The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created in 1970 under the Nixon Administration with a mission to “protect human health and the environment.” And indeed, the EPA has made great contributions to improving our health and the health of our communities. Now more than ever we are aware that our health is dependent upon, and intertwined with, the environment in which we live—including the air we breathe, the water we drink and bathe in, and our exposure to toxins. As the Trump administration begins its promised plan to roll back environmental regulations and curb the role of the EPA, here’s a look at just a few of the agency’s amazing achievements that most of us take for granted.
1. Safer drinking water
When you turn on your tap for a glass of water, or to fill a bathtub for a baby, you probably assume that the water is safe. For the great majority of us, the water that is piped into our homes is in fact clean and clear. But it wasn’t that long ago that our rivers, streams, and oceans were literally dumping grounds for pollutants, including human waste and sewage. In fact, in the late 1960s some of our navigable waterways were so saturated with industrial waste and sewage that they would randomly burst into flames.
In 1972, Congress passed a broad Clean Water Act, which allowed the EPA to regulate the discharge of pollutants into American waterways. Shortly thereafter, the Safe Drinking Water Act was passed. This legislation allowed the EPA to regulate the nation’s public drinking water supplies by setting and enforcing national standards for drinking water quality. Thanks to these standards, the U.S. has one of the safest public drinking water supplies in the world. Under its regulatory powers, the EPA sets limits on the amounts of certain contaminants in water provided by public water systems, by regulating both the sources of water and the processing of drinking water. Contaminants fall into a variety of categories and may be physical (such as sediment), chemical, biological, or radiological substances. Contaminated water can lead to adverse health effects including gastrointestinal illness, reproductive problems, and neurological disorders.
2. Reduced air pollution
The Clean Air Act of 1970 was enacted in large part as a response to the dense smog and air pollution that was hanging over many American cities. In Los Angeles, for example, air quality in the 1950s was so poor, and pollution so dense, that it caused a serious problem for aviation (not to mention human health). Poor air quality is linked to a multitude of health problems, including lung and heart disease. Living or working near sources of air pollution can lead to higher exposures to air contaminants such as sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and ultra fine particulate matter. Children who live in neighborhoods close to busy highways are exposed to higher levels of air pollution and also experience disproportionately higher rates of asthma.
EPA standards for clean air have resulted in significant reductions in national emission of air toxins. Not only is this greatly important for our health, but it turns out that clean air is also an important factor in economic welfare and growth. Cleaner air means that there are fewer air pollution-related illnesses, which means that we spend less money on medical treatments and see lower absenteeism among American workers. And people live longer.
3. Unleaded gas and paint
Though it’s invisible to the naked eye, lead is all around us. We can be exposed to lead through a variety of sources, including air, food, water, dust, and soil. There is no safe blood level for lead in children, who can develop a host of health problems from exposure to the metal—most notably neurological damage. Even relatively low blood lead levels are associated with hearing impairment, attention-deficit disorder (ADD), and balance and nerve disorders. It has also been shown that children’s IQ levels are inversely proportional to the amount of lead detected in their blood.
American children used to be exposed to lead in vastly larger quantities than they are today. That’s because, since its inception, the EPA has been tasked with implementing regulations aimed at ensuring that we all have less exposure to lead. With the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970, the EPA was given authority to regulate our exposure to lead, including the phase-out of lead in gasoline. By 1986, the EPA required that lead in gasoline be cut by 90 percent; by 1996, the use of leaded gasoline had been entirely phased out in road vehicles. Another primary source of lead exposure is leaded paint, and the EPA has been instrumental in reducing our exposure to this lead source as well. Under the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, the EPA was given authority to report on and regulate many toxins, including lead-based paint. The 1992 Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act further authorized the EPA (along with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD) to mandate lead paint disclosure on real estate forms. Overall, the removal of lead from gasoline and paint has reduced the average blood lead levels in children by 90 percent.
4. Acid rain reduction
Acid rain is rain that is made acidic (has a lower pH) by certain pollutants in the air, particularly sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx). The major sources of SO2 and NOx in our atmosphere are vehicle emissions, industrial manufacturing, and the burning of fossil fuels to create energy. Acid rain can wreak havoc on our natural ecosystems. For instance, at lower pH levels (more acidic), fish eggs cannot hatch and adult fish can die. And acidic soil can kill trees. The pollutants that cause acid rain are harmful to human health as well.
In the 1990s, the EPA was tasked by Congress with lowering the levels of SO2 and NOx in our air. Using a “cap-and-trade” pollution reduction program—which created a nationwide cap on emissions, but allowed industry to buy and sell authorizations to emit—the EPA set about reducing the emission of these acid rain-causing air pollutants into the atmosphere. The program worked: Over the last 25 years, acid rain levels have declined by 60 percent.
Bottom line: It’s easy to take our cleaner air, water, and living environments for granted, but we shouldn’t. Without the important work of the EPA, many of our rivers would be filthy (sometimes even burning) and our air would be thick with pollution. And we would be a much less healthy society as a result.
Also see How Safe Is Your Drinking Water?