Politics

Ultimatum Given on Tainted Water in House Office Building

Congressman wants answers on lead levels; Officials set three briefings for Friday

The Cannon House Office Building where lead levels in drinking water have sparked concern. (Congressional Quarterly/File Photo)

Florida Republican Rep. Dennis A. Ross issued an ultimatum Thursday insisting that House administrators formally respond to a request for clarification about health hazards congressional staffers may be facing as a result of having possibly ingested tainted drinking water since last fall.  

Agents of the architect of the Capitol on Wednesday initially alerted only those located in the Cannon House Office Building that their drinking water was to be avoided pending an investigation into troubling levels of lead contamination.  

[ Water in House Office Building Too Dangerous to Drink ]  

As word spread, workers across the campus — including at least one expectant mother — sought guidance regarding their chances of exposure.  

“People walk back and forth, and there are committee rooms in Cannon,” one House aide said, laughing off the slapdash quarantine.  

Angry lawmakers, including Ross and Michigan Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee, quickly stepped to the forefront. Both have offices in Cannon.  

“I write today astounded with the lack of response to my attached letter from yesterday,” Ross fumed in a follow-up letter directed at House Inspector General Theresa M. Grafenstine and former General Counsel Kerry Kircher.  

He also pressed for free health screenings for “anyone who is likely to be at risk due to this exposure.”  

Kildee, whose hometown of Flint continues to be plagued by lead-contaminated drinking water, was adamant about cleaning up the situation.  

[ Kildee to Congress: Act Now on Flint ]    

“Lead is a dangerous neurotoxin and high levels of lead in water anywhere is a public health emergency. It is long past time that Congress get serious about this health threat,” he said in a statement.  

The Architect of the Capitol said it would hold three briefings on Friday for Cannon workers in the Homeland Security hearing room.  

"The briefings will provide you with information regarding the elevated lead samples reported this week and what steps are being taken to address the concerns and protect the building occupants," according to a statement from that office.  

In the general bulletin released Wednesday, AOC officials mentioned that a recent test of Cannon’s water had come back with unusually high levels of lead, but did not mention anything about the frequency of said tests or what prior results had shown.  

That evening, AOC posted a second FAQ file.

AOC - Drinking Water FAQ June 29 2016

Key findings include:

  • As of June 29, five out of 26 sources of drinking water had registered elevated levels of lead content. Environmental Protection Agency standards call for no more than 15 parts per billion; the trouble spots in Cannon had come back bearing 17 ppb, 18 ppb, 20 ppb, 25 ppb and 56 ppb, respectively.
  • The round of testing was conducted in September 2015 (highest reading: 9.12 ppb)
  • Lead-spiked readings were detected in 2006 (41.8 ppb), 2008 (33.3 ppb) and 2012 (19.9 ppb and 28 ppb)

Staff were directed to stick with bottled water and told not to worry.  

“There is no reason to believe that the elevated levels pose an immediate threat to building occupants and visitors,” AOC stated, folding in the caveat, “Consult with your physician for individual health care decisions.”  

Anthony Foti, Ross’ chief of staff, took little comfort in the generic warnings — particularly since his wife, a fellow staffer who’s worked on the Hill the past four years, gave birth just last week.  

After consulting with their doctor, Foti said his wife rushed out Wednesday to get tested. They’ll have to wait 48 hours to learn whether their newborn son, too, must undergo additional examinations.  

“We really just don’t know,” Foti said of the general confusion created by uncommunicative bureaucrats.  

“It’s been a real eye-opener for me,” he shared.  

Contact Rojas at warrenrojas@rollcall.com and follow him on Twitter at @WARojas.

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