In the wake of the American Lung Association’s report that 155 million American people live in polluted areas, we can help give young moms, future moms, babies and youngsters cleaner air and good health by supporting the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) efforts to cut toxic air pollution.

Clean Air Act Protects Health

Via Flickr, Senor Codo

The Clean Air Act protects our health by reducing harmful air pollution like ozone (smog) and particulates (soot) that affect many areas of the country.

The Act addresses a more dangerous set of pollutants, toxic or hazardous air pollutants, such as benzene, found in gasoline; perchlorethlyene, emitted from some dry cleaners; and methylene chloride, used in paint strippers.  The agency has identified 188 toxic air pollutants that threaten public health, including dioxin, asbestos and arsenic and metals like cadmium and mercury.

At certain concentrations and durations, people exposed to toxic pollutants are at increased risk of getting cancer or other serious health effects, like damage to the neurological, reproductive and respiratory systems.  Most air toxics come from manmade sources like power plants, refineries and vehicles.

Tougher, New Limits

The Environmental Protection Agency this week announced proposed limits to reduce mercury, arsenic, dioxin and other toxic air pollutants spewing from the nation’s coal- and oil-fired power plants.  Twenty years in the making, these limits will reduce 91 percent of the mercury released from coal-burning.  Coal- and oil-fired power plants are responsible for over 50 percent of U.S. mercury and acid gas pollution.

Mercury’s Harm to Mothers and Children

via NWF

People are exposed to mercury by eating contaminated fish.  Mercury released from smokestacks ends up in our waters where microorganisms change it into highly-toxic methylmercury that builds up in fish and works its way up the food chain to our dinner plates.

Once ingested, mercury can harm neurological development in unborn babies, infants and children. Because of this risk, the FDA warns pregnant women to curtail consumption of certain fish and shellfish because high levels of methylmercury can adversely affect a baby’s growing brain and nervous system.  EPA has documented mercury’s harmful impacts on children’s cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language and fine motor and visual spatial skills.

The new EPA toxics reduction proposal will have many health benefits.  EPA’s proposal can —

  • prevent as many as 17,000 premature deaths and 11,000 heart attacks a year;
  • prevent 120,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms and 11,000 cases of acute bronchitis each year; and
  • avoid more than 12,000 emergency room and hospital visits and 850,000 missed work days due to illness.

Air Toxics Harm Wildlife Too

In addition to harming humans, toxic pollutants hurt wildlife too. Almost all of our lakes and reservoirs have mercury amounts exceeding safe levels and nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of mercury, according to EPA.  Every state has a fish advisory of some type because of unsafe levels of mercury.

In lakes and streams, methylmercury goes up the food chain from organism to organism, so that many large predators end up with high levels of contamination.  It can alter fish development and reproduction.

In addition to fish, predators of small fish  are exposed to elevated levels of mercury in the environment.  It has been found in eagles, otters, loons, and endangered Florida panthers.  In animals, mercury can cause death, reduced fertility, slower growth and abnormal behavior, says EPA.  The National Wildlife Federation reported in March that fish like brown trout, walleye and largemouth bass may be harmed by mercury and that emerging research has found mercury harms terrestrial mammals, loons and migrating songbirds as well.

But the story does not end there. Recent research has found mercury contamination in our forests and other terrestrial habitats as well, indicating that far more species may be at risk of exposure than previously thought. For example, scientists have found elevated levels of mercury in insect-eating birds, including bicknell’s thrush and several species of songbirds. With multiple pathways of exposure, mercury contamination poses a very real threat to biodiversity all across the country.

Speak Out, Speak Up

You can speak out for cleaner air for mothers and children:

Urge the Environmental Protection Agency to set strong limits on mercury pollution from power plants to protect wildlife and our health.

Speak up for clean air at a public hearing. Here’s the hearing schedule:

May 24: Chicago, Illinois
Crowne Plaza Chicago Metro
799 West Madison Street
Chicago, Ill. 60611
Pre-registration deadline 5 p.m., May 19

May 24: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Westin Philadelphia
99 South 17th Street at Liberty Place
Philadelphia, Pa. 19103
Pre-registration deadline 5 p.m., May 19

May 26: Atlanta, Georgia
Sam Nunn Atlanta Federal Center
61 Forsyth Street SW
Atlanta, Ga. 30303-8960
Pre-registration deadline 5 p.m., May 23

To preregister to speak at the hearings, please email Ms. Pamela Garrett and let us know to look for you there by emailing

When you speak up at the hearing:

  • Tell the Environmental Protection Agency that you support the new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards that would limit mercury, arsenic, dioxin, and other toxic emissions from power plants.
  • Give a few reasons why you are concerned about wildlife such as the harm mercury does to wildlife and to children.
  • Urge the EPA to move forward and finalize strong Mercury and Air Toxics standards.