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Lisa P. Jackson

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Cutting Mercury, Protecting Children

Posted: 12/21/11 02:00 PM ET

Fifteen years ago this week, my youngest son spent his very first Christmas in the hospital fighting to breathe. It was one of his earliest battles with asthma, a disease both he and his brother have struggled with over the years.

So when I say that clean air and children's health are top priorities for me as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, I'm saying that as a mother who knows exactly how vital clean air is to my own children's health. It's something I bring to work with me each day, and it's part of the reason I'm so excited about a recent step EPA took to safeguard the air we breathe and protect our kids from harm.

Last week, we finalized the nation's first-ever Mercury and Air Toxics Standards -- or MATS -- for power plant emissions. Before MATS, there were no national standards to limit the amounts of mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel and acid gases power plants across the country could release into the air we breathe. As a mother, I can't overstate the importance of this change. Mercury is a neurotoxin that's particularly harmful to children, and emissions of mercury and other air toxics have been linked to damage to developing nervous systems, respiratory illnesses and other diseases. MATS will require power plants to take steps that also reduce particle pollution, which has been linked to premature death and cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

Through the simple act of ensuring healthier air, we can cut serious medical incidents and hospital visits by the thousands. Once MATS is fully implemented in 2016, it will prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks, and 3,100 Emergency Room visits among children across the nation. The standards will also help avoid 540,000 sick days in the workforce, and 130,000 cases of aggravated asthma among kids between six and 18 years old.

Like any parent of a child with asthma, I can tell you that the benefits of clean air protections like MATS are not just statistics and abstract concepts. What we're really talking about with the numbers above are pregnant mothers who can rest easier knowing their children won't be exposed to harmful levels of mercury in critical development stages. We're talking about reducing the levels of mercury in the fish that we and our kids eat every day. We're talking about future generations growing up healthier because there is less toxic pollution in the air they breathe.

That is what environmental protection and the work of the EPA is all about.

Now, as a mother I am also deeply concerned about the economy. The good news is, we don't have to choose between clean air and economic growth. Not only will MATS provide the American people with health benefits between $37 billion and $90 billion, but we also estimate that implementing the standards will support jobs and opportunities for American workers.

To meet the MATS standards over the next several years, many power plants will upgrade their operations with modern and widely available pollution control technology. There are about 1,100 coal-fired units covered by the MATS rule, and about 40 percent don't use advanced pollution controls. Increased demand for scrubbers and other advanced pollution controls will mean increased business for American companies that lead the way in producing pollution control technology.

But that's just the start. Power plants making upgrades will need workers to build, install, operate and maintain the pollution controls. As the CEO of one of the largest coal-burning utilities in the country recently said about cutting emissions by installing pollution control technology, "Jobs are created in the process -- no question about that." The EPA estimates that the demand for workers will support 46,000 short-term construction jobs and 8,000 long-term jobs.

As we come together this time of year with our families and do so much to make our children happy, I'm glad that the EPA is taking action to make families and children healthy -- now and for the years to come.

As Administrator, I'm proud of what MATS will do to safeguard the air we breathe. And as a mother, I know exactly how important that is.