CHICAGO— First Lady Patricia Blagojevich today joined Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) Director Doug Scott, State Representative Karen May (D-Highland Park), Illinois mothers, children, doctors, and health and environmental groups to educate mothers on the health risks of mercury and to rally support for Governor Rod R. Blagojevich’s proposed mercury rule.
“As parents, protecting our children is our first priority. The tough new mercury standards proposed by my husband will significantly reduce toxic mercury emissions and will help protect our children and our environment,” said First Lady Patricia Blagojevich. “I encourage the Illinois Pollution Control Board to work quickly to approve the mercury rule, and send a clear message to Illinois moms that our state will help provide a healthy future for our children.”
At today’s rally, outside the James R. Thompson Center in Chicago’s Loop speakers presented over 5,000 letters and postcards, including an oversized postcard made by children attending the event in favor of the Governor’s mercury rule to the Illinois Pollution Control Board, where the measure is pending. Mothers were also bringing in their old mercury thermometers, and getting new, mercury free thermometers from the IEPA.
The Illinois Sierra Club, Illinois PIRG and the Environmental Law and Policy Center were among the groups present to raise awareness about the critical importance of reducing mercury emissions to protect children, families, and the environment.
The Governor’s proposed mercury rule would require a 90 percent reduction of mercury pollution from in-state, coal-fired power plants by 2009. The twenty-one coal-fired power plants in Illinois are the largest source of mercury emissions in the state, emitting over 7000 pounds annually, more than all other human sources combined.
“I hope the Pollution Control Board will act swiftly to approve the Governor’s mercury proposal to help make Illinois a national leader in reducing mercury emissions from power plants. People in Illinois are now more educated than ever on the harmful health and environmental effects mercury emissions have and they expect results,” said Illinois EPA Director Doug Scott.
Mercury can cause serious health problems to the human nervous system – pregnant women, women of childbearing age and children younger than 15 years of age are especially at risk. Developing fetuses can be exposed to mercury when a mother eats tainted fish and can suffer mental retardation, cerebral palsy, lower IQs, slow motor functions, deafness, blindness and other health problems. Recent studies indicate that as many as 10 percent of babies born each year in the United States are exposed to excessive mercury levels in the womb.
Mercury contamination is a nationwide problem. The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) issued the Clean Air Mercury Rule on March 10, 2005 that required coal-fired power plants to reduce mercury emissions by 47 percent by 2010, and 79 percent by 2018. The Governor’s mercury proposal came in response to a federal mercury rule that is currently being implemented and is widely regarded as insufficient. The proposed Illinois rules are significantly stronger, requiring a 90 percent emissions reduction by June 30, 2009.
“Illinois is making real progress in eliminating this dangerous toxin from our environment, but there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done,” said State Representative Karen May (D-Highland Park), who introduced and passed legislation making Illinois a national leader in removing mercury from end-of-life vehicles. “Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that causes brain damage in children and the largest source of mercury is from our coal-fired power plants, so what better time than around Mother's Day to turn out in support of our proposed mercury reduction rule.”
Coal burning power plants are the state’s number one source of toxic mercury emissions. Mercury is released into the air when power plants burn coal to produce electricity at power plants. The mercury is then deposited into rivers and lakes, contaminating fish and getting into the food chain.
Once mercury enters water, it becomes highly dangerous. Humans get most of their mercury from eating fish—and mercury contaminates fish in every body of water in Illinois.
The Illinois Department of Public Health has issued a statewide fish consumption advisory, warning pregnant women, nursing mothers and young children to eat no more than one meal a week of predator fish (e.g., bass, walleye and northern pike) caught in Illinois waters due to high mercury concentrations.
“The American Heart Association (AHA) tells us to eat fish twice a week for the fatty acids, but Illinois families can’t follow that advice with local fish, because if they do, they’ll likely exceed the U.S. EPA safe dose of mercury,” said Rebecca Stanfield, State Director of Environment Illinois, the new home of Illinois PIRG’s environmental work. “But studies suggest that if we can reduce that power plant mercury pollution locally, we can expect rapid decreases in fish mercury levels.”
“If we are serious about reducing mercury, targeting mercury pollution from coal plants is the obvious answer,” said Howard Learner, Executive Director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center. “These plants cause over 70 percent of the problem statewide, and we can clean them up for less than the price of a cup of coffee per family per month.”
Since coming into office, Gov. Blagojevich has demonstrated his continued commitment to reducing mercury in the environment:
o On Earth Day, April 22, 2006, Gov. Blagojevich signed into law mercury switch legislation, which creates a statewide program for collecting and removing mercury-containing switches from retired vehicles before they are processed as scrap metal and emitted into the environment. The new law requires automakers to create mercury switch collection programs, offering storage containers to auto recyclers and dismantlers, and arranging for transportation of the removed switches.
o On May 1, 2006, Illinois Environmental Protection Agency Director Doug Scott announced a new initiative on behalf of Gov. Blagojevich to expand the collection and recycling of climate control thermostats that contain mercury switches. Long-term household hazardous waste collection sites in both Rockford and Naperville will collect and recycle mercury thermostats through an industry take-back program. This will provide two drop-off locations in Northern Illinois for homeowners or “do-it-yourselfers” that purchase replacement thermostats.
- Focusing on retail products, three years ago the Governor signed legislation that ended the sale of mercury thermometers and novelty items. This is another step to remove mercury from the waste stream and replace those items with safer available alternatives. The legislation supported previous legislation that further reduced mercury-containing products that pose a potential health hazard by prohibiting schools from purchasing mercury containing scientific equipment for use in classrooms.
- The Illinois EPA also continues to implement the Governor’s Mercury Initiative on a variety of fronts. They include collections of mercury items in household hazardous waste collections, “green chemistry workshops” and exchanges of mercury thermometers.
- An air sampling station in Northbrook in 2000 is one of only two continuous mercury-monitoring stations in the U.S. Mercury samples are also being collected using advanced scientific techniques at several inland lakes and streams across the state.