This mom’s story shows the urgency of solving Wisconsin’s lead problem

Deanna Branch is seen here with her three children: Aidan, Jaidyn, and Railyn. (Graphic by Desirée Tapia)

By Isabel Soisson

March 14, 2024

Deanna Branch was living in a duplex on Milwaukee’s North Side when her two-year-old son Aidan started acting differently. He was having trouble concentrating, suffered constant headaches, and the usually happy-go-lucky little boy was “seeing things that weren’t even there.” 

It was 2015, and Branch brought her concerns to the closest pediatrician, who told her it was essential that she have Aidan’s lead levels tested. Soon, both she and her son learned that headaches and hallucinations are just some of the more severe symptoms of chronic lead exposure

Lead is a neurotoxin that can cause irrevocable damage to both the brain and nervous system as a whole. It poses the most risk to infants and young children, impairing their cognitive development and causing behavioral disorders. 

Exposure is measured by the concentration of the metal in the blood. In 2021, the Lead Exposure and Prevention Advisory Committee (LEPAC) unanimously voted in favor of recommending that the CDC update the reference value of lead allowed in the blood; this is the range, or the interval, that is deemed normal for a healthy person. For lead, it’s 3.5 μg/dL, or micrograms per decimeter. 

Aidan’s lead level was at 40 μg/dL—more than 11 times the recommended limit. 

After her son was admitted to Children’s Wisconsin hospital, Branch contacted her landlord, who agreed to replace the home’s lead-painted windows. She would later find out that this wasn’t enough to address the problem. 

Then, doctors were tasked with removing the lead from Aidan’s blood. To do this, they used specially-designed magnetic receptors.

Blood detoxification works a bit like hemodialysis, which filters waste from the kidneys. When filtering lead, the magnetic receptors divert the infected blood out of the body and into a special chamber, where the infected magnetic particles are fished out. Then, the clean blood is reintroduced to the patient. 

“I really thought it would be that simple,” Branch said. “Unfortunately, that’s not where the story ends.” 

They remained in the same unit, and for a while, Aidan was okay. In fact, several years passed before Aidan started feeling like he did when he was two. He was six by then, and Branch took her son to get his lead levels tested again. 

This time, Aidan’s lead level was at 50 μg/dL–even higher than the last time. He was admitted to the hospital again, this time for a much longer stay. 

“CPS got involved at that point,” Branch said. 

Wisconsin Child Protective Services refused to discharge Aidan from the hospital unless Branch was able to provide a lead-free home for him to live in. 

Branch broke her lease and moved in with family in order to survive. 

“The house was literally killing my son,” she said. “CPS was making it seem like I’m a bad mother, so I had to get out of that environment.” 

Over the next few years, Branch faced homelessness, legal battles with CPS, and her own health problems. After staying with relatives and living in a shelter, Branch got her son back after finding a new place to live. 

Now that her family is in a better place—both literally and figuratively—Branch has made it her mission to educate others on the dangers of lead poisoning. She humbly describes herself as a community activist, but really, she’s the co-founder of the  Coalition on Lead Emergency (CORE), an organization that highlights the urgency of removing lead from communities like Milwaukee, where an estimated 200,000 housing units have paint made with lead.

Renters’ children also disproportionately face lead risks because they rely on landlords to take action, while homeowners have more flexibility to address things themselves when it comes to repairs. 

“It’s really up to the landlord and the tenants to prevent further exposure,” Branch said. 

In her role at CORE, Branch focuses on educating fellow Milwaukee residents about the dangers of lead exposure as well as preventative measures that can be taken. She stresses the importance of filling in the cracks of peeling paint, for example, as this is one of the main ways children are exposed to lead: they touch the walls where the paint is cracking and end up putting their fingers in their mouths because, well, children do that. 

Branch’s family’s story isn’t unique. Lead poisoning is an issue that disproportionately affects low-income families and communities of color in the United States. That makes Branch, who is Black, a compelling messenger in a city with a plurality Black population. 

According to the Wisconsin Dept. of Health, the primary sources of lead exposure are found in paint, soil, and water. In 1978, the federal government banned consumer uses of lead-based paint, and in 1986, Congress amended the Safe Drinking Water Act, which banned the use of lead pipes in public water systems. But many cities, like Milwaukee, still have a large number of homes that were built before 1978 and thousands of lead service lines that have not been replaced. 

