I was an environmental consultant for 45 years. Along the way, I studied the history of how environmental management evolved in the United States. From understanding that history, one can appreciate:
- how far we’ve come; and
- how to avoid new trouble.
Today, the US environment is almost totally regulated. There are still flaws in our scientific understanding and technology, however, so we still have environmental problems. Budget is also a factor. But despite our remaining problems, notwithstanding climate change, things were much worse historically. For example:
- In the mid-19th Century, cholera from drinking water killed President Polk and thousands of Americans per year.
- Over 150,000 Americans died of cholera between 1830 and 1850.
- Around 1900, a city of 1 million people might expect 800 deaths per year from drinking water-borne typhoid fever.
Now with chlorination, pathogenic disease from drinking water is a thing of the past. We now have the luxury to worry about aesthetics and the penultimate problem of hazardous chemicals.
I assume you’re here to learn how environmental management works today, but first it might help to understand how it evolved.
Evolution of Environmental Management
Since cave man times, environmental management advanced because of 3 things:
- We’re here and it’s there.
- The fouled nest syndrome.
- Improved science.
Romans built aqueducts to bring water from “there” to “here.” Medieval villages learned to channel sewage away from the town center to avoid fouling the nest. Pasteur’s science eventually led to safe drinking water. And today we know so much that we know the flaws in those game changers.
In the United States, the evolution of environmental management is essentially a 20th Century story. Before that, except perhaps for places like New York, it was rare to foul our nest. New York fouled its nest early so many of today’s environmental management concepts started in New York’s 1890s. Some key dates for environmental evolution in the 20th Century are (approximate):
- 1900 – first air pollution studies
- 1902 – first water quality standard
- 1908 – first US drinking water chlorination
- 1925 – first mathematical model of water pollution
- 1948 – first federal Clean Water Act
- 1970 – Earth Day
- 1970s – All the modern environmental laws
- 1980s – Hazardous waste laws
I will describe this evolution to you by medium – air, water, and soil.
Air pollution management evolved from concerns about dirt and dust – such as soot on our drying laundry in a backyard next to the coal boiler. By 1900 we were concerned about a few chemicals like metals from smelters, and by the 1950s we learned of smokestack acids causing smog and acid rain. Finally, we now focus on specific chemicals in air.
Two seminal events taught us that air pollution was more deadly than just soot smudging our laundry. A 1948 smog in Donora, PA killed 40 people and made half the town sick. London’s “Great Smog” of 1952 killed 4,000 and made 100,000 sick. Around this time California’s smog became intolerable and a CalTech professor figured out that smog was caused by photochemical reactions in the atmosphere from 3 air pollutants -organic chemicals, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur oxides. He coined the term, “smog” as a contraction of fog and smoke, although it is much more complicated than that.
Much smog was caused by automobiles, but that was not their only problem. In the 1920s, DuPont and General Motors, after discovering tetraethyl-lead’s antiknock properties, snookered the US Surgeon General, amidst some vigorous scientific opposition, to allow the use of leaded gasoline throughout the country and eventually throughout the world. After years of debating lead’s health effects, leaded gasoline started being phased out across the world in the 1980s, although some stalwarts like China didn’t ban it until 2000.
But lead air pollution has not been just an automobile problem. Leaded paint used to be the best you could buy and now we still deal with its aftermath. Lead mining and smelting affected specific areas of the US, primarily in Missouri due to air pollution. As I will discuss later when I talk about current environmental management, lead is so important that it is 1 of only 6 nationwide air quality pollutants regulated by the EPA.
In the 1950s, the Eisenhower administration described air pollution as a “local problem.” Of course, today we know it is a global problem – we track pollution from China blowing to the US, for example – but that early view probably shaped how air quality is regulated today via very strong state participation. I’ll get into that later, but here I want you to understand the scientific difficulties inherent in air regulation. They stem from the difficulty with measuring air quality. You can’t control what you can’t measure.
The first difficulty is the form of air pollution – particles, mists, and gases. Almost ethereal, not so easy to measure.
Also, it’s not easy to understand their health effects. For example, particles by themselves can be harmful. Fine particles lodge deep in the lungs and cause disease by irritation. And sometimes those particles also contain unhealthful chemicals – lead, for example. So the particle might cause 2 health effects, one from the particle itself and one from its composition. The mists and gases are comprised of sometimes harmful chemicals and, worse, react in the air, causing smog for example, which then creates its own health impact. To manage them, these things need to be predicted, which is also not easy.
