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May 18, 2011 

Rep. Barton Distorts Facts to Argue Toxic Air Emissions Are Not Harmful; Questions Need for Tighter Limits

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently published in the Federal Register first ever national standards to limit mercury, arsenic and other toxic air emissions from coal- and oil-fired power plants. The publication date triggered the start of a 60-day comment period.

Some members of Congress, most notably Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), maintain that these emissions do not pose a threat to public health. To try to make his point at a congressional hearing last month, Barton mischaracterized and attacked a recent EPA scientific finding. Barton first implied that the agency’s finding—that the limits on mercury and other toxic emissions would prevent as many as 17,000 premature deaths—referred to mercury and sulfur dioxide poisoning. He then went to great lengths to point out that citizens are not dying from an overload of mercury or sulfur dioxide in their bodies. 
In fact, the EPA statistic Barton cited refers to the fact that the limits on mercury and toxic emissions would have the additional benefit of reducing “particle pollution.” Particle pollution, also called particulate matter, is a mixture of liquid droplets; solid particles, such as dust, dirt, soot and smoke; and fine particles created by complicated reactions in the atmosphere among sulfur dioxides,  nitrogen oxides and other chemicals emitted from power plants, industrial facilities and automobiles. Particle pollution, which penetrates deep into the lungs, is linked to airway irritation, breathing difficulty, aggravated asthma, chronic bronchitis, irregular heartbeat, heart attacks, and premature death for people suffering from heart or lung disease, according to the EPA. 

Americans may not be dying from “sulfur dioxide poisoning,” but new pollution controls that coal- and oil-fired power plant owners will have to install would reduce sulfur dioxide emissions, thereby preventing deaths linked to particle pollution. Likewise, large numbers of Americans may not be dying from mercury poisoning, but the new controls will cut mercury emissions. Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that threatens fetal and infant brain development, ultimately affecting a child’s ability to walk, talk and learn.

More than half of all human-caused mercury pollution in the United States comes from power plants—mainly coal-fired power plants. Mercury emitted from these plants and other sources settles into water bodies and accumulates in fish. When pregnant and nursing women (or women who may become pregnant) consume mercury-contaminated fish, the neurotoxin ultimately threatens their children. 

According to the EPA, more than 300,000 babies born each year may have increased risk of learning disabilities because of exposure to mercury, and approximately one in 12 American women have enough mercury in their bodies to put a fetus at risk.

Rep. Barton also questioned the costs and benefits of the new standards. It turns out the benefits far outweigh the costs, according to the EPA. “The value of the improvements to health alone total $59 billion to $140 billion in 2016,” the agency calculated. “This means that for every dollar spent to reduce pollution from power plants, we get $5 to $13 in health benefits.”

In fact, more than half of all coal-fired power plants already have installed pollution control devices that would enable them to meet the new standards, according to the EPA. The new rule would require the remaining 44 percent to finally deploy widely available technology.

The standards are long overdue. The 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments mandated the EPA to control mercury and other toxic air pollutants. Since then, the agency has required all of the largest emitters other than power plants to cut those emissions. After 20 years of getting a free ride, it is long past time for power plants to meet the standard.



The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with citizens across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.

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