EPA Mercury plan is illegal and harmful to public health

Washington D.C. - The Bush Administration's illegal and flawed approach to controlling mercury emissions from power plants will come under fire today in federal court when the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association, the American Nurses Association and Physicians for Social Responsibility present their legal challenge to the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Clean Air Mercury Rule (CAMR). The leading public health groups, which represent more than 300,000 professionals, will join 14 state attorneys general, a dozen national environmental organizations and several Indian tribes in the D.C. Circuit Court.

"This challenge represents unprecedented legal action by these public health groups, an indication of how severe doctors, nurses, pediatricians and other health workers know the threat of mercury emissions to be," said John Suttles of the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is representing the public health organizations in the challenge. "With this rule, the EPA not only ignored the requirements of the Clean Air Act, it also ignored the advice of thousands of health experts, choosing a clean up plan that does too little, too late to protect public health."

Released in May 2005, the EPA's Clean Air Mercury Rule exempts power plants, the largest source of U.S. mercury pollution, from Clean Air Act requirements to control the harmful neurotoxin. While Clean Air Act requirements would rid the nation of 90 percent of mercury emissions by the end of next year, CAMR would allow power plants to continue to spew far more mercury pollution into the air for much longer than the law allows. Under its plan, the EPA projects that U.S. power plants will continue to emit nearly 20 tons of mercury into the air every year as late as 2025.

Worse, the EPA has attempted to control mercury using a flawed "cap and trade" scheme, which allows facilities to trade mercury pollution credits with other less-polluting power plants. This approach threatens individual communities with toxic mercury "hot spots" - local areas of higher mercury concentrations that could result in dangerous levels of human exposure.

"The mercury emitted by our nation's coal-fired power plants poses serious health risks for all Americans," said Georges C. Benjamin, MD, FACP, FACEP (E), executive director of the American Public Health Association (APHA). "However, the health risks are even greater for minorities and people living in underserved communities who are more likely to live in potential toxic hot spots and have greater risk of exposure."

Mercury emissions from power plants are deposited into water bodies, where mercury is converted into its most toxic form, methylmercury. Humans are exposed to methylmercury when they consume contaminated fish from those water bodies. EPA estimates that as many as 600,000 children are born each year with unhealthy levels of mercury in their bodies. Despite this figure, EPA adopted the flawed mercury rule, ignoring the counsel of its own Children's Health Public Advisory Committee and thousands of health professionals nationwide.

"As pediatricians, we urge parents to keep their children away from harmful household products, teach children the importance of proper hygiene, and work to protect them from harmful products and situations," said American Academy of Pediatrics' President-Elect David T. Tayloe, MD, FAAP. "But how do we tell parents that the government isn't willing to do their part to protect children and keep methylmercury out of the environment?"

Methylmercury is a toxic pollutant that is linked to permanent damage to the central nervous system. Unborn children, breast-fed infants and children exposed to methylmercury are at risk for lowered intelligence and learning disabilities. Adults exposed to even low amounts of methylmercury also may be at higher risk for altered sensation, impaired hearing and vision, and motor disturbances linked directly to exposure from eating contaminated fish.

"Registered nurses see first-hand the impact of toxic mercury exposure to pregnant women, children and others. We give our best to our patients, and we think our patients deserve the best from our government.ANA stands shoulder to shoulder with the many states, environmental groups and health care organizations that call upon the EPA to implement the law as it should be implemented - with the safety of our citizens in mind," said Rebecca M. Patton, MSN, RN, CNOR, President, American Nurses Association.

The loss of intelligence caused by methylmercury continues throughout the lifetime of exposed children, resulting in educational difficulties and loss of productivity in the workforce. In fact, researchers at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine estimate the cost from lost productivity associated with IQ impairment from methylmercury exposure to be $1.3 billion each year.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association, the American Nurses Association and Physicians for Social Responsibility urge the D.C. Circuit Court to reject CAMR, and force EPA to go back to drawing board to develop a proposal to control mercury emissions in a way that will protect public health.

"This is a simple matter of looking to the health of the public rather than bending to political pressure," said Michael McCally, MD, Executive Director for Physicians for Social Responsibility.

--Southern Environmental Law Center