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US Cities with the Worst Tap Water: Milwaukee, Wisconsin

By Austin Armstrong November 17, 2021

Like many other cities across the Nation, Milwaukee has been in the spotlight for scandals related to the safety of its drinking water. Scandal hit a head in 2018 when Bevan Baker, Milwaukee’s health commissioner resigned. At the time, news outlets, environmental groups, and concerned residents were focused on the fact that the city’s public officials did not warn families of lead contamination. From 2015 to 2017 children in the city tested positive for elevated lead levels, but were never told that this may be the case. 

And that’s not all, later in 2018 concerned residents and environmental activists banded together to call for the resignation of Tom Barrett, Milwaukee’s mayor. Just as the scandal hit newsstands across the state, and even across the country, those residing in homes that were built before 1951 were asked to install water filters to protect against lead - but the problem with this theory is that it wasn’t just homes that were built in 1951 that had been plagued by the contamination. Local elected officials were doing damage control, but it wasn’t going far enough. Swift action needed to be taken and more families needed access to quality water filtration devices.

The city has had issues with lead in the drinking water for a few years now - and the city keeps making the news, most recently for not replacing lead pipes fast enough. Here is an article on that. 

So, how does lead get into the water in Milwaukee? It enters through aging lead service pipes and plumbing that contains lead. An overwhelming amount of water sites in the city had concentrations of lead at more than 7.2 parts per billion - about 10% of sites in total. The highest concentration was 130 parts per billion, detected towards the end of the scandal in 2017. Those levels are at least 8 times higher than the Federal Action Level, which is 15 parts per billion. 

While for adults there's a level of lead exposure that’s considered ok, for children there is not. The EPA, CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics all recognize that no safe level of lead exists for any child. The other important thing to note is that treated water that leaves the plant may be loosely in compliance with EPA standards, but might become more contaminated once it enters into a home with older infrastructure. That’s why the Milwaukee government told people who live in homes from the 1950’s and earlier to have a filter installed, but, in truth, lead in homes is much more recent. It’s more accurate to assume that homes built before 1986 contain lead plumbing and fixtures built into the infrastructure. 

Why is it so important that children aren’t exposed to any lead whatsoever? Because exposure to lead may cause issues with development, lower IQ, and damage to the brain and kidneys. 

For those who live in Milwaukee, Wisconsin an at-home water filtration device will give your family access to clean, quality drinking water, and give you the power over your tap. Simply put, we can’t trust that water municipalities will get the job done when it comes to decontaminating our water. City water authorities work to remove contaminants but often fall short in the long run. In the end, impurities and contaminants slip through the cracks and find their way to residential taps all too often. This problem is exacerbated when there’s already lead in the water supply and you live in an older home that may have been built with lead fixtures. Further down we’ll talk more about water filtration and how a water filtration system can provide your family with cleaner, healthier water, but first, let’s talk about how Milwaukee’s water supply became so bad in the first place.

How did this happen?

There are a few different factors that combine to create the perfect storm that makes a state’s water quality substandard. 

  1. Deteriorating infrastructure - The first reason deals with the infrastructure of the municipality supplying the water. In a perfect situation, public water pipes would remain in tip-top condition but in the real world, they don’t. Here’s a common example seen in deteriorating pipes: If a water pipe becomes old and starts to leak it can create a vacuum-like situation pulling untreated water in with treated water. When you turn on your faucet, your water would be both treated and untreated. 
  2. Deteriorating infrastructure (part 2) - Another problem with old pipes is that they can seep copper, lead and additional heavy metal impurities - inviting a dangerous and unhealthy cocktail of contaminants into your drinking cup.  
  3. Hazardous runoff - Hazardous tap water is also caused by runoff from farms and manufacturing plants, like car-making plants and coal mining plants. Runoff seeps into our water bodies and then gets into our water supply. 
  4. Adding chlorine - Municipalities often add chlorine to the water supply in order to improve the taste or smell of the water; but it’s not safe. 

How can I find out if my home has bad tap water in Milwaukee, Wisconsin?

Ask your provider.

The first thing you should do is call or email your local water provider and ask them to give you a copy of the most up-to-date water quality report they have. This report will detail the exact tests done to the water in your area with the dates the tests were performed and the results of the tests. The test results will give you insight into what contaminants may have been detected in your water. After that you can decide to have further testing done or you could move forward satisfied with what the report says - either way now you have information about the likely contaminants in your water.  

Send samples for testing.

The most thorough testing will occur when you send out a sample of your tap water - this will also give you the most accurate results. You should always send your sample to a certified water-testing lab because they hire experts who will know what to look for. As an example: some chemical contaminants are hard-to-detect and can be overlooked by novice testers. Professional water labs will check for bacteria, chlorine, lead and pesticides as well as any specific contaminants you request. 

Test your water at home. 

You can also do it yourself and if that’s something you enjoy, there are water testing kits that can be purchased to make that happen. Professional lab testing is the most accurate and thorough way to test water - but with that said, at-home water testing kits can provide you with crucial information on your drinking water. 

You can buy a kit online or in your local hardware store. The test strip kit will give you instructions on how to perform a test at home. Here’s an important tip: when testing your water at home, yourself, do it twice. Testing your water two times will ensure that your results are accurate. If you find that impurities are present, consider investing in a good water filtration device. A good water filtration system will help you to eliminate many contaminants and bring your drinking water to its most healthy and pure state. Finding a good, reliable water filtration system may be a daunting task - so let’s talk about the best system available to you. 

Invest in The Water Machine. 

The Water Machine is the world's first all-glass, gravity-fed countertop water filter. Its design is both functional and stylish, making The Water Machine an eye-pleasing focal point in your kitchen - or wherever you decide to put it. The Water Machine features a sleek hammered-glass design and can filter up to 6,000 gallons of water over a 10-year span (if you consume a gallon-and-a-half of water a day).  Water filtered through The Water Machine is crisp and clean without a metallic or plastic aftertaste; it is some of the most delicious and refreshing water you'll ever enjoy. Plus our all-glass design helps reduce plastic waste in the environment. In fact, The Water Machine is committed to environmental causes, with a portion of all of our sales going toward clean water organizations including Water.org, who has given 36-million people worldwide access to clean, uncontaminated water; and Charitywater.org, whose goal is to bring clean drinking water to everyone on the planet. Please visit their websites to see more of the amazing work these organizations do. 

The Water Machine eliminates the following contaminants: Bacteria like E. coli, Chlorine, Viruses, Chloramines, Parasites, Fluoride, Heavy Metals, Trihalomethane (THMs), Pharmaceuticals, Petroleum Contaminants, Bisphenol-A (BPA), Radiologicals, Perfluorochemicals (PFOAS), and Herbicides & Pesticides.


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