Category Archives: Health

"Risky Business" stands out in growing sea of climate reports

Receding beach on North Carolina's Outer Banks. Source: FEMA/Tim Burkitt

(This blog originally appeared on EDF Voices)

This blog post was co-authored by Jonathan Camuzeaux.

Put Republican Hank Paulson, Independent Mike Bloomberg, and Democrat Tom Steyer together, and out comes one of the more unusual – and unusually impactful – climate reports.

This year alone has seen a couple of IPCC tomes, an entry by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the most recent U.S. National Climate Assessment.

The latest, Risky Business, stands apart for a number of reasons, and it’s timely with the nation debating proposed, first-ever limits on greenhouse gas emissions from nearly 500 power plants.

Tri-partisan coalition tackles climate change

The report is significant, first, because we have a tri-partisan group spanning George W. Bush’s treasury secretary Paulson, former mayor of New York Bloomberg, and environmentalist investor Steyer – all joining forces to get a message through.

That list of names alone should make one sit up and listen.

Last time a similar coalition came together was in the dog days of 2009, when Senators Lindsay Graham, Joe Lieberman, and John Kerry were drafting the to-date last viable (and ultimately unsuccessful) Senate climate bill.

Global warming is hitting home

Next, Risky Business is important because it shows how climate change is hitting home. No real surprise there for anyone paying attention to globally rising temperatures, but the full report goes into much more granular details than most, focusing on impacts at county, state and regional levels.

Risky Business employs the latest econometric techniques to come up with numbers that should surprise even the most hardened climate hawks and wake up those still untouched by reality. Crop yield losses, for example, could go as high as 50 to 70 percent (!) in some Midwestern and Southern states, absent agricultural adaptation.

The report is also replete with references to heat strokes, sky-rocketing electricity demand for air conditioning, and major losses from damages to properties up and down our ever-receding coast lines.

Not precisely uplifting material, yet this report does a better job than most in laying it all out.

Financial markets can teach us a climate lesson

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Risky Business gets the framing exactly right: Climate change is replete with deep-seated risks and uncertainties.

In spite of all that we know about the science, there’s lots more that we don’t. And none of that means that climate change isn’t bad. As the report makes clear, what we don’t know could potentially be much worse.

Climate change, in the end, is all about risk management.

Few are better equipped to face up to that reality than the trio spearheading the effort; Paulson, Bloomberg and Steyer have made their careers (and fortunes) in the financial sector. In fact, as United States Treasury secretary between 2006 and 2009, Paulson was perhaps closest of anyone to the latest, global example of what happens when risks get ignored.

We cannot – must not – ignore risk when it comes to something as global as global warming. After all, for climate, much like for financial markets, it’s not over ‘til the fat tail zings.

Also posted in Basic Science of Global Warming, Cars and Pollution, Economics, Extreme Weather, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Jobs, News, Policy | 1 Response, comments now closed

Soot Pollution Limits Unanimously Upheld in Court, Continuing Clean Air Victory Streak

Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit unanimously upheld the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) particulate matter (soot) pollution standard, ruling that EPA’s decision to strengthen the standard in 2012 was firmly grounded in science and the law. The ruling also upheld EPA’s new requirement that states install air quality monitors near heavy traffic roads, where soot pollution levels can spike. The court’s decision is the latest in a string of legal victories for critical health protections on air pollution.

When fossil fuels are burned in an automobile or power plant, they release soot pollution, very fine, ashy particles less than one tenth the width of a human hair. These particles are so small that the air can carry them for long distances. When inhaled, soot particles penetrate deep into the lungs, where they can cross into the bloodstream via the path normally taken by inhaled oxygen. Exposure to soot pollution can inflame and alter our blood vessels, cutting off the oxygen supply to our heart and brain, leading to a heart attack, stroke, or other serious cardiac event.

The Clean Air Act mandates that EPA revisit its standards on criteria air pollutants – like soot – every five years, so that clean air standards can keep pace with the latest understanding of health science. Since EPA established its 2006 soot standard, hundreds of scientific studies have shown that particle pollution could cause adverse health effects—even in cities that met EPA’s established limits. Based on this information, in 2012, EPA strengthened its soot pollution standard to protect public health. Furthermore, EPA called for states to implement roadside air quality monitors to ensure the standards would likewise protect individuals exposed to significant near-road emissions.

