22 December 2011

Mercury news

Echoing Paul Krugman, I want to point out how huge a deal it is that President Obama and the EPA have issued new national standards limiting heavy-metal emissions from power plants. From the EPA's press release yesterday:
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, the first national standards to protect American families from power plant emissions of mercury and toxic air pollution like arsenic, acid gas, nickel, selenium, and cyanide. The standards will slash emissions of these dangerous pollutants by relying on widely available, proven pollution controls that are already in use at more than half of the nation’s coal-fired power plants. 
EPA estimates that the new safeguards will prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths and 4,700 heart attacks a year. The standards will also help America’s children grow up healthier – preventing 130,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms and about 6,300 fewer cases of acute bronchitis among children each year. [emphasis mine]
11,000 premature deaths per year is a big number. By comparison, the CDC attributes 42,000 deaths annually to "motor-vehicle traffic" accidents. The September 11 terrorist attacks caused just under 3,000 premature deaths, once. And mercury is scary stuff. It tends to accumulate in large fish and in mammals that sit atop the food chain. Pregnant women are discouraged from eating certain types of fish (including albacore tuna) because ingesting the amount of mercury they contain can cause birth defects.

As hard as my classmates and I will try to take care of our patients as physicians, what we can accomplish as individuals cannot come close to the impact of prudent regulations such as this. Bear in mind too that some of the energy sector lobbied hard to prevent these standards from being issued. Good on the Obama administration for protecting the environment and bettering human lives.