Two Decades of Work Result in Strong Rules to Reduce Toxic Mercury Exposure
January 12, 2012
Social Responsibility (PSR) is now celebrating the fruits of twenty-two years of
work to protect the public from the severe toxic effects of mercury.
Mercury, a neurotoxin, damages the developing brain; fetuses, infants and
children exposed to mercury can suffer lifelong developmental delays, loss of
IQ and mental retardation. In adults, mercury can damage the heart and kidneys.
First target: Mercury in medical waste
Starting in the early 1990s, PSR targeted incineration of medical
waste, a major source of human-generated dioxins and mercury. (Dioxins are the
result of burning plastics; mercury was once found in many medical devices,
including thermometers and sphygmomanometers.) When burned, inorganic mercury disperses
into the atmosphere. It falls back to
the earth in rain and collects in waterways, where bacteria convert it to
methyl mercury, a potent neurotoxicant that is persistent and bioaccumulative. Exposure in humans is largely the result of
eating mercury-contaminated fish.
PSR’s first major program to alert the public to the adverse
health effects of methyl mercury focused on public outreach and presentations
to medical audiences. This effort, conducted with the Association of
Reproductive Health Professionals, won extensive coverage in the media and
contributed to the adoption of state regulations that curtailed medical waste
Among the campaign’s products, still available on the PSR web
site, are a pamphlet entitled “Healthy Fish, Healthy Families” and a report entitled “Fish Consumption to Promote Good Health and Minimize Contaminants: A Quick Reference Guide for Clinicians.”
shifts to coal; Lawsuits bear fruit
After regulation ended the incineration of most medical waste, PSR
turned its attention to the burning of coal to produce electricity, which today
is the most important anthropogenic source of mercury emissions. PSR joined as a plaintiff in a lawsuit against
the Environmental Protection Agency, challenging the agency’s inadequate regulation
of mercury emissions under the Clean Air Act (Delisting Rule) and the Clean Air
The result was a major victory for public health. The case, argued before the US Court of
Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in December 2007 and decided in February
2008, resulted in the Court vacating both rules on the grounds that they would
have failed to adequately curtail emissions of mercury and other pollutants and
would have permitted substantial morbidity among mercury-exposed populations.
The court required the EPA to develop rules that would comply with the Clean Air Act provisions. In 2009, PSR joined a second lawsuit setting a deadline for the EPA to issue those rules.
The lawsuits yielded a tremendous gain for public health on December 16, 2011 when, as a result of PSR’s and our coalition partners’ efforts, the EPA finalized the new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rule. The EPA estimates that, as a result of implementing this rule, each year Americans will suffer about 11,000 fewer premature deaths, 130,000 fewer attacks of asthma, 540,000 lost days of work, almost 3,000 fewer cases of chronic bronchitis, and over 4,500 fewer heart attacks.
The resulting cost savings are estimated to be between $37 billion and $90 billion annually. Those savings indicate the true but hidden cost of burning coal. The EPA’s action to slash coal emissions is a welcome stride toward achieving truly clean air and a clean bill of health.
Code Black: Effective
Around the same time, PSR also launched its “Code Black” campaign to
reduce toxic air pollution and greenhouse gases by moving America off of
coal-fired power. Through Code Black, many
PSR chapters have engaged doctors, nurses and other health professionals on local
campaigns to block the construction of new coal-fired power plants and, more
recently, to close the oldest, dirtiest coal-fired plants. PSR created several valuable resources in
support of these efforts, including its 2009 report, Coal’s Assault on Human Health and, in 2010, Coal Ash: The Toxic Threat to our Health and Environment. Through effective collaboration with allies in
the environmental field, this work has successfully prevented significant amounts
of toxic air emissions.