The National Association of Manufacturers and the Utility Air Resources group, a coalition of large power companies and coal companies, filed legal challenges to EPA’s new soot standards, arguing that the 2006 standard was sufficient to protect public health. But the science doesn’t lie. In the D.C. Circuit Court’s unanimous decision, Judge Brett Kavanaugh wrote:

Here, we can be brief: Petitioners have not identified any way in which EPA jumped the rails of reasonableness in examining the science. EPA offered reasoned explanations for how it approached and weighed the evidence, and why the scientific evidence supported revision of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

EPA was reasonable in their interpretation of the science—the polluting companies, on the other hand, could not present a credible argument against the updated soot pollution standards, or the need for roadside air quality monitors.

This important victory is critical to protect our families and communities from harmful soot pollution, and it is clear that EPA’s implementation of the Clean Air Act stands up to both legal and scientific scrutiny.

This post was adapted from EDF’s Texas Clean Air Matters Blog

Also posted in Cars and Pollution, Clean Air Act | 3 Responses, comments now closed

The way forward to kicking our carbon addiction

Photo credit: Billy Wilson cc

How would you respond to an upsetting medical diagnosis? Probably first with shock and fear, then you’d ask the doctor about realistic treatment options. That’s how it works for an individual, but what about when seven billion people get the bad news at the same time?

That’s what happened yesterday, when the White House released another troubling National Climate Assessment (NCA). It described a condition that’s going to get significantly worse without intervention – with troubling symptoms already apparent.

Now, to be fair, this NCA wasn’t really news in the “I didn’t see that coming” sense. Just like a patient who has been told to stop smoking for years, there has been plenty of warning that our “unfiltered” smokestacks are causing serious damage to our environment and health. Last month, in fact, the International Panel on Climate Change issued its fifth report, and this is the third National Climate Assessment – each making more specific estimates of the climate dangers ahead. And yet, we can’t quit our pack-a-day habit.

The disturbing news is all here: Threats to agriculture from drought, danger for coastal residents and businesses from rising seas, more frequent intense hurricanes, more asthma attacks for kids, the spread of insect borne disease, and much more.

But the good news is that this disease has a cure. In fact, in just about four weeks, the United States is poised to take a very important step towards improving the currently predicted outcome. On June 2, EPA is planning to announce limits on carbon emissions from existing power plants, which are America’s largest source of climate pollution – about a third of the total we produce.

When EPA announces the new standards, what will probably surprise most people is that the agency doesn’t already have limits on this type of pollution. A recent poll indicates that 56% of Americans assume we currently have these protections. That’s an understandable belief since EPA limits most other forms of air pollution, but up to now utilities have been free to put as much of this stuff as they can crank out in our common atmosphere. And all that pollution has a very real cost borne by society.

Of course, as with all other proposed air pollution rules, there will be a small but powerful group who howl in protest. They did it when EPA limited toxic mercury, sulfur, smog and other dangerous pollutants. I’m sure you’ll hear that ending unlimited carbon pollution will wreck our economy and bankrupt us all. But what those people won’t tell you is that studies have shown that every past air pollution rule has actually helped the U.S. economy, with benefits outweighing costs by a substantial margin.

The new rules alone won’t cure climate change. But, along with actions on cars and trucks that have already been announced, they are a substantial first step. These standards will also push utilities to modernize, help grow clean energy jobs, and give a boost to entrepreneurs who are looking for ways to power our economy more cleanly. (EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has said the agency is exploring ways to make the rules flexible, allowing states and companies to find innovative ways to meet the standards.)

Cures are never painless, but they’re usually a lot better than the disease. And everyone knows that the sooner you act, the better the outcome. So let’s take yesterday’s diagnosis seriously, and when EPA announces the new carbon standards on June 2, let’s make sure Congress knows we all want a healthy future.

This post first appeared on our EDF Voices blog.

Also posted in Basic Science of Global Warming, Clean Air Act, Clean Power Plan, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Policy | 2 Responses, comments now closed

EPA Getting It Right: Supreme Court Affirms EPA’s Common-Sense Approach to Controlling Air Pollution from Power Plants

(This post was co-authored by EDF Attorneys Megan Ceronsky and Graham McCahan)

In a tremendous victory for clean air, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision this week upholding the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule.

