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Public Recognition of Pollution as a Problem

Public awareness that the environment could not absorb limitless amounts of waste came with the Industrial Revolution. By the latter part of the 19th cent. many industrial areas were experiencing severe air pollution caused by the burning of coal to run mills and machinery. The quantities of fly ash, smoke, carbon and sulfur gases, and other wastes had become too great for local environments—like those of London and Pittsburgh—to disperse rapidly. Similarly, industrial effluents and sewage were polluting river systems. Not until after World War II, however, was pollution generally viewed as more than a nuisance that blackened buildings and sullied streams, i.e., as a pervasive threat to human health.

By the 1960s the threat had become great enough, many believed, to challenge the integrity of the ecosystem and the survival of numerous organisms including humans. Population explosion, industrial expansion, and burgeoning truck and automobile use were producing wastes in such gigantic quantities that natural dispersing and recycling processes could not keep pace. Exacerbating the problem was the appearance of new substances that degraded with extreme slowness or not at all: plastics, synthetic fibers, detergents, synthetic fertilizers, synthetic organic pesticides such as DDT, synthetic industrial chemicals such as the polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and the wastes from their manufacture.

Thus waterways and dumps festered with disease-breeding garbage. Industrial wastes created corrosive smogs and, with municipal wastes, polluted inland and marine waters, including drinking supplies. Automobile emissions choked urban and suburban communities. Pesticides and PCBs poisoned fish and birds. These conditions, persisting into the 1970s as year by year waste output increased, evoked demand in many nations, and on the part of the United Nations, for worldwide pollution abatement.

The National Environmental Policy Act in 1969 and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency the following year was a turning point in federal regulatory policy. Since then Congress has also passed the Clean Air Act (1970), the Clean Water Act (1972), the Noise Control Act (1979), and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (1980), more commonly known as the Superfund Act, which created a fund to clean up hazardous waste sites. While the United States and many other industrialized nations have acted to control and reduce pollution, many developing nations, such as China, have experienced increased pollution as they have industrialized.

The potential for environmental disaster has been dramatically underscored by such events as the evacuation of Love Canal (1978); the chemical accident at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal; the oil spills from the tankers Torrey Canyon off Cornwall, England (1967), Amoco Cadiz off Brittany, France (1978), Exxon Valdez in Alaska (1989), Braer off the Shetland Islands (1993), and Prestige off Galicia, Spain (2002) as well as from offshore oil wells; and the nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island (1979) and at Chernobyl in Ukraine (1986).

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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