When West Philadelphia resident Candice Cheatham was pregnant with her daughter Micaiah, now 7 months, her nurses never mentioned the dangers of mercury poisoning.
But Cheatham did some research and learned that mercury spewing from power plants could work its way into the fish she normally ate, which could lead to birth defects. So, she adjusted her diet.
"A lot of this information wasn't given out," Cheatham said. "I was never told, and [mothers] that aren't educated didn't know."
A desire to spread that information was what spurred Cheatham to be one of more than 100 people who testified in Center City yesterday in favor of proposed legislation that would reduce emissions of toxic air pollutants from power plants.
Philadelphia is one of three cities to host hearings sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency to gather feedback on the proposal. It would require power plants to install technologies that would limit the release of heavy metals such as mercury and arsenic, as well as dust, dirt and acid gases that are linked to serious health problems.
By 2016, the restrictions could prevent up to 17,000 premature deaths, according to the EPA.
A handful of concerned mothers with their children in strollers, accompanied by about 150 supporters, rallied outside the hearing in support of the plan.
Also testifying in favor of the proposal were doctors, nurses, environmental experts and concerned family members. One nurse described how toxins can be transmitted from mother to child via breast milk, and a man detailed how air pollution eventually put his mother, who had never smoked a cigarette, in a coma after a battle with lung disease.
Some industry groups accuse the EPA of inflating the benefits and lowballing the cost of the new limits, which could force some coal-fired plants to close and cause electricity prices to rise.
The EPA plan "constitutes an extraordinary threat to the power sector - particularly the half of U.S. electricity derived from coal-fired generation," said Scott Segal of the Electric Reliability Coordinating council, a Washington-based coalition of power companies. He said the industry is taking steps of its own to reduce emissions from coal-fired plants.
There are no federal limits on how much mercury or other toxic pollutants can be released from a power plant's smoke stacks. More than a dozen states have imposed their own regulations; Pennsylvania is not among them.