In honor of Mother's Day this Sunday, I invited an amazing mom and activist to share her story about a very important issue the Sierra Club is working on: toxic mercury pollution from coal plants.
This piece is by Anna Getty, a member of the Sierra Club, and the co-founder of Pregnancy Awareness Month, a month-long campaign that provides "how to" ideas and inspiration to show women how easy it can be to make healthy changes in their lives.
Protect Your Children from Coal's Mercury Pollution
As a mother of a 6-year old and a 20-month old, I love playing with my children and teaching them about the world we live in. But there is a heavier side to motherhood: realizing that there are complex forces in our society and environment that affect my childrens' lives at every turn, and that some of them are downright frightening.
When I became pregnant with my first child, my outlook changed completely: I realized that everything is connected and affects the fetus I was growing: from the food I eat, to the pesticides in my garden, to the energy sources I use. This point was driven home when I had a heavy metal hair test done, just before I was about to wean my first child. To my dismay, the levels of toxic metals including arsenic, barium, and mercury in my body were incredibly high.
This means that though my children were born healthy, they might not have been. 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.
Tens of millions of American women and children today are at risk by mercury, a dangerous poison that is released into our atmosphere and air by coal-fired power plants. When coal is burned, mercury is released to the atmosphere, where it stays until it rains down into our rivers, lakes and streams, and can contaminate the fish we eat. Just one gram of mercury per year, over time, is enough to contaminate a 20-acre lake.
Yet 48 tons of the toxin is pumped into our air each year from coal fired power plants in the United States, alone.
Living in LA, I might have assumed that this was not something I need to be concerned with. After all, we don't have any coal plants in our backyard, so why should mercury poisoning matter to Angelenos?
Then I made one of those frightening connections: unfortunately, we do have a direct relationship to mercury every time we flick a light switch. Los Angeles gets 39% of its electricity from two giant coal-fired power plants in Arizona and Utah. These plants spew a combined 1817 lbs of mercury into the atmosphere every year. The plants may not be in our backyard, but the toxic air pollution they emit is just as dangerous in the San Fernando Valley as it is in Appalachia.
Until this month, mercury emissions from power plants were unregulated. Thankfully, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed a new standard to protect families from mercury pollution. The proposed mercury and air toxic standard would update Clean Air Act provisions and establish emission limits for the nation’s fleet of power plants.
According to EPA, each year the new protection will save as many as 17,000 lives and prevent 120,000 cases of childhood asthma. The long-overdue air toxics safeguard will also will help prevent disease, avoid hospitalizations and create high-paying new jobs installing and operating pollution control equipment.
The proposed air toxics safeguard answers the demand of mothers 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 have fought Clean Air Act requirements to clean up their facilities, for decades. These corporate polluters are putting their profits over our children's health.
The good news for my family was that after I found out about my body’s high levels of toxic metals, I reduced my consumption of fish, did a detox and weaned my daughter immediately. Over time, I was able to reduce my heavy metal levels.
But in the long run, we won't be able to reduce the frightening impact of mercury and other toxic pollution on our children, until decision-makers like the EPA act to clean up the coal industry and move our nation towards clean, renewable energy sources. I hope other parents will join me in calling for stronger air pollution protections, so our children can grow up in a healthier and safer world.
EPA is holding three hearings on its proposed mercury standards later this month. See if there's one near you and, if so, be sure to attend so you can voice your support.