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Scott Slesinger’s Blog

Does Congress really want to encourage mercury pollution?

Scott Slesinger

Posted January 12, 2011 in Curbing Pollution, Health and the Environment, Moving Beyond Oil, U.S. Law and Policy

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Last week I wrote about Congressman Darrell Issa’s (R-CA) comment that “regulations were like rocks in a knapsack.” His comments ignored the benefits of health and safety standards, which is why they are put in place to begin with.  Recently, Representative John Carter (R-TX) has given us another example of this misguided notion that standards are all cost and no benefit.  He’s asked his colleagues to pass a bill to undo a Clean Air Act standard for cement production. 

Rep. Carter selectively notes that the EPA analysis pegs the cost of the rule at a not insignificant $970 million. And of course, he cites the Chicken Little claim that “industry analysts say the regulation could lead to the complete collapse of American cement production by 2013.” What he left out is that the benefit of these standards will range from $6.7 billion to $18 billion annually in 2013, as a result of reductions in fine particle pollution. That is a rate of return of more than $6-$18of benefit for every dollar spent -- a rate of return that clearly justifies the rule.  Why does the rule provide these benefits? Reduction in mercury pollution.

The toxic nature of mercury has been known for more than a century. 

Mercury is released into the air during combustion of coal and once it enters a waterway, naturally occurring bacteria absorb it and convert it to a form called methyl mercury. This transition is particularly significant for humans, who absorb methyl mercury easily and are especially vulnerable to its effects.

Once in the human body, mercury acts as a neurotoxin, interfering with the brain and nervous system.  Exposure to mercury can be particularly hazardous for pregnant women and small children. Prenatal and infant mercury exposure can cause mental retardation, cerebral palsy, deafness and blindness. Even in low doses, mercury may affect a child's development, delaying walking and talking, shortening attention span and causing learning disabilities. Even in adults, mercury poisoning can adversely affect fertility and blood pressure regulation and can cause memory loss, tremors, vision loss and numbness of the fingers and toes. A growing body of evidence suggests that exposure to mercury may also lead to heart disease.For information about mercury click here.

The new mercury standard for cement kilns will reduce the mercury released into the air from cement production by over 16,000 pounds, a 92% reduction. This standard is not using some exotic untested technology. For instance, hazardous waste incinerators have used such technology for years. 

Obviously reducing the mercury released and the other pollutants will have a major positive impact on public health and the environment. This includes the value of avoiding 960 to 2,500 premature deaths in people with heart disease. Other benefits included in EPA’s analysis were yearly reduction of:

  • 17,000 cases of aggravated asthma
  • 1,500 heart attacks
  • 650 cases of chronic bronchitis
  • 1,000 emergency room visits for respiratory problems, such as asthma
  • 740 hospital admissions for respiratory or cardiovascular problems
  • 32,000 cases of upper and lower respiratory symptoms
  • 130,000 days when people miss work
  • 750,000 days when people must restrict their activities because of particle pollution-related symptoms.

Industry without an exception I can think of reflexively overstates the cost of complying with environmental standards and suggests that each new standard will lead to the collapse of the American economy.  No one wants to burden industry with unnecessary costs.  But no one should want industry to burden the public with unnecessary health consequences. The Clean Air Act makes sure industry can’t simply pump out dangerous pollutants with impunity.

 The assumption that regulations are completely wasteful -- “rocks in a knapsack” that make something harder for no reason -- is intellectually dishonest.  History has shown that the American people will not long abide  this line of thinking.  Sooner or later it becomes apparent that the metaphorical “rocks” are the health burdens being imposed by industry.  They literally burden our bodies unnecessarily when we have proven, affordable technology that can remove them. 

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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