What to know about lead exposure as a tenant renting in Wisconsin

A guide offers background information and tips for renters in Milwaukee and across Wisconsin who are trying to navigate the risks of lead poisoning.

Wisconsin Watch

September 25, 2023 • Southeast Region

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A single sandal sits on a wooden floor next to a corner of two walls with cracked and peeling layers of paint.

Lead poisoning of children has largely been tied to contact with old, peeling paint. This Milwaukee rental home was inspected for lead in 2015. Homeowners can make their properties safer by removing lead paint and other hazards. But renters, whose children disproportionately face lead poisoning, rely on landlords to take action. (Credit: Matt Campbell / Wisconsin Watch)

Wisconsin Watch

By Farrah Anderson, Wisconsin Watch

This article was first published by Wisconsin Watch.

Lead is a serious public health hazard — a neurotoxin that damages the brain and nervous system, especially in young children. Exposure can delay growth and development and cause problems with learning, behavior, hearing and speech, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Children can be poisoned by ingesting lead paint, lead-tainted water, soil, dust or other lead-based products. Lead poses the greatest risk to brain development, where damage can be irreversible, but medical treatment and nutrition changes can lower lead levels in blood.

Homeowners have power to remove lead hazards from their home, if they have the resources. But renters rely on their landlords to take action. That doesn’t always happen.

Here’s what to know if you’re a tenant concerned about lead in your home.

Test your child and yourself — especially if you are pregnant

No level of lead is considered safe. Young children are particularly vulnerable to lead and may face higher levels of exposure because they often put their hands or other objects in their mouths, including paint chips. Drinking water can make up 20% of a person’s total exposure to lead, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — or up to 60% for infants consuming mostly mixed formula. Children with elevated lead levels do not typically act sick, meaning blood tests are the only way to confirm a problem.

Adults can be lead poisoned, too. Lead is a particular concern for pregnant women because exposure could harm a developing fetus. If your child has elevated lead levels, get yourself tested, too.

Most insurance plans cover lead testing. You may be asked to complete a second test if the first one shows high lead levels.

How often and when to test?

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services recommends universal testing for children living in Milwaukee or Racine due to the high proportion of old, potentially hazardous housing in those communities. Those children should be tested at least three times before age 3 — at 1 year, 18 months and 2 years. Children ages 3 to 5 years should be tested annually if they meet at least one of the following criteria: they live in a home built before 1950 or one built before 1978 with recent or ongoing renovations; they have a sibling or playmate with lead poisoning; they are enrolled in the Medicaid or the Women, Infants and Children Nutrition Program or are uninsured; they have no record of a prior test.

Health care providers should weigh the above criteria when considering whether a child living outside of Milwaukee or Racine should be tested around ages 1 and 2 years, or between ages 3 and 6 years, DHS says. Find more details here.

If you’re living in Milwaukee and concerned about child lead exposure contact the Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers Milwaukee office at 414-672-1353. It provides free lead testing for elevated blood levels and information about how to permanently remove lead hazards from homes.

Children’s Wisconsin is piloting a testing program focusing on Milwaukee’s North Side neighborhoods. The hospital is partnering with MacCanon Brown Homeless Sanctuary, which offers free lead testing for children under 10 years old on select Saturdays, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Residents should call 414-404-0900, extension 5, or email [email protected], to confirm testing dates.
Landlords must disclose risks

The federal government banned lead paint in homes built after 1978, and federal law requires landlords to disclose certain information to tenants who move into a building that predates that ban. That includes anything known about the property’s lead paint hazards, a pamphlet and a lead disclosure agreement to the lease.

If you’re considering moving into a home built before 1978, ask the property owner about any lead hazards in the home.

Removing lead from a rental

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services established the Lead Safe Homes Program, which helps remove lead hazards in homes. You may qualify if you are: enrolled in Medicaid or BadgerCare Plus, part of a family with children under 19, are pregnant or live with someone who is pregnant.

The state requires local health department investigations and case management services for children when one venous blood test detects at least 20 mcg/dL per deciliter of lead — or if two tests conducted at least 90 days apart find lead at 15 mcg/dL. That includes inspecting properties for lead and requiring landlords to remove hazards.

The Milwaukee Health Department is using federal American Rescue Plan dollars to fund a pilot program that helps families with children who test between 10 and 14.9 mcg/dL. This includes lead abatement, education, lead safe kit distribution and nurse case management.

The Milwaukee Health Department also established the Childhood Lead Primary Prevention Program, which taps federal funding to provide landlords up to $40,000 for abatement. Qualifying landlords must be willing to rent the unit to low-income families with children — and currently have low-income tenants.

How does replacing lead water service lines work?

Local health departments are not required to test water for lead during inspections. Milwaukee residents can check whether their properties are connected to a lead service line at the city’s website.

Milwaukee in recent years mandated replacements for lead pipes found to be disrupted or leaking — and those that serve private schools and child care providers. For mandated replacements, a city cost-sharing program limits the tab for participating property owners to $1,592.

A worker holds a lead service line while standing on a road, with a curb, front yards and houses out-of-focus in the background.

Tom Iglinski, an engineering technician with the city of Milwaukee, holds up a replaced lead service line on June 29, 2021. The city of Milwaukee recommends that residents of homes connected to lead service lines install a lead-certified water filter. (Credit: Isaac Wasserman / Wisconsin Watch)

Properties with more than four units are not eligible for cost sharing for required replacements. Also ineligible for the subsidy: Milwaukee property owners who choose to replace service lines when not required. They must pay 100% of the bill.

The city of Milwaukee recommends that residents of homes connected to lead service lines install a lead-certified water filter. The Milwaukee-based Coalition on Lead Emergency regularly passes out filters to Milwaukee residents free of charge.

How to complain about lead hazards

The Milwaukee Department of Neighborhood Services recommends first contacting your landlord if you are concerned about lead at your rental. If that doesn’t prompt action, you can file a complaint with the department. But DNS oversees building codes, not health codes. So it can order a property owner to fix peeling paint, but it cannot order a full abatement. That’s the job of the Milwaukee Health Department, which typically only orders an abatement based upon a child’s lead-blood test.

To check if you qualify for full lead abatement, contact the Milwaukee Health Department at 414-286-2165.

If you report lead concerns to your landlord, do so in writing so you can prove when you notified them, according to the Tenant Resource Center, a Madison-based nonprofit.

A letter helps prove when the landlord knew about the lead paint — potentially helping you show negligence later on, the center says. It is also a “paper trail that will force the landlord to disclose all known lead paint violations to future tenants.”

The Milwaukee Health Department has acknowledged difficulties in holding landlords accountable for lead hazards, but the department has vowed to ramp up enforcement in the coming months.

What other organizations might help?

Milwaukee residents should contact IMPACT 211 (dial 2-1-1) if they are experiencing homelessness. They can also visit IMPACT’s in-person sites on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays: Repairers of the Breach, from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., and St. Ben’s Clinic, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.

Residents can contact the Milwaukee Rental Housing Resource Center (414-895-7368) if they are: facing eviction, late on rent or experiencing landlord/tenant issues. They can walk in to 728 N. James Lovell St. or visit

To learn more about resources, events and grassroots organizing around lead, contact the Coalition on Lead Emergency at [email protected].

For concerns about evictions or other legal issues call Legal Action of Wisconsin at 855-947-2529.

The Milwaukee Autonomous Tenants Union also provides resources for renters. Call 414-410-9714.

The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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