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But air-pollution regulations don't come alone with costs. They also deliver economic benefits. The EPA argues that the new cross-state-border rule will provide $280 billion in public-health benefits--fewer deaths, hospital stays and sick days--at the cost of roughly $2.5 billion a year in plant upgrades. (It helps that the low price of cleaner-burning natural gas--thanks chiefly to the recent boom in shale-gas production--has reduced the cost of switching away from coal.) Another study, by researchers at the University of Massachusetts, estimated that the new regulations would actually lead to a net increase in jobs as utilities hired workers to overhaul their most antiquated plants. Indeed, a report this year by the White House Office of Management and Budget found that EPA regulations have historically provided $4 in health and environmental benefits for every $1 they cost.
Coal-industry executives argue that they've been reducing air pollution over the years--and they have. The skyline is significantly cleaner than it was in the 1960s and '70s. But the smoke hasn't cleared, and as scientists look more closely at air pollution, they're finding danger at lower and lower levels. Invisible particles--bits of soot less than nine ten-thousandths of an inch wide--can penetrate the lungs and trigger inflammation, which can contribute to cardiovascular disease. Mercury, which can cause neurological damage in children, is present in trace amounts in some kinds of coal and can be released into the air when the coal is burned. (Mercury emissions increased more than 8% from 1999 to 2005 even as levels of other pollutants fell.) Though it's not clear what role air pollution might play in causing asthma, the condition has been on the rise nationally, especially in minority communities like Pilsen in Chicago--and there's no doubt that bad air can worsen existing asthma. "For someone who is predisposed to wheeze, air pollution is likely to tip them over and make them wheeze," says Dr. Jerome Paulson, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics' council on environmental health.
It makes Bloomberg worry as well, which is why his foundation will be donating millions of dollars to the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. As the mayor of a city that struggles to meet air-pollution targets--in part because of haze from power plants hundreds of miles away--Bloomberg knows the toll of coal. The air pollution from coal is a threat to urban public health, one that Bloomberg, who has taken cigarettes out of the hands of angry smokers in New York City, is ready to fight. "Coal kills every day," he says. "It's a dirty fuel."