EPA at 40

By Deb Berlin

Question: What do burning rivers, lead, and President Nixon have in common?
Answer: EPA in the 1970’s.

December 2, 1970 is the EPA’s birthday. We were founded by an Executive Order from President Nixon, during the turmoil of the Vietnam War and shortly after the first Earth Day.

Skyscraper of Manhattan veiled in Smog, 05/1973

Skyscraper of Manhattan veiled in smog, 05/1973

This was a time when a river in Ohio, the Cuyahoga, could be so fouled with industrial pollution, garbage and oil, that it could support no wildlife whatsoever and catch on fire 13 times – trash burning where people should swim and fish.  The Agency coalesced quickly and within two years helped create the Clean Water Act, which provides broad protections and limits dumping of industrial pollution into waterways.

At the same time, we started the phase out of leaded gasoline. You can see why from this smog-obscured view of the 1973 Manhattan skyline, representative of other American cities at the time.  Lead exposure was widespread and could give children permanent brain damage.

Question: What’s the state of burning rivers and lead inside people these days?
Answer: The Cuyahoga is cleaner than it has been in generations and thousands of water bodies across the country have been revitalized. Lead in our air is down more than 90% from a generation ago.

Over forty years we’ve cleaned the country’s drinking water, reduced exposure to dangerous chemicals, and penalized polluters. EPA helps protect human health and the environment in so many ways, such as helping save energy dollars through the Energy Star label, working to increase your gas mileage, classifying second-hand smoke as a cause of cancer, and removing arsenic from apples.
For more examples, see our whole history in 3 minutes (“40th Anniversary Video”) or
view the milestones on our timeline. Please be part of our anniversary – help us make the country cleaner tomorrow – Pick 5 for the Environment.

About the author: Deb Berlin works in the EPA Office of Public Affairs on strategic communications.

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