What do clean streams, fresh air, and carcinogen-free veggies have in common? We can thank the Environmental Protection Agency for all three. Unfortunately, the agency’s essential work is under serious threat.
In its near-50-year history, the EPA has implemented a host of important common sense regulations to protect the air we breathe, water we drink, and land on which we live. Now more than ever, we need this good work to continue.
Responding to years of public concern about pollution, President Richard Nixon established the EPA in December 1970 to consolidate the federal government's environmental research, monitoring, standard-setting, and enforcement responsibilities under one big umbrella. In the relatively short amount of time since, the agency has done such a remarkable job cleaning up the country’s air and waterways that a pollution-choked pre-EPA America – where companies regularly dumped factory waste directly into streams and rivers and used under-tested pesticides – is practically unfathomable.
But with major cuts to the agency’s budget and staff expected as the Trump Administration begins to roll back several key regulations protecting our climate and public health, we thought the time was right to revisit the landmark EPA achievements that have kept our drinking water clean and our air safe to breathe.
Clean Air Act
The newly formed EPA was given a tall order right out of the gate: Congress tasked the agency with setting national air quality, auto emission, and anti-pollution standards.
To do so, the EPA introduced the Clean Air Act of 1970, which is widely recognized as one of the most successful environmental regulations ever implemented. Programs through the act have lowered aggregate national emissions of six common pollutants (particles, ozone, lead, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide) an average of 70 percent. During this same period (1970-2015), the gross domestic product grew by 246 percent, proving yet again that we do not have to choose between a healthy economy and a healthy environment.
Because of the act, Americans breathe less pollution, lowering our risks of serious health problems. Studies have shown that the Clean Air Act saves hundreds of thousands of lives every year – as well as trillions of dollars in healthcare costs.
Burning discarded automobile batteries. (July 1972)
In the decades after World War II, use of the chemical dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) was widespread in US agriculture. But the 1962 publication of environmental scientist Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring sent a chill down the spines of anyone who had come into contact with the pesticide. Soon after, research proved that DDT was a carcinogen in people and a major threat to wildlife, particularly the predatory birds that consumed the rodents and insects that DDT kept at bay.
Early in his tenure as the first head of the EPA, William D. Ruckelshaus oversaw a seven-month hearing on DDT. By June 1972, the agency had banned the widely-used pesticide entirely, began an extensive review of all pesticides, and eventually created the Office of Pesticide Programs to regulate the use of all pesticides in the US.
Within a few decades, animal populations – including the Bald Eagle, which had been decimated to just 500 nesting pairs by 1963 – had recovered, and a dangerous, cancer-causing environmental poison was banned from use.
Lead-Based Paint and Gasoline Restrictions
Concerns about the presence of lead – which can cause brain damage, developmental delays in children, and even death in high doses – in everyday items like paint and gasoline spurred a series of EPA regulations that continue to protect people across the US to this very day.
First, in the 1971 Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act, the EPA and Congress restricted the use of lead-based paint in homes and on cribs and toys. Then, two years later, the agency acted to gradually reduce and eventually phase out lead in gasoline, after a study confirmed that lead from automobile exhaust was an important public health problem.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, following these moves, the number of American children with elevated lead levels in their blood dropped from a staggering 88 percent in the late 1970s to less than 1 percent today. The greatest reductions in overall lead levels occurred among children in racial minority and low income groups, underscoring the critical role of environmental justice in advancing social justice.
Contaminated water in drainage ditch behind Pittsburg Glass Co. (June 1972)
Clean Water Act
Public outcry about water pollution – particularly following a 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland – inspired fast action at the EPA. In an effort to clean up the nation’s drinking supply and navigable waterways, the agency created the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, better known as the Clean Water Act.
The goal was simple: Make all US waters “fishable and swimmable” by 1985 by making it unlawful to dump pollution into navigable waters. The EPA worked with local governments and companies to create programs to clean wastewater, redesign sewer systems, and restore degraded rivers and lakes based on new standards for how clean water should be.
These landmark actions are just the tip of the iceberg. The EPA has done so much to make America a safe and healthy place to live, yet in this politically divided moment, the climate deniers and fossil fuel insiders currently holding key federal appointments have set their sights on dismantling the agency. Talk of major budget and personnel cuts is in the air. Many Obama-era regulations meant to curb the dangerous emissions causing climate change and keep our air clean to breathe are on the chopping block.
But we know the consequences of inaction on the climate crisis – remember that we’ve just lived through the three hottest years on record – and we’re fast approaching an important fork in the road. We need climate action now. And for that to happen, we need a strong, sensible EPA that is ready to fight and committed to protecting the well-being of all Americans – not the bottom lines of a very select few.