The year I graduated high school and drove a beat-up orange Datsun over the George Washington Bridge to discover a brave new world–college, was the same year the image above was shot.
Across the country, images like this one became the environmental story that was sure to define our future. In this toxic soup of pollution that ranged from horrific air quality mirrored in the scene above, to chemically polluted waterways, some of which were sickeningly catching on fire; environmental consciousness was born.
In a collective, bi-partisan roar that transcended politics (as it hit home for everyone–legislators and their constituents), it was concluded that our environment was dying a rapidly polluted death.
Don’t Go Backwards
I was reminded of this scene when I learned it was Pollution Protection Week. This week highlights the efforts of the EPA, its partners, and the public in making pollution prevention a cornerstone of sustainability. This realization became America’s official policy in 1990 with the Federal Pollution Prevention Act’s, declaration that, “Pollution should be prevented or reduced at its source, whenever possible.”
Let’s go back and take a closer look…
What has the EPA done for us?
The EPA was established on December 2, 1970. Since is inception, the EPA has been working to protect the health and well-being of Americans. But government agencies often bear the brunt of political bashing. Sometimes warranted. Sometimes not. Either way, at this point in time, when there are so many important regulations on the chopping block and a presidential election looming, it’s valuable to revisit why we must protect the EPA.
According to the EPA, in 2010 the reductions in pollution from the Clean Air Act prevented:
- 160,000 premature deaths;
- More than 80,000 emergency room visits;
- 130,000 heart attacks
- 13 million lost work days
- 1.7 million asthma attacks
Across the country
Each and every state, and each and every community has been touched by air pollution. This story from Donora, Pennsylvania was one of the the worst:
In October 1948, Donora, Pa., was enveloped in a lethal haze.
Over five days, nearly half of the town’s 14,000 residents experienced severe respiratory and cardiovascular problems. It was difficult to breathe. The death toll rose to nearly 40.
Disturbing photos show Donora’s streets hidden under a thick blanket of gray smog. A warm air pocket had passed high above the town, trapping cooler air below and sealing in pollutants.
Donora was no stranger to pollution. Steel and zinc smelters had long plagued the town with dirty air. But the air pocket left pollutants with no escape route. They sat stewing in the streets, where residents breathed them in lethal doses.
The situation in Donora was extreme, but it reflected a trend. Air pollution had become a harsh consequence of industrial growth across the country and world.
Crises like Donora’s were widely publicized; people took notice and began to act. Scientists started investigating the link between air pollution and health. States began passing legislation to reduce air pollution. And in 1970, a milestone year, Congress passed the Clean Air Act Amendments which led to the establishment of the nation’s air quality standards. ~ EPA, Then, Now, Future
Rolling On The River
For years, I’ve lived and raised my family north of NYC, just a few miles from the Hudson River. The majestic river that flows below the formative George Washington Bridge was once forever altered. Before the inception of the EPA, power company giant, GE dumped PCBs into the Hudson River. PCBs are now found in sediment, water and wildlife throughout the Hudson River’s ecosystem…they are also found in the bodies of many of the people who live along the river or ate polluted fish from the river.
While the Hudson River is a whole lot cleaner due to the efforts of the EPA’s Clean Air and Water Acts, it is also because of grassroots organizations that advocate in similar ways as Moms Clean Air Force, like Riverkeeper and Clearwater. These organizations remind New Yorkers that there is still a long way to go to restore the massive environmental damage done to this precious resource.
What can we do right now?
While we’ve made tremendous scientific strides that can address our latest pollution woes and deliver safer air and water to our families, pollution stories continue to explode every day. In small town communities to Capital Hill, Moms Clean Air Force is working with individuals and partner organizations in the continuing fight to clean up deadly air pollution.
Pollution Prevention Week is a great time to take stock and renew our clean air efforts. While we can’t change the history of our filthy skies and murky waters, we do know that we must not leave our current mess to our children. Please help us breathe the promise of clean air into our children’s future.