The high court found the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) rule to be a:

permissible, workable, and equitable interpretation of [the Clean Air Act]. (page 32 of the decision)

The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule is a common-sense and cost-effective framework to protect American communities from the dangerous air pollution that is emitted by coal-fired power plants and then carried by the wind from one state to another.

The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule implements the “good neighbor” provision of the Clean Air Act, which Congress put in place to address this problem.

The “good neighbor” provision requires each state to curb emissions from in-state power plants that interfere with the ability of downwind states to secure clean and safe air for their citizens.

By cutting the emissions that create smog and soot, the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule — when implemented – will avoid up to 34,000 premature deaths, prevent 400,000 asthma attacks, and provide up to $280 billion in health and environmental benefits each year.

Downwind communities will finally have cleaner, safer air to breathe.

This victory is only the latest in a series of court decisions upholding EPA’s actions to address harmful pollution from power plants as firmly grounded in law and science.

Just two weeks ago, for example, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld the agency’s landmark standards to cut mercury and other toxic pollutants emitted by power plants.

The Mercury standards will eliminate 90 percent of the mercury emitted by coal-fired power plants. They will avoid 11,000 premature deaths each year while preventing thousands of heart attacks, bronchitis cases, and asthma attacks. They will also save up to $90 billion a year by reducing sick days and trips to emergency rooms.

As we look forward to the proposal of the Carbon Pollution Standards for power plants, we expect more of the same — common-sense, cost-effective standards, built on a solid legal foundation, which will finally curb climate-destabilizing emissions from the largest source of this pollution in our country.

The Supreme Court’s ruling made Tuesday a wonderful day for clean air.

We believe more good air days are yet to come.

Also posted in Clean Air Act, EPA litgation, News, Policy | Comments closed

Why Latinos are disproportionately affected by asthma — and what we can do

(This post first appeared on EDF Voices. Para leer en Español haga clic aquí)

This post was co-authored by Rachel Shaffer  and Declan Kingland, National Health Programs Coordinator for the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).

Today in the United States, Latinos are three times more likely to die from asthma than other racial or ethnic groups. Latino children are 40 percent more likely to die from asthma than non-Latino whites, and nearly 1 in 10 Latino children under the age of 18 suffer from this chronic respiratory illness. Addressing the dangerous indoor and outdoor air pollution that is linked to asthma is critical for the health of Latino communities – and for all Americans.

Socioeconomics

Latinos are one of the poorest demographics in the United States, with roughly 1 in 4 Latinos living under the poverty level. Many Latinos also face challenges due to limited English-language proficiency, and in some cases, low levels of education. These issues can lead Latinos, particularly new immigrants, to low-paying jobs, often in the fields of agriculture, construction, and service.

Too often, these jobs expose workers to serious respiratory hazards from both indoor and outdoor air pollution, yet they frequently provide no healthcare benefits. For example, the toxic chemical formaldehyde, which is linked to asthma, can be found in glues, insulation, and wood products to which construction workers are disproportionately exposed. Asthma-related toxics can also be found in paints, cleaning products, carpets, and foam cushions.

Housing

Low-paying jobs held by Latinos lead to low-income families, and these families can be at even greater risk for asthma if their housing is substandard or if their home is located near major roadways, factories, or power plants, which produce air pollutants that can exacerbate asthma. People with asthma are especially sensitive to the pollutants released from cars, buses, heavy machinery, factories, and power plants, including particulate matter (soot), ground-level ozone (smog), carbon monoxide, and more.

Nearly 1 in 2 Latinos in the U.S. live in counties that frequently violate ground-level ozone standards.  Latinos are also 165% more likely to live in counties with unhealthy levels of particulate matter pollution than non-Latino whites, and nearly 2 in 5 Latinos lives within 30 miles of a power plant. Asthma triggers can also be found inside the home – from ethanolamines found in cleaning products, to bisphenol-A (BPA), a toxic chemical found in plastic products and food can linings.  Some asthma-linked toxic chemicals are even found in personal creams and lotions.

