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Our nation's clean water policy should provide all communities with access to healthy, safe water by protecting the streams and wetlands that contribute to our drinking water supply.

EPA's New Mercury & Air Toxics Rule Called a "Victory for Children"

January 12, 2012

PSR chapters across the country celebrated the EPA’s recent finalization of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rule, calling it a huge victory for human health, particularly for children, who can face developmental delays and mental retardation due to mercury exposure. 

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. 

Chapter voices

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:

IOWA PSR:  “Since there is no known safe level of mercury exposure, Iowa PSR has worked for over six years to bring public attention to its risks and remove mercury from our environment.  The new ruling will help us in our work to close down the dirtiest, most polluting coal plants across Iowa.”  Maureen McCue, MD MPH

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

CHESAPEAKE PSR:  “In Chesapeake PSR we are thrilled about the new mercury rule. Our state is the fifth worst in air toxics and mercury pollution from dirty coal-fired power plants, so this really affects our patients' health.

“Members of our chapter have gone to EPA hearings in Philadelphia to testify for stronger regulations, we have partnered with other environmental groups here in the State to make the case for health costs from power plant pollution, we have talked to reporters when environmental reports were released, spelling out the ways in which Marylanders were exposed to dangerous pollutants from coal- fired power plants. The new mercury rule is a reminder how environmental activism and preventive healthcare are intertwined.”  – Gwen Dubois, MD

TAMPA BAY PSR:  "Physicians for Social Responsibility Tampa Bay applauds President Obama and the EPA for standing up and fighting for what is right for America's health and safety. Mercury is a frightening neurotoxin causing major genetic and developmental damage to babies and young children. Reducing mercury from coal-fired power plants will greatly improve the health of everyone, but especially our children…our most precious resource!

“We've been working on clean air issues/mercury for about 18 months in the following ways:  We participated with NRDC in a national news event, producing about 80 TV, print and blog media hits; we met with Senator Rubio's office and provided educational material about air and environmental toxics; we collaborated with the Sierra Club on two outdoor rallies in Tampa on clean air and mercury; and we met with the editor of the St. Pete Times (now the Tampa Bay Times), resulting in them printing an editorial on the Clean Air Act and the need to do more.” 

WASHINGTON STATE PSR:  “Children have a right to an environment in which they can reach and maintain their full potential, which means food and an environment free the harmful effects of mercury.  Washington PSR, in collaboration with Sierra Club and others, worked to accelerate the closure of the only coal-fired electric power plant in Washington.  We also collaborated with National PSR to produce a report on the toxic effects of coal ash.”  Steven G. Gilbert, PhD, DABT

AUSTIN PSR:  “Texas is home to six of the top ten mercury-emitting power plants in the nation, so this rule will be one big step towards healthier Texans. Many of the lakes near the coal plants are so contaminated with mercury that eating fish from those lakes could cause significant health damage.” Diane Papillion

HARRISBURG PSR:  “As doctors, we take care of children and we believe it is a victory for them!  We took part in press conferences, working with the Sierra Club and Clean Air.” Jim Jones, MD 

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