As if being locked in the ice on an Arctic quest weren’t bad enough, many of the crewmen on the U.S.S. Jannette were seriously ill.

“For weeks, crewmen had been complaining of a curious range of symptoms: listlessness, sleeping difficulties, low appetite, weight loss, anemia, a metallic taste on the tongue, and, especially, sharp cramping of the bowels.”

That’s a quote from “In the Kingdom of Ice” by Hampton Sides, a riveting tale of the expedition that left San Francisco in 1879 attempting to make it to the North Pole. At that time, it was believed that the Arctic was covered by an open sea if only a ship could bash through the ring of ice surrounding it.

The ship’s surgeon suspected lead poisoning. “If he was right, this was a grave matter. Lead toxicity could soon progress to delirium, seizures, kidney failure, and death.”

When a crew member found a pellet of lead in his tomatoes, the surgeon realized he had found the culprit: the lead solder used to seal the tin cans containing tomatoes. Corrosion of the lead by the acidic tomatoes had released the lead into the food.

The cans of tomatoes were thrown out and the crew began to recover, although some of them were still weak as the ship was crushed and sank and the crew began their 1,000-mile trek across the ice toward Siberia.

I was reading this account recently as the story about lead poisoning caused by the Flint, Mich., water supply broke and, recently, investigative reports raised concerns about the possibility of lead in the water supply in some parts of Wisconsin. (La Crosse County was not included in a chart citing problem communities.)

Against this backdrop, I read stories of our state Legislature dealing with such weighty matters as whether to eliminate the minimum age for hunting with a gun. And, unbelievably, in the context of this upsurge of concern about lead poisoning in water, there’s a proposal in Wisconsin to make it easier to sell water utility rights to private companies.

It’s been pretty well determined that the run-government-like-a-business mentality of the Michigan governor contributed to the problem in Flint where, to save money, the water supply for Flint was shifted from Lake Huron via Detroit’s system to the corrosive waters of the Flint River.

Would Wisconsinites really want to make it easier to turn over water supplies, the most fundamental need for our lives, to a private company that, according to the business model, makes decisions based on the bottom line? I don’t think so.

“The world is running out of fresh water and the fight to control it has begun,” according to an article in 2002 in the New Yorker magazine that reported on the “water war” in Bolivia.

Subsequently, the people of Bolivia revolted against private control of their water and the administration that had granted a transnational consortium the rights to the nation’s water supplies was swept from power. Politicians should learn from this that people don’t like to lose control of their precious water supplies.

Although you wouldn’t know it by the behavior of our legislative majority, Wisconsin has some serious water issues to deal with including contamination and depletion of groundwater in some areas, risks of contamination of surface runoff in others and, now, new information about potential risks of lead in some water systems and the need for vigilance and regular testing. None of these problems requires a bill (SB432 or AB554) to make it easier for a municipality to shrug its responsibility for water supplies to a private company.

As the Milwaukee Journal pointed out, “Some things can’t be left to the whims of a capitalistic system — water, being essential for life, must be included in that category.”

And, as the crew of the Jannette learned, lead contamination is a danger that requires urgent analysis and rapid response.

Dave Skoloda is an award-winning journalist and former owner and editor of the Onalaska Community Life and Holmen Courier.

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