Healthcare

Statistics show that Latinos face disproportionate exposures to asthma-exacerbating indoor and outdoor air pollution. At the same time, Latinos face added challenges when seeking adequate healthcare. This is due in part to the language, educational, and economic barriers mentioned previously, which can limit access to or awareness of available health care resources that may be available. In fact, nearly 1 in 3 Latinos lacks health insurance.

These barriers to health care access can have significant consequences:

  • Compared to non-Latino whites, Latinos with asthma are less likely to be prescribed appropriate asthma medications and less likely to have access to asthma specialists.
  • Latinos who have an asthma emergency that sends them to the ER or hospital are also less likely to receive follow-up care or an asthma action plan.

Combined, these serious issues can make an otherwise manageable disease life-threatening.

What we can do

While these challenges are daunting, we have an opportunity to address part of the problem by demanding that our leaders take action to reduce asthma hazards – for Latinos, and for the nation as a whole. This is why EDF and League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) have come together this year to help raise awareness among and empower Latinos in the U.S. to better combat this often preventable illness by strengthening the air pollution and chemicals laws that protect us.

We at EDF and at LULAC encourage you to ask your Congressman to:

Nationwide, Latinos are among the 25 million people – including 7 million children – affected by asthma.  We can help address the immediate problem through other avenues – like improving health care coverage or worker protections.  But ultimately, we need to address the root of the problem. We need to get rid of the air pollution and toxins that are linked to asthma.  All of us, including our Latino communities, should act now to get rid of the underlying causes of the disease. Until we do, we are all at risk.

Also posted in Partners for Change | 2 Responses, comments now closed

Cleaner Cars Trifecta: Benefits for Health, Businesses, and the Environment

A set of national clean car standards that have long been debated are, finally, a reality.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced those standards, commonly known as Tier 3, today.

The terrific news is that these rigorous tailpipe and cleaner fuel standards will deliver vital and swift health benefits for our communities and families.

Tier 3 is indeed a win-win-win for public health and the environment, the economy, and businesses.

EPA’s Tier 3 standards will provide benefits from day one by reducing dangerous pollutants in fuel.

They’ll cut even more vehicle and fuel emissions when the standards take full effect in 2017 – including reducing the levels of nitrous oxides, volatile organic compounds, air toxics, and fine particulate matter – better known as soot.

The health benefits at stake are so high that almost 500 health and medical professionals recently wrote to President Obama, urging prompt finalization of Tier 3 standards:

“Unhealthy air imposes the risk of serious health impacts on millions of Americans. We see those impacts on our patients’ health, in public health, and in our research.”

By 2030, the emission reductions from the tightened fuel and vehicle standards will prevent:

  • Up to 2,000 premature deaths
  • 2,200 hospital admissions and asthma-related emergency room visits
  • 19,000 asthma attacks
  • 30,000 upper and lower respiratory symptoms in children
  • 1.4 million lost school days, work days and days of minor-restricted activities

The monetized net benefits of the avoided health impacts are as much as $19 billion every year.

And we get all of this for the cost of well under a penny per gallon of gas.

It comes as no surprise then that the Tier 3 standards enjoy broad support among diverse stakeholders including car companies, manufacturers, environmental justice groups, health groups and medical professionals, labor, blue and red states, environmental groups, faith groups, and advocates for consumers.

Utah has had to confront its growing air pollution problem, and its leaders have expressed support for the Tier 3 standards and improving air quality. Republican Governor Gary Herbert reiterated Utah’s commitment in his January 29th State of the State address:

“…We will accelerate the transition to cleaner Tier 3 gasoline and the next generation of lower-emission vehicles. Because nearly 60 percent of our pollution during inversions comes from tailpipes, and the technology already exists to do something about it, there is absolutely no reason to wait. By taking initiative, we ensure these cleaner gasolines and lower-emission vehicles, which burn 80 percent cleaner than current models, are made available in Utah as soon as possible.” 

In addition to the public health benefits of the cleaner fuel and vehicles, Tier 3 standards will help many domestic businesses.

Emissions control technology makers will see growing business from implementation of the standards. Tier 3 will also help the auto industry meet greenhouse gas emission and fuel economy standards, and deliver its “cleaner vehicles” promise to America.

Many individual oil refiners have stated that Tier 3 will not materially impact their business. In fact, refiners in California are already producing ultra-low sulfur fuel.

