Whenever I talk with parents of young children about my work, they often ask me about mercury pollution. They know it can harm children and pregnant women and they know it is pervasive, but they are unsure how to keep their families safe.
Today that job just got easier. President Obama announced new standards to reduce mercury, lead, and other dangerous pollution from power plants. Now dirty coal-fired plants that fought standards for decades will finally have to clean up their act.
This is a major breakthrough for American families. Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that damages developing brains in children and fetuses. A congressionally mandated study by the National Academy of Sciences found that for women who eat large amounts of seafood during pregnancy, the mercury exposure was likely to increase the number of children “who struggle to keep up in school and might require remedial classes or special education.”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, coal-fired power plants are the single largest source of industrial mercury pollution. Much of that mercury gets deposited in waterways, where fish absorb it, and when we eat the fish, we absorb it too.
This pollution is so ubiquitous that all 50 states advise people—especially women in childbearing years and young children—to avoid eating fish from certain contaminated waters. As of 2008, 38 states had statewide advisories.
Yet despite the widespread nature of this hazard, power plants have been dodging mercury and other air toxics rules for years. Every other major industrial sector in America is already reducing mercury and other air toxins. Oil refineries, chemical plants, plastics companies, the iron and steel industries, heavy manufacturers—they’ve all been subject to air toxic standards for more than 10 years.
Now it’s time for power plants to finally do their fair share.
About 50 percent of the coal-fired units in this country are more than 40 years old, and 44 percent of them have not bothered to install the technology that could easily reduce mercury and other toxins. Thanks to the new standards, these dirty dinosaurs will finally be brought into the 21st century and America will get a cleaner power fleet.
And American workers will have new job opportunities. Previous EPA estimates said the mercury standards could create 31,000 short-term construction jobs and 9,000 long-term jobs in the utility sector.
Meanwhile, Americans will reap the health benefits. In addition to limiting toxic mercury emissions, the new safeguards will reduce other pollutants that contribute to asthma, heart attacks, and cancer. As a result, the standards will save tens of thousands of American lives, prevent hundreds of thousands of cases of childhood asthma symptoms, and avoid tens of thousands of heart attacks, according to the EPA. These health benefits are expected to generate up to billions of dollars of savings.
The magnitude of these health benefits could make this rule one of the biggest environmental accomplishments of the Obama administration. I applaud the administration’s continued leadership in making our air cleaner and safer to breathe. You can click here to send your thanks to the White House as well.