As a result, blood testing of Milwaukee children has shown that there’s an ongoing lead poisoning crisis in low-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color, which are more likely to have people living in these older homes, and are more likely to be serviced by lead service lines due to government-sanctioned discriminatory housing policies, such as redlining and segregation. 

Testing completed between 2018 and 2021 shows that childhood lead poisoning in some North Side Milwaukee census tracts ranged above 15% or even 20%. This is where Branch and her son were living when he got sick, and it’s also where the majority of the city’s nearly 40% Black population lives. 

The Biden administration has taken several steps to address lead poisoning nationwide. 

In 2021, Biden and a Democratic-controlled Congress passed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which represented the largest investment in clean drinking water in American history, including the first-ever dedicated federal funding to replace lead service lines. 

Thus far, the law has provided $50 billion to support upgrades to the nation’s drinking water and wastewater infrastructure. These funds include up to $27 billion for lead service line replacement, including $15 billion dedicated to replacement specifically, and $11.7 billion in general Drinking Water State Revolving Funds that can also be used for lead pipe replacement. The EPA has also awarded another $3.5 billion in funding for lead service line replacement across the nation.

As of January, $361 million in funds have been allocated for Wisconsin to provide residents with clean and safe drinking water. Over a third of these funds are going towards lead pipe and service line replacement throughout the state. 

Another $66.7 million will go towards safe drinking water investments.

As of the end of 2023, more than 1,100 lead pipes have been replaced in Milwaukee. The city is focusing on replacing lead pipes in emergency situations like leaks first. It’s also replacing pipes during street construction projects, and near child care facilities. The city is also looking to join an expanded initiative run by the state Department of Natural Resources and the Environmental Protection Agency to remove lead pipes throughout the state of Wisconsin. 

In December, the Biden administration also proposed a new rule that would require water utilities in Wisconsin and across the country to replace all of their lead pipes for the first time in American history in an effort to protect communities from the dangerous toxin.

The proposal from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would require companies to locate and dig up the roughly nine million lead pipes in their service areas within 10 years.

According to the EPA, there are roughly 341,000 lead service lines in the state of Wisconsin.

The EPA’s Get the Lead Out Initiative will also partner with hundreds of underserved communities across the country to help them identify lead service lines, as well as develop replacement plans and apply for funding to “get the lead out.” 

The EPA also proposed lowering the amount of lead that’s allowed to be in water before intervention is required. Additionally, the agency proposed improving sampling protocols used to detect lead in water systems, and requiring utilities to increase communication with consumers about lead service lines and their plans to replace them. 

Branch says she’s excited by these developments. She was even one of President Biden’s guests during his 2023 State of the Union, where she stressed the importance of lead pipe replacement

I finally felt seen and heard,” Branch said. “It was an honor to be there and shake the president’s hands, and (I was) grateful that the vice president‘s office allowed me to bring my kids along with me. It was truly an honor.” 

Branch said she feels like things are moving in the right direction, but that she “wants to know more about what can be done” regarding lead exposure in her community. 

“The real issue is the housing in Milwaukee is very subpar and we need more laws to protect us from outdated housing,” she said. She also believes the city needs “more reliable landlords.” 

Today, Branch, Aidan, and her two other children, Jaidyn and Railyn, still live in Milwaukee, just a few neighborhoods over in another duplex. Now 10 years old, Aidan’s lead levels are down to 6.5 μg/dL. 

Aidan still struggles with some lingering effects of lead poisoning—he’s dyslexic and he’s been diagnosed with both ADHD and oppositional defiant disorder, which manifests as him getting angry easily. He takes medication to help him manage these symptoms. 

Still, Branch says that Aidan is “thriving.” He’s involved in music therapy, speech therapy, and he loves to draw and take care of his little sister. 

“His art is his best outlet,” Branch said. 

In fact, Aidan drew the pictures for the children’s book Branch authored, “Aidan: The Lead Free Superhero.” In it, Aidan defeats the “evil lead monster.”

Aidan has also found comfort in his “church family” at Hephatha Lutheran Church, which Branch has been a member of since she was a teenager. 

Branch says that all of these things—the medications, the therapies, his art, and his church family—“help him thrive.” 

“He has a great support system,” Branch said. “And of course, he has me.”

Author

  • Isabel Soisson

    Isabel Soisson is a multimedia journalist who has worked at WPMT FOX43 TV in Harrisburg, along with serving various roles at CNBC, NBC News, Philadelphia Magazine, and Philadelphia Style Magazine.

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