In the fuel clean-up process at oil refineries, Tier 3 standards could create nearly 25,000 jobs in construction, as oil refineries modernize their facilities. The standards could also create more than 5,000 permanent operations jobs.

For every dollar invested in meeting the Tier standards we will receive up to 13 dollars in benefits.

This is a significant victory for cleaner air, and it would not have been possible without the tremendous efforts of the more than 47,000 of you who wrote to EPA in support of Tier 3!

I now have another favor to ask of you — please send a thank you note to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and her team at EPA for their diligence in getting these life-saving standards across the finish line.

And my immeasurable thanks to all of you for your efforts in the fight for cleaner, safer air!

Also posted in Cars and Pollution, Policy | Comments closed

Super News in Crossing the Goal Line to Cleaner Cars and Healthier Air

This is a big week for major events, from State of the Union address last night to the Super Bowl this weekend.

But there’s one more milestone you might not have heard of yet — America is poised to make major progress in crossing the goal line to cleaner cars and cleaner gasoline.

The Tier 3 tailpipe and low sulfur gasoline standards are undergoing final review now at the White House.

Tier 3 standards will pave the way for a fleet of cleaner cars beginning in model year 2017 by reducing the emissions that contribute to dangerous soot and smog.

You can read more about what Tier 3 is and why it matters here.

Cars and light trucks are the second largest emitters of oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic compounds in the U.S. Those are the primary pollutants that form ozone.

According to EPA, the Tier 3 standards as proposed would slash the level of those pollutants by 80 percent.

By 2030, the Tier 3 standards will prevent 2,400 deaths every year, prevent tens of thousands of cases of respiratory illnesses in children, and provide total health-related benefits worth up to $23 billion per year.

The proposed Tier 3 standards would also establish a 70 percent tighter standard for particulate matter.

Particulate matter, more commonly known as soot, is one of the most dangerous types of air pollution. It has been linked to asthma attacks, bronchitis, heart attacks and other types of heart and lung diseases.

We need your help ensuring these clean air protections for our communities and families cross the goal line.

The Tier 3 standards enjoy wide support from states, businesses, public health associations, environmental groups, environmental justice organizations, and auto manufacturers.

Here are some of their comments:

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Association of Global Automakers said:

 Sulfur inhibits the catalytic converter’s ability to reduce vehicle emissions, so lower sulfur at the pump means fewer exhaust emissions in the air. And because lower sulfur reduces emissions from all vehicles, the proposed sulfur reductions would achieve Day One benefits, immediately reducing emissions from every gasoline-powered vehicle on our roads, no matter how old.

Labor groups such as the United Auto Workers have also weighed in with their strong support:

Upon full implementation, the proposed rule will reduce the amount of sulfur in our gasoline by two-thirds. This is one of the most cost-effective ways for us to get cleaner and healthier air while strengthening our domestic auto sector and creating thousands of new jobs.

A broad coalition of health organizations – including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, the American Public Health Association, the American Thoracic Society, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, Trust for America’s Health, Healthcare Without Harm, and the National Association of City and County Health Officials – had this to say:

These standards are urgently needed and will help protect the health of millions of Americans who continue to breathe unsafe air … Abundant scientific evidence exists on the health effects of ozone, particulate matter and other pollutants from tailpipe exhaust. Tier 3 standards will be effective tools to reduce such pollution and improve air quality.

National Association of Clean Air Agencies said:

The emission reductions that would result from the Tier 3 program proposed by EPA will benefit the citizens in every state and locality across the country… State and local air pollution agencies are relying on EPA to adopt the Tier 3 rule.

Please join the hundreds of thousands of Americans who are lending their strong support to ensure these clean car standards cross the goal line and deliver super health benefits for our nation.

Also posted in Cars and Pollution, Clean Air Act, News, Policy | Comments closed

EPA Publishes Proposed Standards to Limit Carbon Pollution from New Power Plants

November of 2013 was the warmest November on record.

It was also was the 345th consecutive month (that’s almost 29 years!) with a global temperature above the 20th century average, according to the most recent data from NOAA.

So while some folks may be dismissing climate change because of the current blisteringly cold weather in parts of the U.S., we are still very clearly seeing the long-term trend of warming that experts at leading scientific and government agencies (like NASA and many, many others) agree is occurring.

