WASHINGTON (CN) - The House voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to require the Environmental Protection Agency to tell the public when it discovers unsafe concentrations of lead and other contaminants.
The vote came fortuitously during a House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee hearing on the health impact Flint's lead-poisoned water has on kids.
"This is personal, it breaks my heart to see what's happening in my own hometown," Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Michigan, said of the city he raised his children in.
The Safe Drinking Water Act Improved Compliance Awareness Act, sponsored by Kildee and Fred Upton, R-Michigan, passed the House 416-2, and comes on the heels of the EPA deflecting much of the blame for the Flint water crisis to the state of Michigan.
Though the agency became aware of increased lead levels after a Michigan emergency manager switched Flint's water supply from Lake Huron - which supplies water to Detroit - to the Flint River, the agency failed to sound the alarm publicly.
Kildee and Upton's bill will require the EPA to inform state officials of contamination within 24 hours. If the state fails to act, the bill will require the EPA to take the reins and notify the public.
The bill also requires the agency "to create a strategic plan for handling and improving information flow between water utilities, the states, the EPA and affected consumers," Kildee said statement, and would ensure public notification when corrosive water may cause lead to leech into drinking water.
Meanwhile, a panel of experts implored a sympathetic House Steering Committee to help secure funds to carry Flint through the crisis, which has hit the most vulnerable populations - young children and pregnant mothers - the hardest, they said.
Noting that Flint's children in particular will suffer the consequences of lead poisoning for years to come, the panel outlined long-term educational, nutritional and health needs.
"Increasing evidence shows that there is no safe blood level and that lead disproportionately impacts low-income children," Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a key figure in bringing the extent of the crisis to light, said in written testimony.
"It has been linked to criminality," she told the committee. "This is not what the city of Flint needs," she added.
"Lead has been linked to decreased IQ and an increased likelihood of ADHD, delinquent behaviors, total arrests, and increased rates of arrests involving violent offenses," Hanna-Attisha said.
The rates of children under age five with elevated lead levels in their blood after Flint switched its water supply doubled and in some cases tripled. One ward showed a 16 percent increase, she said.
Graphics and data reported in the Washington Post were displayed for the committee, and showed lead levels through the roof when compared to the EPA's action level threshold for lead concentration, which is 15 parts per billion.
Virginia Tech testing found 158 parts per billion in Flint water, while the samples with the highest lead levels hit 13,000 parts per billion.
Hanna-Attisha sounded the alarm further by stating that her research grossly underestimates exposure and risk levels because of the half-life of lead.
"Blood testing being done now will not pick up the extent of this population-wide exposure," she said.
"We have a population traumatized," she added, recalling the looks of fear she has seen in the eyes of mothers worried about their kids.