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Monday, June 7, 2021

Looking Back at 50 Years of EPA Regulation

The EPA ( Enivironmental Protection Agency) is has beeen functioning now for half a century. It was established in 1970 during the term of president Richard Nixon. I think it would be appropriate to look back at the history leading up to the formation of the agency and also to think about how much has been accomplished in cleaning up our cities, towns, farms, and natural areas.  I think it is sort of ironic that the EPA rarely gets credit for how much better things are today.  It reminds me of the line often spoken by the comedian Rodney Dangerfield: "I don't get no respect!"  The EPA gets criticism from both liberals and conservatives.  Those on the Left tend to think the agency is too lax with its regulation, while those on the Right tend complain about over-regulation. Perhaps this is a sign that the EPA is actually doing its job and is not swayed that much by politics. From my experience as an observer of EPA regulation of agricultural technologies, the agency does a pretty respectable job of going with the Science even when that makes some people unhappy.  I would contrast this with regulation of agriculture in the EU where politics regularly trumps Science with regard to their regulations.
 
Chemistry is a relatively young science having only gotten started in the mid to 19th century. As the field advanced in the first 4-5 decades of the 20th century it began to help solve many challenges and it came to be highly regarded.  German scientists Fritz Haber and Karl Bosch found a way to make nitrogen fertilizer in the mid 2020s using the nitrogen that makes up 78% of our atmosphere and this enabled farmers to keep up with population growth.  The DuPont Company had a corporate slogan, "Better Living Through Chemistry."  

Remember the line in The Graduate when the main character  is given the career advice that the best post-college option was to get into  "Plastics."

What drove this was the discovery in the 1950s and 1960s that some of the seemingly useful new chemicals that people had learned to make were leading to unanticipated but seriously negative consequences for the environment and human health.


It turned out that when commercial or municipal waste was burned or when fuels like wood, coal and oil were combusted, some very persistent and poisonous chemicals called Dioxins were being formed and accumulating in the environment. The current EPA website describes the history of these chemicals. come from.  One source is burning things.  Dioxins are formed as a result of combustion processes such as waste incineration. Citizens were beginning to hear about this issue but what probably grabbed the most public attention was when the badly polluted Coyahoga river in Ohio actually caught on fire because of flammable chemicals that were being released there by certain industries.

So, Dioxins and burning rivers were factors that convinced many people that the chemical industry had to somehow be restrained and prevented from causing these problems.  

These were not the only issues that emerged. In 1939, a new synthetic insecticidal chemical called DDT was invented by a Swiss Chemist named Paul Hermann Muller. This new pest control agent was seen as a great advance because it could be used control the vectoring insects like mosquitos, Chagas bugs and bedbugs that spread deadly infectious human diseases like malaria, sleeping sickness and smallpox.  It is thought that DDT saved more than 21 million lives and was used in both developed and developing regions. In 1948 Muller received the Nobel Prize for Biology. In these cases, DDT seemed like a very positive tool because of the human health benefits.  It was also sprayed on forests to deal with insects like the Western Spruce Budworm.

So, Dioxins and burning rivers were factors that convinced many people that the chemical industry had to somehow be restrained and prevented from causing these problems.  

These were not the only issues that emerged. In 1939, a new synthetic insecticidal chemical called DDT was invented by a Swiss Chemist named Paul Hermann Muller. This new pest control agent was seen as a great advance because it could be used control the vectoring insects like mosquitos, Chagas bugs and bedbugs that spread deadly infectious human diseases like malaria, sleeping sickness and smallpox.  It is thought that DDT saved more than 21 million lives and was used in both developed and developing regions. In 1948 Muller received the Nobel Prize for Biology. In these cases, DDT seemed like a very positive tool because of the human health benefits.  It was also sprayed on forests to deal with insects like the Western Spruce Budworm.

DDT was also used for crop protection and helped farmers to reduce the crop damage caused by many insect pests. In doing so it also reduced the threat of contamination by deadly mycotoxins produced by those fungi 

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