This long-term trend of warming and the serious consequences at stake underscores the need to address carbon pollution now.

Here’s some good news on that front:

Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published its proposed standards to limit carbon pollution from new power plants in the Federal Register.

There are currently no national limits on carbon pollution from power plants, the single largest source of this pollution in the United States.

The standards published today will help ensure that we get our power from cleaner sources, and that we reduce climate-destabilizing pollutants like carbon dioxide.

Cleaner power means healthier lives for millions of Americans.

We are learning more and more about the impact of climate change on human health. From increased asthma attacks to disease and sanitation concerns, a changing climate will have a significant impact on Americans’ health now and in the future.

  • In one recent study, Harvard researchers found that high temperatures correlated with more hospital visits for five conditions including kidney, glandular, and urinary tract problems; accidents; and self-harm.
  • In another study, researchers found that those suffering from allergies or asthma are likely going to have to cope with earlier pollen seasons for some allergenic species in a changing climate.

Health groups, states, moms, environmental groups, and businesses have all expressed support for common-sense limits on carbon pollution. About four million Americans have written to EPA in support of carbon pollution standards for power plants.

This opinion piece from the American Medical Association may best sum up the health risk if we don’t act:

If physicians want evidence of climate change, they may well find it in their own offices. Patients are presenting with illnesses that once happened only in warmer areas. Chronic conditions are becoming aggravated by more frequent and extended heat waves. Allergy and asthma seasons are getting longer. . . . Rising air and water temperatures and rising ocean levels since the late 1960s have increased the severity of weather, including hurricanes and droughts, and the production of ground-level ozone. That means more asthma and respiratory illnesses, more heat stroke and exhaustion, and exacerbation of chronic conditions such as heart disease.

Fortunately, we have the technology to meet our clean energy and human health goals, and EPA’s standards will play a key role in getting us there.

Cost-effective, low-carbon energy solutions are being deployed across the country now. They are creating homegrown, good jobs while protecting Americans health and prosperity.

In fact, ALL of the new electric power that came online in November in America was from renewable energy.

In 2012, wind power was:

[T]he number one source of new U.S. electric generation capacity for the first time—representing 43 percent of all new electric additions and accounting for $25 billion in U.S. investment.

However, there are opposition forces working to derail EPA’s efforts to address carbon pollution.

We need all of the support we can muster to ensure EPA goes forward with its commonsense standards that will help ensure the healthier, clean energy future we know we must achieve for the sake of our children and grandchildren.

Please tell EPA you support a clean energy future for our children

Also posted in Clean Air Act, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, News, Policy | Comments closed

EDF Goes to Court to Defend the Mercury and Air Toxics Rule

Last week, at the same time that the Supreme Court was considering states’ good neighbor obligations to protect  the health of residents in downwind states by controlling pollution from sources within their own states, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit was hearing challenges to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Mercury and Air Toxics rule.

The Mercury and Air Toxics rule is a major public health rule that is the result of a decades long effort to ensure power plants clean up the mercury, acid gases, and toxic metals that are released into our environment from burning coal.

At the core of the case is one issue:

  • Did Congress intend to give power plants a sweetheart deal on air toxics when they passed the Clean Air Act Amendments in 1990?

Or:

  • Was Congress merely asking EPA to stop and check whether other programs that were passed at the same time might do enough to address the risks of toxic air pollution from power plants?

The 1990 Clean Air Act amendments did a great deal to strengthen our air pollution laws. In addition to limiting the pollution that led to acid rain and ozone, Congress tightened enforcement and monitoring requirements, and completely overhauled regulation of toxic air pollution to speed up and strengthen EPA’s previously slow regulation efforts on toxics.

In court last week, while counsel for the utility industry tried to suggest that Congress has intended an entirely separate, distinct, and less stringent toxics plan just for the utility industry, the court seemed skeptical, asking if this was just a political deal to give industry more time.

Power companies also argued that EPA should have taken cost into consideration when deciding whether to regulate them.

Both EPA and EDF’s counsel give an apt response –the cost of control technology isn’t relevant to deciding whether EPA should regulate toxic pollution from power plants. Instead, cost is taken into account when setting the pollution standards – either indirectly, by looking at what industry has already installed (and thus what is cost-effective), or directly, when setting standards that go “above the floor” of what has already been achieved by the best performing plants in the industry.

