“Pollution, pollution”: Air quality rules that would protect kids’ health are threatened

“Pollution, pollution,” Virgil warbles in tandem with Tom Lehrer, the musical parodist from the 1960s, coming into our kitchen on YouTube. I remember the satirical song from my own childhood and sing along: “Wear a gas mask and a veil. / Then you can breathe, long as you don’t inhale.”

I’m somewhat surprised that Virgil knows Tom Lehrer’s music. For that, I can thank his science teacher. She played Lehrer’s “Elements” song to the fourth grade while they were learning the elements, and Virgil and several of his friends searched out other Lehrer songs online. “Pollution” is one of his favorites. I think he’s fascinated by the picture it paints of an America quite different from the one he knows, in which rivers burn and cities are beset by killing vapors. “This was before the Clean Air Act in 1970,” he informs me, as if describing a bygone civilization.

That history has felt close to me lately, as I’ve become aware of efforts to overturn a landmark extension of the Clean Air Act known as Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, or MATS. The Environmental Protection Agency adopted the standards in December 2011, following a 21-year drafting and review process. The rules set national limits on the amounts of mercury and other toxic metals that could be emitted from coal- and oil-fired power plants. A number of officials from the affected industries came out in favor of the new guidelines as a way of re-leveling the playing field for the majority of power plants that have voluntarily refitted to reduce emissions of toxic air pollutants, including heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic, and nickel.

Power plants are the largest source of U.S. mercury emissions to the air. Mercury is a known neurotoxin and carcinogen that is especially dangerous to children, damaging children’s developing nervous systems and reducing their ability to think and learn. Mercury is implicated in lower IQs in children and increased rates of childhood asthma.

This much I already knew. What I didn’t know until recently is how easily the historic new standards can be overturned. On February 16, the MATS standards were posted in the Federal Register, triggering a countdown of 60 legislative days until they would go into effect. Almost immediately, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) introduced a resolution to eliminate the MATS standards. If Congress approved Inhofe’s resolution, not only would the MATS rules be nullified but the Environmental Protection Agency would be barred from ever issuing a standard that is “substantially the same.”

That last part is very important, so let me describe it more fully: Under the Congressional Review Act (CRA), which was created as part of the 1996 “Contract for America,” if Inhofe’s resolution passed, the EPA would be legally prohibited from bringing those standards, or any standards similar to them, back to Congress — not just during the current session but at any future time.

I learned about the danger to the new standards in an online discussion of the issue by a group called the Moms Clean Air Force. Other organizations, including AMC, are fighting to allow the new air standards to go into effect. Last week 12 Eastern states, including all 6 New England states, filed a motion in support of the new standards — not surprising, perhaps, when you consider that the Northeast has long been called “the tailpipe of the country.”

One of the mothers who participated in the online discussion said of the officials and industry groups who are trying to kill the new standards, “They’re banking on us not speaking up, even though we bear the costs and they get the profits.” She urged parents, anyone concerned about the environment, and anyone who cares about fair industry practices to prove them wrong.

Tom Lehrer described the alternative: “Like lambs to the slaughter / They’re drinking the water / And breathing — cough, cough — the air.”

Learn more

- The Moms Clean Air Force website contains information about the current EPA standards, childhood asthma, air quality and pollution in all 50 states, and calls to action.

- Follow the online audio discussion, “Mom to Mom: The Controversy Over Clean Air,” on the Moms Clean Air Force site.

- Read about AMC’s efforts to teach hikers about the effects of air pollution in the White Mountains.

- Hear Tom Lehrer sing “Pollution.”

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine and Heather Stephenson. Kristen wrote this post.

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