Good news from the US: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has – after years of delay – imposed the first national limits on a huge range of poisonous pollutants.
A big win
Lawmakers have known for decades about the health risks caused by dangerous toxins like mercury, arsenic and cyanide. They can damage the brain, kidneys and lungs, especially in children. Yet, amazingly, coal-fired power plants – many of them now over 50 years old – have continued to pump out these and 80 more poisons, unchecked. (Here's a list of America's top 10 worst offenders.) At last, the government has taken action.
It's a victory against powerful vested interests and an example of how, even in the developed world, cleaning up the air can save tens of thousands of lives. According to the EPA's own (cautious) figures, the new rules, which require coal- and oil-fired power plants to cut their toxic chemical emissions to the levels of the cleanest 12% of plants, will prevent some 17,000 premature deaths per year, and provide up to $140bn in health benefits by 2016.
"This one is a Big Deal ... history is being made," writes David Roberts at Grist.org. "Finally controlling mercury and toxics will be an advance on par with getting lead out of gasoline. It will save tens of thousands of lives every year and prevent birth defects, learning disabilities, and respiratory diseases. It will make America a more decent, just, and humane place to live."
24 years of delay
Change has been a long time coming. As far back as 1990, scientists were warning of the health risks posed by mercury and other toxins. Congress passed the Clean Air Act amendments, which called on the EPA to investigate these dangers. After much stalling, the EPA finally produced a report, concluding, as had been expected, that mercury is harmful to public health. More delays followed; then in 2004 the courts struck down Bush administration proposals aimed at cutting back emissions of mercury and other pollutants.
So when the new rules finally come into effect in 2014, no less than 24 years will have passed since lawmakers first called for action on these poisonous pollutants.
Why has it taken so long? For a start, industry pressure groups and their conservative allies mounted a typical campaign of disinformation – claiming new regulations would force power plants across the country to close, which in turn would cause a wave of electricity blackouts. Independent experts have convincingly discredited this doomsday scenario.
Opponents also argued that the changes would prove too costly. But when you compare the projected cost of the new laws (roughly $11bn a year) with the estimated savings in healthcare alone – $59 to $140bn per year by 2016 – it's a no-brainer in financial terms, let alone ethical ones.
Hundreds of thousands of lives saved
The EPA estimates that the new regulations will prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths and 4,700 heart attacks a year, as well as preventing 130,000 cases of childhood asthma and about 6,300 fewer cases of acute bronchitis among children each year. They could even help make children smarter: studies have shown that mercury causes neurological damage in infants and foetuses, something the official EPA study did not even delve into.
Little wonder that religious leaders, environmental campaigners and politicians alike have hailed the move as a massive step forward. It may have taken far too long, but if America – often a major blocker of climate change negotiations and home to the world's most powerful special interest lobbyists – can take this big step to protect the health of its citizens and its environment, so must everyone.
The US is currently the third largest emitter of mercury. Now China, the largest emitter, must act too, as must European and Asian powers, which together churn out 64% of global mercury emissions each year.
Take action: First, let's thank Lisa P Jackson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, for seeing this through. Show her your support for saving the environment, and for protecting the health of citizens, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Second, let's push for more action. The new EPA rules will make a huge difference, but many other threats to our environment continue to grow unchecked across the world.