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Two Decades of Work Result in Strong Rules to Reduce Toxic Mercury Exposure

January 12, 2012

Physicians for 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 incineration. 

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.”

Focus 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 Mercury Rule.

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 grassroots action

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.

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