This week, after decades of legal delays and foot dragging by the coal and power industry, the EPA unveiled a new rule protecting public health from mercury and other toxins.
The new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards announced by EPA administrator Lisa Jackson on Wednesday require the electrical industry to limit stack emissions of mercury, arsenic and other toxic pollutants originating from coal- and oil-fired power plants, and ending up in America’s air, water and food. Power plants are the largest source of Mercury emissions at around 50 tons of mercury pollution annually. Because the particles are heavier than air, the mercury eventually falls back down and is deposited in rivers, lakes and oceans, where it is converted into a more toxic form called methyl mercury. This builds up in the food chain, meaning that fish at the top, such as striped bass, blue fin tuna and shark, carry the highest levels of the toxin.
“It’s a great victory for the environment and America’s public health,” said David McGuire, the Director of the Got Mercury program at the Turtle Island Restoration Network. “Controlling mercury and other toxins will save tens of thousands of lives every year and prevent birth defects, learning disabilities, and respiratory diseases. At Got Mercury, we can now turn our attention to our next great challenge, helping women secure their basic right to a mercury-free pregnancy.”
Initiated by the Clean Air Act in 1990, these standards have been ignored by the coal industry, which has systematically delayed compliance through a crazy quilt of legal challenges and by citing prohibitive costs of protecting human health. Yet, the benefits of this rule demonstrably outweigh the costs by a huge factor. The EPA’s analysis estimates that the newly finalized rules will save $9 dollars in health care costs for every dollar the industry will pays for the modifications.
The EPA estimates that 11,000 premature deaths and 130,000 cases of aggravated asthma among children annually by 2016 will be prevented, as well as other health benefits. Women, children and the developing fetus are most at risk for serious health problems resulting from mercury exposure.
Between 300,000 and 600,000 of the 4 million babies born in the U.S. each year are exposed to significant amounts of the neurotoxin while in the womb putting them at risk to neurological and developmental diseases.
Using scrubbers and other well demonstrated technology, the rule requires power companies to install equipment or shut down old plants by 2014, with the possibility of an extension into a fourth year.
Seventeen states have already required the industry to apply the clean technology.
“This will reduce the source of airborne mercury emissions in the US, but mercury levels will remain high in many species of lake and ocean fish. People, especially pregnant women and children must still take precautions on which fish they eat.” Advises McGuire. “To reduce risk from mercury exposure, we are also asking the government to increase health advisories and lower action levels for mercury in fish.”
The Got Mercury Program is petitioning the FDA to lower the legal mercury action level from 1 part per million (ppm) to 0.5 ppm. This standard will be in line with the Environmental Protection Agency’s mercury standards for recreationally caught fish and will require seafood sellers to post mercury in fish warning signs.