The coalition defending the rule is extraordinarily broad:

  • Lawyers for Massachusetts spoke on behalf of their own state and for Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Vermont and the District of Columbia,.
  • Calpine and Exelon gave a view from inside the industry, pointing out to the court that petitioners were trying to use the rule to game the system so that the dirtiest plants could remain dirty.
  • EDF’s counsel, Sean Donahue, spoke on behalf of a broad coalition that included NAACP, American Lung Association, American Nurses Association, NRDC, Sierra Club, and host of other environmental and public health associations. (Click here for a list of the parties in both the Mercury case and the Cross-State case)

Each year, between 300,000 and 600,000 American children are born with methylmercury blood levels high enough to impact their brain development.

All fifty states in the U.S. have fish-consumption advisories because of mercury.

Many states cannot meet water quality advisories based on deposition of mercury from air pollution.

Many power companies have found implementing the rule to be cheaper and easier than expected.

Regulating mercury from power plants carries health benefits that may be up to ten times greater than the costs, and realizes a promise Congress made to Americans more than twenty years ago with the Clean Air Act amendments.

Let’s hope the D.C. Circuit agrees that getting mercury out of the air is one of the best gifts we can give our kids.

Also posted in Clean Air Act, News, Policy | Comments closed

Global climate change can make fish consumption more dangerous

Hundreds of thousands of babies are born in the U.S each year with enough mercury in their blood to impair healthy brain development. As they grow, these children’s capacity to see, hear, move, feel, learn and respond can be severely compromised. Why does this happen? Mostly because a portion of mercury emitted from local power plants and other global anthropogenic sources is converted to methylmercury, a neurotoxic and organic form of mercury that accumulates in fish.

In addition to poisoning human diet, mercury continues to poison the Arctic. Despite a lack of major industrial sources of mercury within the Arctic, methylmercury concentrations have reached toxic levels in many arctic species including polar bears, whales, and dolphins because of anthropogenic emissions at lower latitudes.

Relationship between mercury exposure and climate change: In its latest report to policymakers, the International Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has made it clear that climate change and local high temperatures will worsen air pollution by increasing concentrations of ozone and PM2.5 in many regions. However, no scientific body has collectively assessed the potential impact of changing climate on mercury, a dangerous pollutant that contaminates not just our air but our soils and waters (and as a result human and wildlife’s food supply).

After attending this summer’s International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant (ICMGP) in Edinburgh (Scotland), I don’t have good news. In the past few months, I have talked to several leading scientists who do research on different aspects on mercury cycle and they all seemed to agree with many recently presented and published peer-reviewed studies (see a selected list below): Climate change can significantly worsen mercury pollution. Even if global anthropogenic emission rate of mercury was to somehow be made constant, climate change can make fish-eating more dangerous because of the following:

Enhanced inorganic mercury release into waters — A combination of the following climate-related factors can lead to the release of higher amounts of mercury into waters:

  • Climate change (i.e., increased local precipitation under warmer conditions) will cause more local direct deposition of the emitted inorganic mercury on our lakes and ocean as compared to deposition under colder and dryer conditions.
  • Run-off (i.e., flow of mercury over land in a watershed that drains into one water body) an indirect but primary means by which mercury enters our local waters, will also increase under warmer and wetter conditions.
  • Extreme events (storms, hurricanes, forest-fires, tornadoes and alternating wetting-drying cycles) will cause erosive mobilization of inorganic mercury and organic matter in soils and release it into coastal and open waters where it can get methylated.
  • Thawing of the enormous areas of northern frozen peatlands may release globally significant amounts of long-stored mercury and organic matter into lakes (including those in the Arctic), rivers and ocean.

Enhanced Methylmercury production from inorganic mercury: In addition to increased release on inorganic mercury into the waters, the inorganic mercury might also have higher chances of getting converted to methylmercury.

  • In the open ocean, methylmercury is produced in regions known as “oxygen minimum zones”. Increased carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere will cause higher primary productivity  which will widen the existing ocean’s oxygen deficient zones leading to enhanced production of methylmercury.
  • Continued melting of permafrost will release organic matter which naturally contains high concentration of aromatic structures (structures similar to benzene rings). These kinds of organic matter have been shown to enhance the production rate of methylmercury.

