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Philadelphia EPA Public Hearing Testimony

Walter Tsou, MD MPH, PSR Philadelphia Board President; Kate Etherington, PSR Philadelphia Executive Director; and Kristen Welker-Hood, ScD MSN, former PSR Environment and Health Director, testified at an EPA public hearing on proposed mercury and air toxics standards in Philadelphia on May 24, 2011.


Walter Tsou, MD, MPH
President, Philadelphia Chapter
Physicians for Social Responsibility

My name is Dr. Walter Tsou. I am the past president of the American Public Health Association and the current president of the Philadelphia chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility. Today, I speak on behalf of both organizations in favor of the proposed Mercury and Air Toxics Standards.

Known sources like fossil fuel fired steam power plants have fought regulations for the past twenty years, claiming that compliance is too expensive and unnecessary. However, air pollution remains a serious health hazard and these long overdue rules need to be implemented now. Currently, our air remains a waste dump caused by the spewing of known toxins such as carcinogenic volatile organic compounds, fine particular matter that clogs up airways and triggers asthma and heart attacks and heavy metals, which settle into our soil and can end up contaminating our food supply. The American Lung Association estimates the more than 400 coal fired power plants release over 386,000 tons of air pollution each year into the atmosphere. To give you a picture of what this looks like, consider that the air pollution spewed out by coal fired power plants exceeds the weight of the Empire State Building by 21,000 tons each year

We cannot allow America’s bone fide search for energy to override the public’s concern about our health, especially when we have known solutions available and which some business will not invest in without a swift kick in the pants by the EPA. The proposed toxics rule mandates the reduction of pollution by the half of the nation’s power plants have already installed such pollutions devices, but without a clear national standard, other plants simply feel free to pollute our air and stream.

Air pollution, like epidemics, is not contained by political boundaries. Source air pollution in neighboring states can and will travel across borders, which is why the EPA uniquely is empowered to create and enforce these regulations. That is why you must enforce these standards.  By 2016, the EPA estimates that these proposed standards would result in saving an estimated 6800-17,000 premature deaths, 11,000 heart attacks, 12,000 cases of aggravated asthma, and 850,000 missed days of work.

The EPA estimated the health costs associated with this morbidity at over $100 billon. The cost of compliance with these regulations is $ 10.9 billion. From a societal point of view, the ecnomic argument overwhelmingly favors the passage of these regulations. Installation of these pollution control devices are built here in America and employ American workers to install them.

To summarize, we have waited twenty years to propose these regulations. Meanwhile we have tolerated the equivalent of more than an Empire State Building weight worth of pollution of heavy metals, volatile organic compounds, and fine particulate matter which has contaminated our air passages, spoiled our soil, and put methylmercury into our fish. Hundreds of thousands of needless days have been lost to missed days of work and kids have missed school because of asthma attacks. We are asking that all power plants comply with some pretty common sense precautions that come down to this. If you are going to burn coal or fossil fuels, use the best technology to prevent polluting the air. At a time when the American workforce needs to be fully productive and when our kids need to be in school if we are to compete in a global economy, we applaud these new proposed EPA rules that will help reduce mercury and other air toxins from polluting our air and keeping the public healthy.

Thank you.

Kate Etherington
Executive Director, Philadelphia Chapter
Physicians for Social Responsibility 

Good afternoon, my name is Kate Etherington and I am the Executive Director of Philadelphia Physicicans for Social Responsibility.  I represent hundreds of Greater Philadelphia area physicians and public health professionals who are deeply concerned about the negative health impacts on citizens from fossil fuel fired power plants.

Outside of my professional life, I am also an expectant mom.  I am extremely concerned about the air I breathe not only for myself, but especially for my developing baby, whose vital organs and brain function is under development and highly susceptible to environmental toxins like mercury.

Air toxics include some of the most hazardous air pollutants known to us. In addition to mercury and arsenic, power plants emit lead, other heavy metals, dioxin and acid gases that threaten public health and child development. Power plants comprise the largest source of air toxics; cement and brick plants, pulp and paper mills and other industrial boilers are also major contributors of hazardous air pollution.  Even in small amounts these extremely harmful air pollutants are linked to health problems such as cancer, heart disease, neurological damage, birth defects, asthma attacks and even premature death.

Being pregnant, I’m especially concerned about toxics like mercury.  Even at very low levels mercury exposure during pregnancy can cause impaired brain functions, language deficits, and lower IQs for the developing child.  Pennsylvania emits approximately 15,550 lbs of mercury every year, making it the 2nd most mercury polluted state in the nation.  These mercury emissions end up in our rivers, lakes, and oceans, and eventually into the fish we eat.  In Pennsylvania there are 6 different river basins with fish advisories.  This means that as a pregnant woman I must forgo an otherwise healthy meal for the safety of myself and my child.

