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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Policymakers must act as Black tenants face lead poisoning epidemic

Legislative action needed to close racial disparities in health as Black children continue to experience higher rates of lead poisoning
Erin Gretzinger

Racial health disparities are issues that continue to jeopardize marginalized groups all across the country. The 2015 lead water crisis in Flint, Michigan, — a well-known public health catastrophe — is a prime example of the racial health disparities that plague our country.

While videos of the city’s water discoloration went viral, a key piece of information omitted by much of the mainstream coverage of this crisis — Flint’s racial makeup, according to the Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. It is truly not a coincidence that nearly 57% of residents in Flint, Michigan are Black.

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Across the United States, Black individuals receive lower wages and are subject to worse living conditions to those of their white counterparts. These wealth and housing gaps give lead to long-standing socioeconomic disadvantages in Black communities, further increasing other racial disparities. A prime example, Flint still does not have clean water in 2023, eight years after the crisis, according to Fox 2 Detroit.


The racial inequities in public health are also prevalent in our home state of Wisconsin — lead poisoning in particular.

A Black woman named Deanna Branch told Wisconsin Public Radio she rented a house in the North Side of Milwaukee before moving in with her son. Little did she know, there was a severe amount of lead in the house. At only two years old, her son was hospitalized.

When Branch’s son was re-hospitalized three years later, Child Protective Services required her to find a lead-free home to retain custody of her child. Since the rental company refused to resolve the lead contamination, Branch was forced to breach her lease and move in with her family.

As a result, she faced a lawsuit from the rental organization for breaking her lease.

This horror story is unacceptable and Wisconsin residents must hold state officials accountable for this mother’s tragic experience. It is unjust for mothers like Branch to carry such impossible burdens to simply provide shelter for their children.

Yet, with state legislation creating budget caps and making home inspections increasingly difficult, it is close to impossible to force these landlords to fix their lead problems. While rental companies’ negligence of human life is intolerable, the heart of the issue lies in the state’s policy making.

Unfortunately, Branch’s story is not an isolated example of lead poisoning in Wisconsin. In fact, non-white communities tend to experience higher rates of lead poisoning throughout the state.

Milwaukee County — home to 69.4% of Wisconsin’s Black population, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services — has close to double the state average rate of lead poisoning, according to Wisconsin Public Radio. Moreover, Black children in Wisconsin are four times as likely as white children to face sickness due to lead poisoning, according to DHS. It is obvious that policymakers need to hold landlords accountable for providing bare minimum living conditions to residents.

These public health issues spread far past lead poisoning. The recent addition of F-35 airplanes at the Dane County Regional Airport, as documented by the Wisconsin State Journal, leaves the greatest impact on the East Madison community, where there is a higher Black population than in other parts of Madison.

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the planes generate decibel levels similar to that of a rock concert. This intense noise can cause a host of health issues for children, including cardiovascular implications, according to the World Health Organization.

Black communities in particular continue to face a public health crisis that is largely overlooked, especially in Wisconsin. The City of Madison finds that people of color, individuals with disabilities and people from low-income backgrounds experience measurably worse outcomes in educational attainment, health and housing cost and quality.

As a state, more equitable lawmaking needs to be done to account for the racial disparities in health, housing and wealth. Some organizations are focused on this mission, like Madison’s Racial Equity and Social Justice initiative who are working to build racial equity in the city’s policymaking processes.

The University of Wisconsin is also using a community-based approach to battle health inequities through a sign-on called “Racism is a Public Health Crisis in Wisconsin.” Lastly, UW’s Population Health Institute focuses on racism, power and health to research how race and health are intertwined.

While these steps are progressive, there is still much to be done to bridge the racial gaps in public health. Wisconsin needs to answer the urgent call for legal action.

Charles Zumbrunnen ([email protected]) is a sophomore studying agricultural and applied economics.

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