Poisoned Politics

Wisconsin's children face a serious public health crisis -- lead poisoning. According to a 2014 lead poisoning report by the state Department of Health Services (DHS), 21% of Wisconsin children under the age of 6 suffer from lead poisoning -- higher than the national average. In parts of the state, including Milwaukee, Watertown, and Buffalo County, the percentage of children with lead poisoning exceeds Flint, Michigan. The consequences for children are devastating. As acknowledged by DHS: "Even very low levels of lead exposure can cause permanent brain damage and negatively affect learning, behavior, and health throughout the child's life."

Yet, Governor Walker and legislative Republicans have pushed a lead poisoning agenda that has further risked our children's health and lives by: 1) Banning future and pending lawsuits against the lead paint industry, including 173 pending lawsuits by lead poisoned children; 2) Allowing a greater ratio of lead to be used in paint; and 3) Refusing to adopt lead poisoning standards consistent with current medical evidence.

Since 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has defined "lead poisoning" as 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood. Wisconsin continues to define lead poisoning at 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood, ignoring a state requirement that CDC standards be adopted. Our state doesn't investigate the source of lead poisoning until a child significantly exceeds federal standards, delaying investigation and remediation efforts and further risking children's health.

I have repeatedly urged the Walker Administration to comply with state law and adopt the CDC standard. DHS admitted to knowing about the CDC findings since 2012, but failing to act. I introduced a bill mandating the federal standard and more aggressive remediation efforts. It went nowhere in the legislature.

Why would Governor Walker and legislative Republicans look the other way when our state already had a high incidence of lead poisoned children, particularly in the wake of the Flint water crisis?

Previously undisclosed documents recently released by The Guardian provide some answers. Scott Walker intentionally circumvented campaign finance laws by raising millions of secret corporate dollars to "his" organization, the Wisconsin Club for Growth (WCFG), to defeat the recall efforts against him and other Republican senators. The corporations that gave big fat donations to WCFG got big fat favors, even when those favors hurt our most vulnerable Wisconsinites -- children sickened by lead poisoning.

Harold Simmons, a lead pigment manufacturer, gave a $500,000 corporate check and $250,000 in personal funds to WCFG between 2011 and 2012, in close proximity to the passage of the two lead immunity laws. In fact, a memo released by the Center for Media and Democracy suggests that Simmons' NL Industries helped write the language in the retroactive immunity laws that Republican legislators slipped into the 2013-2015 budget. Thankfully, courts have allowed pending cases, including that of Yasmine Clark, who suffered significant and irreversible brain damage after lead paint poisoning as a toddler, to proceed.

DHS's 2014 report states that "lead poisoning is 100% preventable. With enough resolve and commitment, it can be eliminated." Unfortunately, there seems to be little resolve and commitment from the Republicans controlling our government to represent the interests of the people of this state instead of their big, corporate donors. Republican efforts to dilute lead poisoning standards and end the ability of ill children to get help from courts should sicken us all.