As a pediatrician, half of my job used to be reassuring new parents that they were doing just fine. Like them, I can still remember when my greatest worries as a parent were finding the right car seats and BPA-free baby bottles for my kids. Now, being a good parent entails something entirely different. It means explaining to kids why they can’t go to the park to play with their friends. It means working twice as hard to ensure they’re getting a quality education from a teacher they now see exclusively through a computer screen. And it means teaching them a bit more about virology than one would have thought necessary just a few months ago.
Safe to say, life isn’t quite what it used to be. While we’re all adapting in our own ways and focusing on keeping our young ones safe, healthy and happy, the Environmental Protection Agency, led by Administrator Andrew Wheeler, just finalized its dangerous proposal to undermine the lifesaving Mercury and Air Toxic Standards (MATS). For the last eight years, these standards have been responsible for reducing dangerous levels of methylmercury, heavy metals and other toxic air pollutants released from coal- and oil-burning power plants, exactly the types of air pollutants that have been proven to result in higher death rates in patients fighting COVID-19. At a time when we’re fighting a disease that decimates respiratory function, moving forward with this “Poison Plan” is beyond comprehension.
Sadly, we are witnessing a pattern of actions placing Americans at tremendous risk. The revised MATS proposal comes at a time when the EPA has made a series of decisions that will result in more pollution and less sound policymaking. Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, has moved forward with a rollback of pollution standards for cars and trucks; his EPA has refused to tighten safeguards on lung-damaging industrial soot and toxic particle pollution from smokestacks; and he’s rolled back protections on dangerous acid gas released into our air by coal-refuse burning plants. On top of that, he’s stopped enforcing environmental laws altogether, and at a time when science matters more than ever, he proposed censoring science and eliminating public health data in the EPA’s rule making process.
Beyond the threats these pollutants pose to coronavirus patients, they are equally dangerous to unborn children. As expecting mothers know, methylmercury is one of the most potent and debilitating neurotoxins known to science (not to be confused with ethylmercury, the mercury found in trace amounts in some flu vaccines, which is easily excreted). When ingested by pregnant mothers, methylmercury can cause permanent damage to the brains of babies and developing fetuses, leading to developmental delays, learning disabilities and birth defects. As a pediatrician, I can’t think of anything more detrimental to a child’s growth.
For eight years, the MATS have been highly successful, achieving a 90 percent reduction in mercury pollution from power plants while cleaning up dangerous particle pollution at the same time. They have also enjoyed broad support from the power industry. Since 2011, the industry has invested $18 billion to curb mercury, soot and other hazardous pollution that makes its way into our air, water and food. The industry also pushed back on the EPA’s claim that this rollback would save consumers money. In a letter sent to the EPA, industry representatives made clear that any additional costs associated with rolling back these standards would be passed on to consumers.
Make no mistake: our children are healthier, our air is cleaner and our lives are better with the MATS protections in place. You don’t have to look too far back to see why. When it was originally implemented, the EPA projected that the MATS would annually avoid up to 11,000 premature deaths, nearly 5,000 heart attacks, 130,000 asthma attacks and 5,700 hospital and emergency room visits.
While Wheeler’s “Poison Plan” is just the latest in a long line of attacks on public health, it’s one of the most uniquely cruel and arbitrary proposals to come out of this administration — especially at a time like now. Virtually no one supports rolling back these protections, and much of the power industry is already in compliance. In place of any rationale, we can only find an astounding lack of humanity for the at-risk communities that will disproportionately be harmed by this assault on public health. We need the MATS. Now isn’t the time to gamble with the health of our children.
Dr. Timothy O’Mara is a pediatrician in northern Virginia and has been recognized in Washingtonian Magazine as one of the area’s outstanding pediatricians in 2019. He is a member of Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action.
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