By exposing the health and environmental costs of pollution, EPA’s new standards will reduce our reliance on old, polluting resources and drive investment in new, innovative clean-energy facilities and technologies. An important byproduct of a healthier, cleaner environment will be the modernization of America’s aging power generation infrastructure.  We have a right to breathe easier and live healthier, which is why I support the EPA’s proposed mercury and air toxics standards and encourage the EPA to move forward with these rules without delay.  We can’t afford to wait.

Thank you.


Kristen Welker-Hood, ScD MSN
Director, Environment and Health Programs
Physicians for Social Responsibility

Re: National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants from Coal and Oil-fired Electric Utility Steam Generating Units and Standards of Performance for Fossil-Fuel-Fired Electric Utility, Industrial-Commercial-Institutional, and Small Industrial-Commercial-Institutional Steam Generating Units.

Docket EPA–HQ–OAR–2009–0234

Good afternoon, my name is Dr. Kristen Welker-Hood and I am the Director of the Environmental Health Program at Physicians for Social Responsibility National Office.  As a nurse and environmental health scientist I am heartened and grateful to witness the release of a such a health protective standard that will greatly diminish air emissions of hazardous air pollutants from coal and oil-fired power plants. 

Raised in the Philadelphia area, I worked for years in this city as community health nurse.  The harmful effects of soot and air toxics had devastating effects on the fragile health of my patients with heart disease, asthma and other respiratory ailments, and cancer.  On days in which the outdoor air quality was poor my patients with lung disease were chained to their 20-foot oxygen tubing for life support.  They aimed to just get through the day.  My patients with asthma had more frequent attacks, needed their rescue inhalers repeatedly and were frequently rushed to the hospital when I was unable to stabilize them at home. Those suffering from heart disease were confined to reduce activity in fear that if they do too much the crushing pain in their chest would return and perhaps they might not survive another heart attack.   As a cancer nurse I sought to ease the pain and suffering my patients as they and their families struggled to come to terms with this debilitating illness all the while never knowing why they had become sick.

This is what air pollution does to people.   This is what coal power plant pollution does to people.

The emissions from coal and oil-fired power plants contain 84 of the 187 hazardous air pollutants identified by the EPA to pose a threat to human health and the environment.  These pollutants include carcinogens like arsenic, hexavalent chromium, benzene, and dioxin, neurotoxins like mercury and lead, and non-mercury metals and acid gases that help form fine particulates that increases asthma attacks, leads to premature deaths from cardiovascular disease, stroke and cancer.

Coal-fired Power plants release 386,000 tons of air toxics every year, accounting for 40% of all the hazardous air pollutants spewed from point sources that we forced to breath. A recent EPA National-Scale Air Toxic Assessment determined that in many regions in the country breathing air toxics from outdoor sources over a lifetime of exposure contributes nearly 30 percent to the overall average cancer risk.  This increased cancer risk is unacceptable.  Controlling hazardous air pollutants from coal-fired power plants will make significant strides to lowering lifetime cancer risks.

Hazardous Air Pollutants released from coal-fired power plants influences  environmental quality on a local regional and global scale.  Communities most heavily affected by certain air toxics such as acid gases and mercury are those nearest to the power plant.  However, acid gases form sulfur dioxide and fine particulates in the atmosphere.  Sulfur dioxide reacts with other atmospheric gases to produce fine particulates. Metals, dioxins and pollutants adhere to fine particles and can travel great distances from the coal plant impacting the health of people hundreds even thousands of miles away.  Coal-fired power plants are the predominate source of acid gases like hydrochloric acid accounting for 76% of this air toxic released in the atmosphere. 

The Hazardous Air Pollutant Standard for Coal and Oil Fired Power Plants will cut mercury emissions by 91 percent, emissions of acid gases by 91 percent, and sulfur dioxide emissions by 53 percent, and it would eliminate 100,000 tons of particulate pollution every year. EPA estimates that the proposed mercury and air toxics standards will avoid up to 17,000 premature deaths, 11,000 heart attacks, 12,200 hospital and emergency room visits and up to 120,000 asthma attacks every year nationwide.  While not estimated the reductions of carcinogens release into the air for these power plants will profoundly reduce new air-toxics related cancer cases.

In closing, Physicians for Social Responsibility wishes to show its deep appreciation and support for the EPA for proposing this long-overdue Clean Air Act standard that will safeguard the health of our nation’s communities now exposed to unregulated toxic air pollution from power plants. We encourage the EPA to hold firm to its ground and move forward with the strongest air toxics controls possible to defend public health and protect people across the life-span from toxic mercury, carcinogens like arsenic, and dangerous particulates.  

Thank you!

Page Updated August 6, 2013