Most families living on California’s Central Coast probably aren’t too worried about the dangers of coal pollution. Without the sight of ominous clouds billowing from nearby coal-fired smokestacks, it’s easy to assume that we’re relatively safe from coal’s toxic pollution.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case. You don’t need to live next door to a coal-fired power plant to suffer the effects of coal pollution.
I learned this firsthand when I recently received test results showing that I have an unsafe level of mercury in my body. And I’m not alone.
Tens of millions of American women and children – as many as one in six American women, according to the Environmental Protection Agency – are at risk from toxic mercury that is released into our air by coal-fired power plants. After it enters the atmosphere, the mercury eventually rains down into our rivers, lakes, and streams – contaminating the fish we eat. Each year, a shocking 48 tons of the toxin are pumped into our air from coal-fired power plants in the United States.
This is a frightening amount of pollution because of how extremely dangerous mercury pollution is to human health. Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that is especially dangerous to young children, nursing mothers, and women of childbearing age. Mercury exposure affects a developing child’s ability to walk, talk, read, write, and learn. After serving more than 20 years as a nurse and health advocate for the Santa Barbara School District, I’m appalled that we would continue to jeopardize the health of our families this way.
During the past few months, the Sierra Club, America’s largest grassroots environmental organization, has been holding mercury-testing events around the country that enable people to find out for themselves how coal pollution is threatening their health. The events, held in more than 30 cities across the U.S., found a substantial number of people with levels of mercury in their bodies that the EPA considers unsafe.
Though I do not live near a coal-fired power plant, I was one of the participants who learned she has a potentially dangerous level of mercury. Truly, coal pollution is a problem that can affect anyone regardless of where they live.
But there’s good news, too. This is a problem we can solve.
Up until now, coal-fired power plants have essentially had a free pass to pollute, even though they are our nation’s largest source of mercury pollution. Thankfully, earlier this year the EPA proposed updating standards to help protect families from mercury by establishing emission limits for the nation’s fleet of power plants.
According to the EPA, these new protections would save as many as 17,000 lives and prevent 120,000 cases of childhood asthma every year. The long-overdue air toxics safeguard would also help prevent disease, avoid hospitalizations, and create new high-paying jobs for workers installing and operating pollution control equipment.
The proposed safeguards answer the demand of grandmothers like me who are urging the EPA to protect our kids – and future generations of kids – from toxic pollution. We need the EPA to stand up to the big polluters that for decades have fought against Clean Air Act requirements to clean up their facilities.
Unfortunately, during the past year, we’ve seen powerful interests try to defund and gut the Clean Air Act. Most recently, one of the committees on which I serve passed legislation to stop EPA from finalizing this common sense step to reduce mercury pollution.
That is the wrong way to go. Unless the EPA is able to enforce commonsense standards to reduce the amount of toxic pollution from coal-fired power plants, everybody, including families here in the Central Coast, will continue suffering the unseen toxic effects of mercury pollution. And we will be that much further from embracing the clean energy future that leaves coal in the past where it belongs.
The Clean Air Act has been protecting the health and safety of Americans for the past 40 years and, as a result, our air is safer to breathe and our water is safer to drink. Recent analyses by the EPA have shown that for every dollar spent on cleaning up air pollution under the Clean Air Act, we’ve received $26 back in healthcare savings. In fact, the Clean Air Act has been one of the biggest environmental and public-health success stories in history.
And we can do even better. With a strong and enforceable Clean Air Act, a better future – free from coal pollution – is on our horizon.
Lois Capps represents California's 23rd Congressional District in the United States Congress.