The second difficulty is the medium itself – air. Air is a very big “thing” and we are trying to measure very little things in this big thing that moves around a lot. It took decades to work out a reasonable approach to air sampling – ground level, towers, associated meteorological data, collection/averaging time, sampling station distribution, and dozens of other issues. And air has some “natural” things in it that can confound air sampling. For example, bird droppings into particle samplers probably took 10 years to work out. The moving around part is also a very big deal. Think about sampling representative air quality on a sunny, calm day versus in a hurricane.
The third difficulty is the nature of pollution emissions. There are 3 types – stationary, mobile, and fugitive emissions. Stationary sources are things like smoke stacks, and although they are the easiest to measure, there are still great difficulties like reaching up 100 ft to the outlet and understanding where the emitted plume reaches ground level so it can be measured. Mobile sources are more difficult because they are a “moving target.” Sampling strategies for such emissions are usually not aimed at moving with these mobile sources but rather at sampling along highways to capture average conditions. Fugitive emissions include things like windblown dust, factory materials loading operations, and stuff that boils or blows out of factory processes and out building windows. But such emissions are not just from factories. They might be from your local sewage treatment plant, a construction site, or even your own backyard blowing lead in the dust from the lead paint flaking off your siding. The significance of fugitive emissions for the regulation of air quality was first realized in the 1970s and fugitive emissions remain today the most difficult air pollution issue.
So you hopefully see how complicated it is. It took a long time to grapple with air pollution. Because air pollution is so hard to measure properly, we rely on predictions using mathematical models. For given emissions models simulate transport processes to predict downwind concentrations. Rudimentary air modeling began with WWI mustard gas predictions and evolved to what is called “Gaussian Plume” modeling in the 1940s and ‘50s. The term, “Gaussian” is more commonly known as “bell-shaped” and refers to statistical environmental representations. In many cases, air models required an estimate of the emissions because even that part couldn’t be measured properly. Standardized emission factors for many types of industrial sources were developed by the US Public Health Service in the 1960s. Such standardized factors continued to evolve for the next 30 years while other emissions were actually measured.
So through the 20th Century the following air pollution issues and methods evolved:
- Understanding the nature of air pollution – e.g., particles, lead, etc.
- Developing measurement methods – both emissions and ambient air quality
- Perfecting models for prediction of downwind air pollution impacts.
With these technical developments, the US was ready for air quality management, which I will describe in a moment.
Learn more about air related topics:
- Ambient Air Quality and Environmental Health
- Indoor Air Quality and Environmental Health
- What is an Air Pollution Analyst?
Water and Drinking Water
With drinking water quality in mind, the first half of the 20th Century debated how to control water pollution – at wastewater discharges or by allowing unfettered pollution while treating polluted water at the drinking water plant. Ultimately both have turned out to be needed.
The early focus on water pollution was on what we now call “conventional parameters” – dissolved oxygen, particulates, bacteria, acidity, and nutrients. When sewage is dumped in water, natural microbes in the water “eat” the sewage and deplete the water’s oxygen supply in the process. This is called “natural purification.” Its process is the basis of most sewage treatment plants. Surface water continuously replenishes its oxygen by absorbing it from the overlying atmosphere. This is called “reaeration.” When reaeration can’t keep up with degradation, the water becomes putrid, fish die, and nasty bacteria that emit stinky things like sulfur take over. That’s called water pollution. Other forms of water pollution come from too many nutrients, like phosphorus and nitrogen. Excess nutrients cause algae blooms, which die and degrade, thus consuming the water’s oxygen. That’s called “eutrophication.” Another form of pollution comes from particles. Too much particulate matter makes water cloudy, called “turbidity” and ugly. Another form of pollution is from pathogenic bacteria that cause diseases. We measure the potential for that by sampling for “fecal coliforms,” which are bacteria that live in warm-blooded intestines. Water with fecal coliforms is suspected of also being disease-bearing. And finally, there is pollution from specific chemicals. I’ll come back to that in a moment.
The balance of oxygen in water from natural purification of wastes and reaeration was first characterized by the US Public Health Service in 1925. It was called the Streeter-Phelps model after the two scientists that did the math. The Streeter-Phelps model and its since-evolving complexities remain the fundamental principal of sewage treatment and sewage-based pollution control today.
With the invention of drinking water chlorination in the early 20th Century, the heat was off for most pathogenic water pollution, but our fouled nest syndrome became inescapable around mid-century as population and industrialization intensified. Ohio’s Cuyahoga River fires of 1952 and 1969 highlighted our fouled nest and served to motivate the US to tackle water pollution. The first step was to understand its extent.
We learned the extent of water pollution with nationwide stream studies in the 1950s and 1960s. For the first time, state and federal agencies sampled rivers and lakes across the nation. The problem was that we were not sure how or what to measure. We ended up measu