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Diane Bailey’s Blog

EPA's Boiler Rule Spared: Good News for Healthy Babies

Diane Bailey

Posted March 9, 2012

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News yesterday that a Collins amendment to the Transportation Bill failed a Senate vote should come as a relief to anyone concerned about babies’ health, as well as public health in general.  That’s because the amendment would have greatly delayed clean up of the second largest source of mercury air pollution in the US, boilers.  The mercury pollution associated with boilers and many other fossil fuel sources is responsible for polluting our lakes and streams, accumulating in fish, and when consumed by expecting mothers, landing in babies’ blood at high levels, according to recent reports from the Minnesota state health department.

There are thousands of boilers across the U.S. that burn coal and other fossil fuels to generate energy,  emitting vast amounts of pollution, including mercury and other air toxics, in many cases uncontrolled.  Last year EPA adopted new emission standards for boilers that are slated to prevent 8,100 premature deaths per year among other major health benefits.  The boiler standards, adopted in March, had faced a firestorm of opposition from Congress leading EPA to re-evaluate and re-issue a modified rule.  That was not enough for Senator Collins and others, who still wanted to eviscerate the mercury safeguards.  As my colleague, John Walk describes, the amendment defeated today was insidious because it not only blocks the current air toxics standards for boilers but also seems to prevent any meaningful replacement standards, permanently.

What does all this mean for babies?   Industrial mercury pollution has laden many of our water-bodies with fish unsafe for consumption.  Eating fish can be the biggest mercury exposure route for many people. Exposure to mercury is especially hazardous for pregnant women and young children. Even in low doses, mercury may affect a child's development, delaying walking and talking, shortening attention span and causing learning disabilities.  Based on biomonitoring data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), roughly one in 40 women of childbearing age have mercury in their blood at high levels (5.8 micrograms per liter) that could pose a risk to a developing fetus.

Now a Minnesota study of over 1400 babies near Lake Superior has confirmed these concerns, finding that eight percent of the babies tested had high levels of mercury in their blood.  This is the first solid evidence that there is widespread mercury contamination among infants.  We could ask mothers to stop eating fish, but wouldn’t it make more sense to stop polluting our fish?  Now EPA is free to move one step closer towards doing that with the mercury safeguards for boilers.

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