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The electric power sector is the largest industrial source of toxic air pollution in the United States. Thanks to new standards by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), toxic pollution from power plants will decline dramatically over the next several years. In fact, some companies have already begun reducing emissions in anticipation of the new standards.

Compared to 2010 levels, the EPA's Mercury and Air Toxics standard (MATS) will cut mercury pollution from 34 tons to 7 tons, a 79 percent reduction, by 2015. Sulfur dioxide pollution will be reduced from 5,140,000 tons in 2010 to 1,900,000 tons in 2015, a 63 percent reduction. Another dangerous acid gas, hydrochloric acid, will be reduced from 106,000 tons in 2010 to 5,500 tons in 2015, a 95 percent reduction.

Toxic Power: How Power Plants Contaminate Our Air and States reveals where in the country these standards will reduce the most toxic air pollution from power plants. "Toxic Power" uses publicly-available data to rank states and power plants based on 2010 air pollution levels as reported to the EPA'a Toxic Release Inventory (TRI). Comparing emissions from the electric utilities sector to those from other sectors, the report reveals the top twenty states -- the Toxic 20 -- where residents are at a higher risk of numerous health problems just by breathing. The list includes many states from the southern and Midwestern regions in the United States, including North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana.

This year's analysis also found that toxic pollution declined by about 20 percent compared to 2009 levels, which includes a 6 percent decrease in mercury emissions. In part, the reduction is due to some power companies' decision to invest in pollution controls before the standards come into effect, in essence getting a head start on the reductions.

The EPA estimates that these reductions will prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths; 130,000 asthma attacks; 5,700 hospital visits; 4,700 heart attacks; and 2,800 cases of chronic bronchitis annually. The public health improvements will save between $37 billion and $90 billion in health costs, and prevent up to 540,000 missed work or "sick" days each year.

Despite the significant benefit to public health, power companies continue to sue to block the pollution reductions, and some in Congress have repeatedly sought to repeal, weaken, or delay the standards. However, as long as Congress and the courts allow the EPA to do its job, the threat from toxic power will decline significantly in the future.

last revised 8/7/2012

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