12/15/2011 09:19 am ET Updated Feb 14, 2012

It's Time To Clear The Air: EPA's Clean Air Rules Save Lives

In meetings with members of Congress in Washington, D.C. today, we will urge our nation's legislators to do the right thing and tackle the problem of dirty air by supporting the soon-to-be-finalized Air Toxics Rule and ensuring it goes into effect without delay. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the next few days is expected to issue this lifesaving rule, which would mandate nationwide reductions of dangerous emissions of mercury, lead, arsenic, and acid gases from coal-fired power plants. Most importantly, the rule would clean the air we breathe and save lives. These clean air standards are over a decade in the making and build on the legacy of the Clean Air Act since it was signed into law 40 years ago: cleaner air for all Americans.

When President Richard Nixon created the EPA and enacted the Clean Air Act, the quality of the air and water in the United States was so bad that iconic comedian Bob Hope once quipped: "I don't trust air I can't see," and the polluted Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire. The Act's successes are obvious, and politicians who vote to limit the EPA's ability to protect public health are putting lives at risk. We are working together to urge our elected officials to support the clean air rules because they are in the best interest of the health and welfare of their constituents.

Air pollution leads to severe health issues, including hundreds of premature deaths annually due to heart, respiratory, and lung problems. For those who experience breathing problems such as asthma, air pollution can lead to further respiratory distress, missed worked days, higher health care costs and even hospitalization. On high-pollution days, dirty air irritates the respiratory system, causing symptoms such as coughing, throat irritation, and chest tightness. It is particularly dangerous for asthmatics, the elderly, and people with chronic health conditions.

In addition to reducing pollution that leads to heart, respiratory and lung problems, EPA's rule will drastically limit the amount of dangerous mercury that is released into the air and water. Mercury poses a serious threat to human life -- especially young children and developing fetuses. At least one in 12 and as many as one in 6 women of childbearing age have levels of mercury high enough to impact an unborn child, impairing cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, and fine motor and visual spatial skills. Mercury also has been linked to brain damage and neurological and developmental problems, including learning disabilities and autism.

Despite the significant improvements in air quality over the last 20 years, the American Lung Association says more than 175 million people -- or nearly six out of 10 Americans -- live in areas with unhealthy levels of air pollution. By 2015, the Toxics Rule is estimated to prevent 17,000 premature deaths, 11,000 heart attacks, 120,000 asthma attacks, 12,200 hospital visits, 850,000 days of missed work and 4,500 cases of chronic bronchitis.

Protecting kids and adults from these harmful air pollutants must be a public health priority. Finalizing this rule will save thousands of American lives and protect our communities. Any attempt to block or delay implementation of the Toxics Rule is an assault on public health. It's time to stop allowing special interests to run interference on rules that will benefit our country.

Clean air is too valuable to put on hold, and the play clock is running. We look forward to discussing this lifesaving rule with Senator Robert Casey (D-PA), Congressman John Dingell (D - MI) and Congressman Mike Doyle (D-PA) today.

Prior to his retirement in 2006, Jerome Bettis was an All-Pro running back for the Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams and Pittsburgh Steelers. He suffers from asthma and is dedicated to asthma advocacy and education.

Joseph Otis Minott, Esq. is Executive Director of Clean Air Council, a member- supported, non-profit environmental organization dedicated to protecting everyone's right to breathe clean air.