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PSR Celebrates EPA Action to Dangerous Air Toxins from Coal and Oil-Fired Power Plants

March 17, 2011

Physicians for Social Responsibility welcomed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s release today of a proposed update to air quality standards that will limit the emission of lethal air toxics from power plants.  

The EPA action would begin to reduce life-threatening hazardous air pollutants from 1,350 coal-and 525 oil-fired power plants that have escaped regulation since the air toxics amendment was added to the Clean Air Act in 1990.  Pollutants this proposed rule will cover include mercury, arsenic, other toxic metals, acid gases, and organic air toxics.

“These air toxics cause or contribute to cancer, cardiovascular effects, respiratory diseases, birth defects, and lifelong loss of intelligence,” said PSR executive director Peter Wilk, MD.   “This is a highly needed and sorely overdue step to protect human health.”

Six years ago, PSR was a plaintiff in the lawsuit[s] that eventually required the EPA to control these toxics and to meet an established deadline to release a proposed rule by March 16, 2011. After many years of fighting for stronger public health protections from power plant air toxics PSR is pleased to see firm emission limits set for mercury, acid gases and particulate mater (a surrogate for toxic non-mercury metals) from existing and new coal and oil-fired power plants. 

EPA’s proposed mercury and air toxics standard will result in emissions reductions of 91% for both mercury and acid gases. As many as 17,000 lives will be saved and 11,000 heart attacks will be prevented each year as a result of this rule.  Children’s health will also be greatly improved:  120,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms and 11,000 cases of acute bronchitis will be prevented each year. 

Emissions of mercury were one factor that motivated PSR to take action.  Exposure to mercury in its methylated form acts on the nervous system, causing damage to cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, and fine motor and visual spatial skills.  Coal-fired power plants are the largest domestic source of unregulated mercury emissions in the United States.

“Mercury reduces our children’s ability to walk, talk, read, write and learn.  The EPA needs to provide us with the strongest air toxics protections possible to defend public health and protect children from this poison,” stated Kristen Welker-Hood, PSR Environment & Health director. 

Fetuses, who are most vulnerable to harm from methyl mercury, may accumulate higher levels of this toxic than those found in their mothers’ bloodstream.

Under the proposed update, new power plants will be required to reduce their hazardous air pollution to match the pollution reductions already achieved by the cleanest and best-performing power plants and facilities.  Existing power plants will have to match the performance of the average of the top 12 percent of existing sources.  

This approach assures that standards are achievable, while ensuring that power plants with good pollution controls are not economically disadvantaged relative to competitors with no controls.

Kristen Welker-Hood, ScD MSN
Director, Environmental Health Programs and Policy
, phone: 202-587-5244

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