The EPA has announced it will set standards to limit mercury emissions from coal- and oil-burning power plants by late 2011, resolving a lawsuit filed by a dozen public health and environmental groups in December of 2008. This is great news. Exposure to mercury, even at low levels, can cause neurological damage, memory and learning problems, and delays in speech and reading ability, making it a particular concern during pregnancy and early childhood.
The most common source of human mercury exposure is through eating fish contaminated with methylmercury, an organic -and highly toxic- form of the heavy metal. How does mercury get into fish? Airborne mercury pollution, emitted from coal-fired power plants, waste incineration, cement kilns, among other sources, is carried by precipitation into waterways. There, it is absorbed by plants and aquatic life and converted to methylmercury. As bigger fish eat contaminated smaller fish, it concentrates in their flesh.
According to the EPA, American power plants emit close to 50 tons of mercury a year. But mercury is not the only health-damaging pollutant they spew into the air. In fact, a study released this month by the National Academy of Sciences revealed that burning fossil fuels, coal and oil primarily, costs the United States about $120 billion a year, mostly because of thousands of premature deaths from air pollutants, such as small soot particles, which cause lung damage; nitrogen oxides, which contribute to smog; and sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain.
The study's authors set out to measure the costs not incorporated into the price of a kilowatt-hour or a gallon of gasoline or diesel fuel. Coal burning was the biggest single source of such external costs. The damages averaged 3.2 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared with 0.16 cents for gas. But the variation among coal plants was enormous. The worst plants, generally the oldest and those that burn coal with the highest sulfur content, were 3.6 times worse than the average. John Walke of the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of a dozen groups involved in the mercury litigation mentioned above, said that as of 2008, only 28 percent of the coal-burning power plants in the United States had basic scrubbers for such pollution, which he called "two-decade-old technology." Mr. Walke said big cuts in these emissions would have tremendous economic benefits, because of the lives saved from reduced pollution.
Much of this year has been spent debating health care reform. An undisputed measure would prevent insurance companies from denying coverage to anyone with preexisting conditions or potentially life-threatening illnesses. Will this mean that one day, insurers will side with the public and demand pollution be reduced? It's possible that incentives could be given to individuals who exercise and eat a healthy diet, but none of us can dodge harmful pollutants when they are in the air we breathe. And while consumers can carefully read labels and pick and choose those fish that are lowest in mercury, should our children bear the cost in neurological damage and learning disabilities of the pollution we've allowed? No.
That's why EPA was created 40 years ago, to ensure our shared resources upon which we depend for life - the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land and sea from which we get our food- are safe. And that's why it is encouraging to see the EPA take such steps as it is now, to control mercury emissions from coal- and oil-burning power plants. If we can cut health care costs, save lives and improve our kids' chances to do well in school, all by preventing pollution, let's just do it.