Quest to save the world

Are we winning?How far we've come in 30 Earth Days' worth of cleaning our air, water and soil.

April 22, 1999

EARTH DAY 1999, the 30th annual observance, reminds us of a continuing obligation to the health of our planet. It is not a commemoration of victory but of an ongoing responsibility.

Much has been accomplished to clean up the environment since that first Earth Day in 1970. Whether these improvements are a result of stricter laws, or of competitive demands of the economy, is debated. But trends that began before the Clean Air and Clean Water acts of the early 1970s were certainly accelerated by those laws.

Our air has 80 percent less soot, 25 percent less ozone (smog), 28 percent less carbon monoxide, 41 percent less sulfur dioxide (acid rain) and 99 percent less lead than in 1970.

The proliferation and upgrading of wastewater treatment plants has removed most of the sewage and toxins that routinely polluted waterways. Discharges of toxic metals and organics have dropped by nearly 99 percent in 30 years.

Draining of wetlands, which are essential for wildlife, water cleaning and flood control, has been curbed. Though conversions to cropland continue, there's no net loss of wetlands in the United States, as new marshes occur.

The Endangered Species Act has promoted survival of hundreds of species of animals and plants, even if it has not saved some listed species from extinction. A few, such as the bald eagle and peregrine falcon, have recovered sufficiently to be removed from the list.

The easy targets of pollution have been hit. The greatest challenge ahead is to control more difficult types of pollution: global warming, surface runoff of pollutants to waters, urban sprawl and abandoned, contaminated "brownfields."

Earth Day can be celebrated annually, but the human commitment to Earth's health must be renewed daily.

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