Environment Rhode Island Research & Policy Center
Our nation’s dependence on oil and coal-fired power plants has broad detrimental impacts on our health and our environment. Power plants represent America’s single biggest source of air pollution, affecting our waterways, destroying ecosystems, and polluting the air we breathe. Pollution from coal-fired power plants in particular contributes to four of the five leading causes of mortality in the United States: heart disease, cancer, stroke, and chronic respiratory diseases.
Dirty Energy’s Assault on our Health is a series of reports examining the numerous threats that power plants pose to our environment and our health. Each segment in the series focuses on a different pollutant emitted by power plants.
This report looks at the health and environmental impacts of mercury pollution from power plants.
In the United States, mercury contamination is widespread.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, mercury impairs 3,781 bodies of water across the country, and 6,363,707 acres of lakes, reservoirs, and ponds in the United States are contaminated by mercury pollution.
Because mercury is the most common contaminant in fish in the U.S., every state has set some sort of fish advisory due to unsafe levels of the toxic pollutant.
Overall, more U.S. waters are closed to fishing because of mercury contamination than because of any other toxic contamination problem.
Mercury poses a substantial health threat.
Children who are exposed to low-dosage levels of mercury in utero can have impaired brain functions, including verbal, attention, motor control, and language deficits, and lower IQs. Additionally, when children exposed to mercury in the womb are monitored at ages 7 and 14, these impairments still exist, which suggests that the effects of even low-level mercury exposure may be irreversible.
Studies show that one in six women of childbearing age has enough mercury in her bloodstream to put her child at risk of the health effects of mercury exposure should she become pregnant.nThis means that more than 689,000 out of the 4.1 million babies born every year could be exposed to dangerous levels of mercury pollution.
While adults are at lower risk of neurological impairment than children, evidence shows that a low-level dose of mercury from fish consumption in adults can lead to defects similar to those found in children, as well as fertility and cardiovascular problems.
Adult and in utero exposure to higher, acute levels of mercury has been linked to mental retardation, seizures, blindness, and even death.
Mercury pollution puts entire ecosystems at risk.
Wildlife that is exposed to mercury may die or, depending upon the level of exposure, have reduced fertility or complete reproductive failure, as well as slower growth and development.
Common loons in Maine suffer from abnormal behavior and physiology and decreased reproductive success because of mercury pollution.
The Florida Panther Society found that chronic exposure to mercury may be a significant factor responsible for lower than expected population densities of panthers in large portions of their range, and is likely contributing to the extinction of this endangered animal.
Even small levels of mercury in waterways contaminate wildlife. Scientists found that a gram of mercury – about a drop – deposited in a mid-sized lake in Wisconsin over the course of a year was enough to account for all of the mercury subsequently found in that lake’s fish population.
Power plants continue to spew mercury into our air, waterways, wildlife, and bodies.
The amount of mercury emitted from coal-fired power plants far exceeds the total mercury pollution from the 10 next biggest sources of the pollutant. In total, coal-fired power plants emitted 134,365 pounds of mercury in 2009.
Four plants in Texas made it in to the top 10 most polluting power plants in the United States in 2009, with the Martin Lake Steam Electric Station & Lignite Mine the worst in the nation, emitting 2,660 pounds of mercury. Power plants in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Georgia, and West Virginia also fell into the top 10 most polluting power plants in the country.
To protect the public and the environment from mercury pollution, the United States must require power plants meet modern pollution standards that will substantially reduce emissions of toxic mercury.
Under the Clean Air Act, the Obama administration’s EPA is legally obligated to propose the “Maximum Achievable Control Technology” standard to reduce mercury and other toxic air pollution from power plants by March 2011. Using science and the regulatory tools they have at hand, the EPA should implement the strongest standard possible, and specifically cut mercury pollution by more than 90% to protect our health and our environment. While 19 states have already enacted statewide mercury limits for power plants, the EPA must set a strong federal standard that cuts mercury from power plants by more than 90%, because mercury pollution travels beyond state boundaries and puts all Americans at risk of its harmful effects.
The United States as well as individual states should take action to promote the U.S.’s transition away from dangerous power plants, and the life-threatening mercury pollution they emit, to a clean energy economy. Each state can:
- through a renewable energy standard, help ensure that America generates at least 25 percent of its electricity from renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar by 2025;
- strengthen energy efficiency standards and codes for appliances and buildings by 50 percent by 2020 and ensure that all new buildings use zero net energy by 2030;
- ramp up investment in solar power through tax credits, specific targets in state renewable electricity standards, requirements for “solar ready homes,” rebate programs, and other measures; and
- end subsidies to fossil fuel industries.