Does Milwaukee have a ‘lead in our water’ problem? Kind of.

Are we the next Flint Water Crisis? Not even in close.

Don’t let the sensationalist newscasters, hippies, and crazies mislead you. Here’s the real scoop on what’s going on in Milwaukee’s water and how to ensure you’re not ingesting lead like the Mad Hatter.

The Background
Lead is bad for human ingestion. It sticks in your organs and tissues for years, slowly messing with all sorts of things. Children and older adults are most susceptible, but it isn’t good for anyone’s health.

Lead is good for a lot of other things, including forming pipes. Years ago, during Milwaukee’s industrial boom, lead was the go-to material for the water distribution pipes throughout the city (it is not anymore). Decades later, most of these lead pipes are still sitting right beneath our streets and feets.

The Water
Milwaukee’s municipal water is some of the cleanest in the country. The water coming into our main water pipes is free of just about everything. Check out the federally-mandated Consumer Confidence Report right here. There is less lead in our distributed water than EPA guidelines. This clean starting water is the big difference between us and Flint: Flint sent corrosive water through their lead pipes.

The Pipes
Water gets to your house (assuming you’re not on a well system) through two pipes:

Image from the Milwaukee City Water Works website.

  • The Main – the large pipe that runs down the middle of each street; these are owned by the city.
  • The Lateral – the smaller pipes that connect the Main to each house/building; these are owned by the property owner.

Around 44% of properties have one or both of the above pipes made of lead. You can check if yours is one such property on the city’s website. My own house is on the list.

The Problem
As lead pipes age and deteriorate, any sort of construction or movement of the earth around them could potentially dislodge lead particles which then mix into the water. The city cannot filter out this lead because it enters the water stream after the city’s purification system.

The Test
Lead pipes are not bad. Lead in water is bad. I needed to find out if the lead from my house’s pipes was getting into my water. So I checked.

A water test done by a certified testing laboratory is much more reliable than a DIY test from a kit. The city maintains a list of approved testing facilities, but it’s severely outdated. I just had my water test performed through Northern Lake Service, Inc. and I highly recommend them:

  1. Contact Northern Lake Service via phone (262-547-3406) or email (clientservices@nlslab.com) and let them know which testing kit you need from their provided list. You’ll only need their lead-testing kit, since the City already tests for everything else in their CCR.
  2. They send you a testing bottle, free of charge.
  3. Fill the bottle with water per included instructions.
  4. Mail or drop off at their nearest location in Waukesha.
  5. Pay $30 via check or cash.
  6. Receive an email and a letter with report 2 weeks later.

The lead levels in my house are 2.4 ug/L; not 0 like I’d prefer but well below EPA guidelines (15 ug/L) and the Milwaukee median (10 ug/L). And that’s in a house that I know has lead pipes.

The Short-Term Solutions

  1. Replace your faucet aerators regularly. Sometimes you’ll find little black particles stuck in the aerators; that’s most likely dislodged lead. Don’t bother cleaning the aerators, get new ones for a few bucks.
  2. Use a water filter. The city has an agreement with Aquasana for discounts on home water filters for Milwaukee residents. You can use the typical filtering pitchers that go in a refrigerator, or one that attaches to your faucet, or even a more-expensive whole house water filter.

The Only Long-Term Solution
Replace all the lead pipes. This is the only option to eliminate the risk of lead in the water completely. The city is in the habit of replacing lead Mains when they need repairs, but not privately-owned Laterals. This past Tuesday a resolution was passed in Milwaukee that all homeowners are now required to replace their lead Lateral pipes rather than repairing them, if the need arises. This can cost up to $5000, but the city will cover all costs above $1600. That $1600 can be paid over 10 years via increased property taxes on that residence.


We’re a city of smart folks; let’s focus on identifying the problem areas via water testing, and then take the necessary steps to replace those pipes. It won’t happen overnight, but Milwaukee will solve the problem of leaded water if we continue to educate ourselves on the issue.

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