Coal-fired power plants are the single largest source of mercury air pollution, accounting for roughly 40 percent of all mercury emissions nationwide, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Mercury is a potent neurotoxin, which is particularly harmful to developing fetuses and young children due to its impact on brain development.
Once released into the atmosphere, mercury settles in lakes and rivers, where it moves up the food chain to humans who eat contaminated fish. The Centers for Disease Control has found that six percent of American women have mercury in their blood at levels that would put a fetus at risk of neurological damage. Children poisoned by mercury may develop problems of their nervous and digestive systems, and kidney damage.
When the Clean Air Act was amended in 1990, the Environmental Protection Agency was given authority to control mercury and other hazardous air pollutants from major sources of emissions to the air.
In March of 2011, the EPA proposed to significantly reduce the mercury, lead, acid gases, and other toxics from more than 400 plants in 46 states. Although some of the nation’s largest utilities have publicly and privately lobbied to delay, weaken, or block these safeguards, the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) introduced by the Obama administration have survived a Supreme Court challenge and continue to be implemented.
Mercury Alert: Cleaning up Coal Plants for Healthier Lives In this 2011 report, the Environmental Defense Fund provides information on mercury, in general, and identifies the top 25 emitters of mercury from the electric sector. These 25 plants alone contribute nearly a third of all mercury emissions from the electric sector while only providing 8% of our nation’s electricity. In short, a large amount of toxic mercury air pollution in America is caused by a small number of power plants that have not installed readily-available pollution controls that others are already using.
Toxic Air: The Case for Cleaning Up Coal-fired Power Plants Published by the American Lung Association, this 2011 report highlights the hazard air pollutants from coal plants including:
- Acid gases, such as hydrogen chloride and hydrogen fluoride;
- Benzene, toluene and other compounds;
- Dioxins and furans;
- Lead, arsenic, and other metals;
- Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH); and
- Radioactive materials, like radium and uranium.