Enhanced methylmercury bioaccumulation in the fish:

  • For a given amount of methylmercury in the water, there are various factors that control the concentration and bioaccumulation of methylmercury in the food chain. In a given water body, bigger fishaccumulate more methylmercury than smaller fish. Because of climate change, oceanic temperatures will be higher and higher temperatures have been shown to increase the metabolic growth rate and size of fish. Therefore, for a given amount of inorganic mercury emitted in the atmosphere or water, more methylmercury will accumulate in the fish (consequently, increase human exposure to methylmercury) as climate change becomes more severe.

These research results combined with the recent reports on higher genetic susceptibility of some people to mercury poisoning suggest that in order to protect human and wildlife health from negative effects of methylmercury exposure it is essential to swiftly enact and implement stringent laws to reduce both global mercury and greenhouse emissions from all major sources including coal power plants.

Governments across the globe now recognize that mercury is an extremely toxic metal that harms health of millions of children and adults every year and have moved forward with an international treaty to address this toxic pollution, called the Minamata convention. The Minamata convention was recently opened for signatures after 4 years of negotiations. The treaty will come into effect as soon as the 50th nation ratifies it. It has already been signed by 93 nation-states. I am happy to note that United States has been the first nation to ratify the treaty. We await , however, ratification from 49 more countries before the treaty can go into effect.

As an organization, EDF has been educating consumers and seafood businesses about mercury in seafood via our EDF Seafood Selector by doing quantitative Synthesis of Mercury in Commercial Seafood for many years. We also have expertise on the scientific, legal, and stakeholder processes that laid the groundwork for implementation of Mercury and Air Toxics Standards in the U.S; the health and economic implications of these emission standards; and the current state of technology available to reduce emissions from power plants in the U.S.

Thanks to your strong support, the U.S. has taken action to reduce mercury from power plants, the largest domestic source of mercury pollution. While many power plant companies are moving forward with investments to reduce mercury pollution, we need you to continue making your voices heard because the mercury standards (MATS) are still being challenged in the court from time to time.

References

  1. Kathryn R. Mahaffey, Robert P. Clickner, and Rebecca A. Jeffries (2009) Adult Women’s Blood Mercury Concentrations Vary Regionally in the United States: Association with Patterns of Fish Consumption (NHANES 1999–2004) Environ Health Perspect. 117(1): 47–53.
  2. Goacher, W. James and Brian Branfireun (2013). Evidence of millennial trends in mercury deposition in pristine peat geochronologies. Presented at the 11th International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant; Edinburgh, Scotland.
  3. Dijkstra JA, Buckman KL, Ward D, Evans DW, Dionne M, et al. (2013) Experimental and Natural Warming Elevates Mercury Concentrations in Estuarine Fish. PLoS ONE 8(3): e58401. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0058401
  4. Webster, Jackson P. et al. (2013) The Effect of Historical and Recent Wildfires on Soil-Mercury Distribution and Mobilization at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, USA. Presented at the 11th International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant; Edinburgh, Scotland.
  5. Blum et al (2013) Methylmercury production below the mixed layer in the North Pacific Ocean Nature Geoscience 6, 879–884
  6. Stramma, Lothar (2010) “Ocean oxygen minima expansions and their biological impacts,” Deep Sea Research Part I: Oceanographic Research Papers. 57: 587–595
  7. Bjorn, Erik et al. (2013) Impact of Nutrient and Humic Matter Loadings on Methylmercury Formation and Bioaccumulation in Estuarine Ecosystems. Presented at the 11th International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant; Edinburgh, Scotland.
  8. Bedowski, Jacek et al. (2013) Mercury in the coastal zone of Southern Baltic Sea as a function of changing climate: preliminary results. Presented at the 11th International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant; Edinburgh, Scotland.
  9. Grandjean, Philippe, et al. (2013) Genetic vulnerability to MeHg. Presented at the 11th International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant; Edinburgh, Scotland.
  10. Qureshi et al (2013): Impacts of Ecosystem Change on Mercury Bioaccumulation in a Coastal-Marine Food Web presented at the 11th International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant; Edinburgh, Scotland.

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