Photo: EPA / Flickr
Born in the late 1970’s, I am among the first generation of Americans who would never know life without an Environmental Protection Agency — at least that’s what I thought until recently.
That means, unlike my parents, I never woke up to headlines about our nation’s rivers being so contaminated that they burst into flames, and I never saw children walking to school beneath clouds of black smoke. I also didn’t grow up playing in the streets as trucks sprayed dangerous chemicals all over my body (mosquito repellant), but my parents did.
While environmental disasters are still happening — pipeline spills, fracking chemicals pumped into water, coal ash blowing in the wind, Flint — without the protection of the EPA, I can’t imagine what life would be like today. I question whether I’d even be alive at all.
On December 2, 1970, President Richard Nixon signed an executive order that created the US EPA. Its mission was to “permit coordinated and effective government action on behalf of the environment,” and it was charged with, among many important tasks, developing federal environmental laws, regulating processes that impact the environment, and funding scientific research aimed at understanding the relationship between human activity and the rest of the natural world.
Have we taken for granted all of the ways this agency has worked to protect us? Before we allow our newly elected President and his team of administrators to weaken the power of this federal agency, please consider just a few of the countless ways that the EPA makes America great.
1. We Stopped Spraying Our Children With DDT
In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, which stimulated widespread concern over the dangers of various pesticides, including DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane). It was finally banned in the US in 1972 thanks to a mountain of evidence documenting its harmful effects—reproductive issues in humans, liver tumors, cancer in both humans and animals. It was also blamed for putting our nation’s symbol of freedom—the bald eagle—on the Endangered Species List.
DDT accumulates in fatty tissues and is passed down to our children through breast milk and other environmental exposures. It is known to be very persistent in the environment, and will take many generations before it is no longer with us. In fact, although the use of DDT was discontinued more than 40 years ago, it can still be found in human blood. There are many harmful chemicals being used in this great nation, but thanks to the EPA, DDT is not one of them.
2. Lead Was Banned from Gasoline, Toys, and Many Other Products
Lead has been recognized as a powerful neurotoxin for hundreds of years, causing damage to the central nervous system and even death. If it weren’t for the EPA, we might still be fueling up our engines and bathing children’s toys with this deadly metal.
Lead absorbed by humans through breathing gasoline vapors is extremely toxic, and by the early 1970’s studies showed high concentrations of lead in American children and adults. Responding to the public outcry, in 1973 the EPA mandated reduced levels of lead in gasoline before finally banning it altogether in 1995. Thanks to their efforts, since the 1970’s, levels of lead found in human blood have decreased by more than 80 percent. Your brain loves the EPA.
3. Cars Emit Fewer Toxins
The EPA is responsible for regulating the emissions of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter of the vehicles that we drive. That means automobile manufacturers have been forced to improve technology—they’ve created more efficient combustion engines, systems that recover harmful vapors, introduced catalytic converters and particulate filters, and in the last decade, have been competing for the market on zero-emission cars and trucks. In fact, thanks to the EPA, cars manufactured today emit 75-90 percent less pollution for each mile driven than they did back in the 1970’s.
4. The EPA Says Americans Deserve Clean Water
In 1972, under the authority of the Clean Water Act, the EPA implemented pollution control programs that set wastewater standards and helped to ensure a safe and clean public supply of drinking water. At the time, more than half of country’s lakes, rivers and public beaches had become unsafe for fishing or swimming. That’s because, before the Clean Water Act, it was okay to dump untreated sewage and toxic manufacturing chemicals directly into water.
Despite the fact that there’s more work to be done, the EPA has prevented billions of pounds of harmful substances from entering our water supply. Thanks to the Clean Water Act, I have fond childhood memories of long summer days spent fishing and swimming in the creeks of Missouri’s Mark Twain National Forest with my sisters. What kind of memories do you want your children to have?
5. We Have Access to More Information Than Ever… At Least We Did Until Last Week When Certain Pages on the EPA Website Were Removed.
I don’t know about you, but I believe all people have the right to know when they are being exposed to toxic pollutants. Thankfully, the EPA does, too.
After the world’s worst industrial disaster, the 1984 Bhopal gas leak that killed or severely injured more than 2,000 people, the EPA passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA). The Community Right-to-Know provisions give the public access to information on chemicals at individual facilities, their uses, and releases into the environment.
Since companies care about their reputations, the EPCRA has almost certainly reduced the quantity of harmful chemicals that they use in their manufacturing and production process. I believe we need to work towards eliminating harmful chemicals entirely (why is any amount of poison allowed in my drinking water?), but at least today, thanks to the EPA, we know what we’re being exposed to. As a public educator, I understand that knowledge is power.
Passing the “Secret Science Reform Act” or any other proposal that weakens the federal agency’s authority is a step in the wrong direction. One problem with giving complete power to individual states is that some state leaders prioritize money over clean water, clean air, and human health. When one state fails to recognize the importance of life-sustaining practices, everyone loses. I hope we realize quickly that the first step to making America great is keeping Americans alive and healthy. #savetheEPA