Death By Pollution: How the Obama Administration Just Put Thousands of Lives at Risk
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It must be election season. Like other prominent Democrats, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson has been making the rounds. Two weeks ago she popped up on Jon Stewart's "Daily Show" and explained that regulating toxins like mercury from coal burners across the country would prevent thousands of deaths and create jobs. She even rallied people to action.
"Environmentalism is not a spectator sport," Jackson told Stewart, as if she was encouraging viewers to turn off their televisions and get busy. "You actually have to stand up and demand that we be vigilant in protecting our air and water."
It was certainly a boisterous display of support for stronger environmental statues, something Jackson happens to know a little bit about. However, just one week after Jackson's Comedy Central performance the EPA indefinitely delayed essential health protections designed to reduce public exposure to airborne toxins such as mercury, arsenic, lead, and acid gases by thousands of tons per year.
It was back in 1990 when President H.W. Bush signed Clean Air Act Amendments into law, requiring the EPA to establish emission standards limiting toxins like mercury from the largest pollution sources. One of these laws, called Boiler MACT, covers emissions from boilers that produce power, like those from large to small coal plants. In February 2011, under court order, the EPA was forced to finally issue these rules. But now the EPA has indefinitely delayed the law from going into effect.
"Two years ago the Obama administration took office vowing to protect public health and respect the law," said Earthjustice attorney James Pew shortly after the EPA's announcement. "Today's action disserves both of these principles. By the EPA's own calculations, the health protections it has elected to delay would save up to 6,500 lives each year."
In fact, according to the EPA itself, more than 4,000 non-fatal heart attacks, 1,600 cases of acute bronchitis and 313,000 missed work and school days would be avoided if the law was enacted -- not to mention upwards of 6,600 premature deaths. All these benefits, despite the fact that the proposal had been dramatically watered down after industry pushed the EPA to weaken its original draft of the rule early last summer.
"It appears that EPA has addressed many of the industry complaints while still putting out standards that would bring significant public health benefits," Frank O'Donnell of Clean Air Watch told Greenwire. "Let's hope that EPA stands its ground when industries argue for further changes."
But the EPA didn't stand its ground. It soon backed off and has now delayed the rule indefinitely.
By all accounts the action to protect human health by regulating toxic emissions is long overdue. While there are several major air pollutants at play, mercury may be the most significant. One the largest producers of airborne mercury happens to be coal plants. This pollution ends up in water, poisoning fish and the humans that eat them. And the poisoning is rampant.
In August 2009, the U.S. Geological Survey released a study of mercury contamination in fish in 291 streams around the country. The study, which is the most comprehensive to date, was conducted from 1998 to 2005 and tested over 1,000 fish. Every fish tested, including those from isolated rural waterways, contained at least trace amounts of toxic mercury. According to the researchers, the majority of mercury in the streams tested came from coal plants.
This pollution has a direct impact on human health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 8 percent of American women of childbearing age have unsafe levels of mercury in their blood, putting approximately 322,000 newborns at risk of neurological deficits. Mercury exposure can also lead to increased cardiovascular risk in adults.