Supporting a Strong Clean Air Act

Things to Know About Mercury

As the energy demands of our growing society increase, so do the impacts on our environment. Mercury is a naturally occurring element that is found in a variety of forms in our air, water and soil. Rocks, such as coal, contain mercury that is released into the environment when burned for energy generation. According to the National Emissions Inventory, coal-burning power plants are one of the largest sources of mercury emissions in the United States. When people of all ages and health conditions inhale or ingest mercury, the heart, brain, kidneys, lungs and immune system are at risk. Unborn babies and young children are even more susceptible to the negative health affects from mercury exposure that damage their developing nervous systems and consequently hinder their ability to learn and think.

When mercury is released into the air it enters many different ecosystems and levels of the food web. Aside from the immediate human health effects from mercury inhalation, mercury eventually settles, entering the soil and water resources. Once in the environment, mercury contamination compounds as it moves up the food chain, referred to as bioaccumulation, and negatively impacts many species of fish, birds, mammals and their habitats.


What's being done?

A huge step towards public health was taken in 1970 when the Clean Air Act was passed. The Clean Air Act regulates 188 hazardous air pollutants, including mercury, by ensuring that these pollutants stay within safe levels in the environment. The Clean Air Act has preserved the high quality of life that we all enjoy and prevented a countless number of premature deaths. Through continued adaptation and successful execution, the Clean Air Act has been able to lower emissions of toxic pollutants in our air even while industry production and human population has drastically increased. In an attempt to better protect public health and better regulate our increasing coal-based energy production, the EPA is proposing new Clean Air Act regulations on mercury and boiler rules. These new regulations would reduce the emissions of mercury, soot, sulfur, nitrogen oxides and smog into the environment as well as require proper treatment and disposal of mercury wastes. Unfortunately, the coal industry is working hard to try and prevent the EPA from passing stricter air quality standards that will benefit public health and the environment. Big coal falsely claims that stricter regulations will cost jobs and further cripple our economy. In fact, in 2010 alone, air pollution reduction as a result from the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, has prevented 160,000 cases of premature mortality, 130,000 heart attacks, 13 million lost work days and 1.7 million asthma attacks. The new proposed clean air standards will limit mercury and other harmful pollutants from being released into the air and keep 91% of the mercury in coal from entering the environment resulting in added health and economic benefits. The EPA estimates that for every one dollar spent on pollution clean up, the country will reap forty dollars in economic benefits and five to thirteen dollars in health benefits.

The National Audubon Society supports EPA's efforts to protect public health while continuing to bolster the economy and preserving our environment and quality of life. The proposed Mercury and Air Toxics Rule is a critically important update to Clean Air Act standards and is an important public health safeguard that could prevent as many as 17,000 premature deaths and 11,000 heart attacks a year. It could also prevent 120,000 asthma attacks and about 11,000 cases of acute bronchitis among children annually.

 For more information about mercury pollution or EPA's efforts to enforce stronger Clean Air Act Standards, go to