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The rule is also highly significant for people, notably the poor, who subsist on large amounts of fish caught in mercury-contaminated waters.
PSR has advocated for over 20 years for pro-child, pro-social justice limits on mercury and was a plaintiff in the two lawsuits that resulted in the new EPA safeguards.
The new EPA rule, finalized December 16, 2011 would slash emissions of mercury and of hazardous air pollutants, a category of substances known or suspected to cause cancer even at low levels of exposure.
Difference between life and death
Improving air quality with the new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards will mean the difference between sickness and health—in some cases, life and death—for hundreds of thousands of people. The new standards will, it is estimated, avert up to 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 asthma attacks every year.
In addition, American families will avoid up to 540,000 missed work or "sick" days each year, enhancing productivity and lowering health care costs.
Those lost days, illnesses and deaths are the hidden costs of using coal as an energy source. Their value in dollars is reflected in the savings estimated to result from implementing the new rule: between $37 billion and $90 billion each year. That means that for every dollar spent to reduce this pollution, Americans will enjoy three to nine dollars in health benefits.
The benefits, while widely distributed, are especially important to minority and low-income populations, who are disproportionately impacted by asthma and other debilitating air pollution-related health conditions.
22 years of advocacy
PSR has worked for twenty-two years to reduce environmental exposures to mercury, beginning with the issue of incineration of mercury-laden medical wastes. Five years ago, PSR joined as a plaintiff in the successful lawsuit that forced the EPA to abandon its earlier, inadequate efforts to regulate mercury and create stronger, effective safeguards for human health.
Two years after that, PSR joined a second lawsuit setting the just-observed December 2011 deadline for finalizing the new mercury limits.
Last year, PSR brought health professionals from 11 states to Washington, DC to participate in “50 States United for Healthy Air.” They spoke about the health effects of mercury and other air pollutants with White House and EPA staff, and leaders and staff from the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate.
Chapters meanwhile raised the voices of doctors, nurses and public health professionals in their communities to insist on the health imperative for clean air.
We all will breathe cleaner air when these new national limits on pollution are put into play. Here is what some of PSR’s leading health activists say about this latest victory:
ARIZONA PSR: “In Arizona, we have worked on clean air and coal toxics (including mercury) for the past three years and find it extremely gratifying to find that many minds and intentions, working together, can achieve a will and way to reduce this terrible exposure at last.” Barbara Warren, MD, MPH