A Little History of the Environmental Protection Agency and Banned Chemicals

In today’s Education Report, I would like to talk about the protection of the environment, and two success stories.  With this report, I hope to show that the way government is working today is really about the same as it has always worked.


The year was 1970.   President Richard Nixon was greatly troubled by the degradation of quality of our environment.  It was part of his platform during run for the Presidency, and he followed through.  In his State of the Union message he delivered to Congress on Jan 22, 1970, he had this to say:


In the year 1980, will the President look back on a decade in which 70% of our people lived in metropolitan areas choked by traffic, suffocated by smog, poisoned by water, deafened by noise, and terrorized by crime? The great question of the 1970s is, shall we surrender to our surroundings, or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land, and to our water?


Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions. It has become a common cause of all the people of this country. It is a cause of particular concern to young Americans, because they more than we will reap the grim consequences of our failure to act on programs which are needed now if we are to prevent disaster later. Clean air, clean water, open spaces-these should once again be the birthright of every American. If we act now, they can be.

Six months later – on July 9, 1970 – he delivered a message to Congress to establish the Environmental Protection Agency.  It it, he said:


Our national government today is not structured to make a coordinated attack on the pollutants which debase the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land that grows our food. Indeed, the present governmental structure for dealing with environmental pollution often defies effective and concerted action. Despite its complexity, for pollution control purposes the environment must be perceived as a single, interrelated system. Present assignments of departmental responsibilities reflect this interrelatedness.


A far more effective approach to pollution control would:

  • Identify pollutants.
  • Trace them through the entire ecological chain, observing and recording changes in form as they occur.
  • Determine the tot of man and his environment.
  • Examine interactions among forms of pollution.
  • Identify where in the ecological chain interdiction would be most appropriate.


One of the early actions of the EPA was to ban Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, commonly known as DDT.  The EPA held seven months of hearings in 1971–1972, with scientists giving evidence for and against DDT. In the summer of 1972, the EPA announced the cancellation of most uses of DDT – exempting public health uses under some conditions. Immediately after the announcement, both Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a private environmental group, and the DDT manufacturers, filed suit against EPA. Industry sought to overturn the ban, while EDF wanted a comprehensive ban. The cases were consolidated, and in 1973 the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the EPA had acted properly in banning DDT.

Some uses of DDT continued under the public health exemption. For example, in June 1979, the California Department of Health Services was permitted to use DDT to suppress flea vectors of bubonic plague


I include DDT here because, for all its benefits, it represented a clear and present danger not just to humans, but a wealth of friendly insects, and especially to birds.  It was a carcinogen, and it killed a lot of animals and insects.  DDT is a long-lived chemical, and one of its many effects is to cause the shells of birds eggs to thin out.  Out national bird, the Bald Eagle, was so badly affected by DDT that most of its eggs cracked and collapsed before the chicks matured.  Being an apex predator, Eagles were never populous.  But the combination of the chemical and loss of habitat left it an endangered species in the ‘60s.  Around 1900, there were about 11,000 pairs around the Chesapeake Bay.  In 1967 when they were declared endangered, there were fewer than 90 breeding pairs around the Chesapeake.


I remember hearing a EDF scientist talking about DDT in a radio interview.  He said it remained about 30 years in the environment before there was enough breakdown of the chemical for its effects to die out.  Sure enough, in the late ‘90s we started hearing about the comeback of Bald Eagles.  In 2007, were were more than 11,000 pairs nesting up and down the Chesapeake Bay, including several in the D.C. metropolitan area.  Banning DDT was not the only reason they recovered, but it was one big drivers.


I also want to mention the complete banning of Choroflourocarbons (CFCs) in the ‘90s.  One of the most well known was Freon.  Like DDT, CFCs have very long life (due to DDT’s low reactivity).  They have an average lifetime of as much as 100 years, depending on which variation you are discussing.  And they went everywhere.  Studies in the ‘50s and ‘60s found them in the arctic despite a lack of people there.  CFCs released into the environment drifted everywhere, including into the stratosphere where ultraviolet radiation breaks the chemical down into free radicals that combine chemically with Ozone.


Not good.  Ozone is the protective layer that attenuates ultraviolet radiation that is damaging to life on the ground. Stratospheric ozone protects life on the planet by absorbing potentially harmful ultraviolet radiation that can cause skin cancer and cataracts, suppress immune systems, and damage plant life.


Studies in the late 1970s  saw a steady decline of about four percent in the total amount of ozone in the ozone layer and a much larger springtime decrease in stratospheric ozone around Earth’s polar regions (the ozone hole).  In 1978 the United States banned the use of CFCs such as Freon in aerosol cans, the beginning of a long series of regulatory actions against their use.  By 1987, in response to a dramatic seasonal depletion of the ozone layer over Antarctica, diplomats forged the Montreal Protocol, which called for drastic reductions in the production of CFCs.  In 1989, 12 European Community nations agreed to ban the production of all CFCs by the end of the century. In 1990, diplomats met in London and voted to significantly strengthen the Montreal Protocol by calling for a complete elimination of CFCs by the year 2000. It was a long process, but production of new stocks ceased in most, if not all, countries in 1994.


Ozone levels stabilized by the mid-1990s and began to recover in the 2000s.  Recovery is projected to continue over the next century, and the ozone hole is expected to reach pre-1980 levels by around 2075.  We are just now beginning to see good effects.  This article came across my desk this month:


NASA Sees First Direct Proof of Ozone Hole Recovery

For the first time, scientists have shown through direct observations of the ozone hole by a satellite instrument, built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, that levels of ozone-destroying chlorine are declining, resulting in less ozone depletion.

Measurements show that the decline in chlorine, resulting from an international ban on chlorine-containing human-produce chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), has resulted in about 20 percent less ozone depletion during the Antarctic winter than there was in 2005.  The study was published Jan. 4 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.