, a redistricting case pending before the Court. At issue in the case was whether Wisconsin’s legislative maps violated the Wisconsin Constitution.

MEA submitted the amicus brief on behalf of COLE.  In our brief, we argued that COLE parents had been unfairly disadvantaged by legislative maps that disempowered the areas most affected by lead poisoning. Any new legislative district maps must be responsive to all Wisconsinites—regardless of where they live—to prevent future legislatures from neglecting environmental issues that disproportionately affect certain areas of the state. In December 2023, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that Wisconsin’s legislative maps were indeed unconstitutional and ordered that the maps be redrawn.

Learn more about our work in Clarke v. Wisconsin Elections Commission.

Shy McElroy

Milwaukee resident and COLE parent advocate