A deep, cleansing breath of pristine air is always balm for body and soul, but until the passage of the Clean Air Act (CAA) of 1963, the very act of breathing in many parts of this country was hazardous to one’s health.
A toxic cloud of mining and industrial gases killed more than a dozen people in 1948 in Denora, Pennsylvania, and the air in Pittsburgh was so dirty in the 1950s from steel mill emissions that white-collar workers out for a lunch-time walk needed to change into a fresh dress shirt when they returned to the office.
These events and others, such as the infamous London smog of 1952 that claimed the lives of more than 12,000 residents, pricked the conscience of the industrialized world. The U.S. Congress, in a show of bipartisan unity absolutely unfathomable today — the Senate passed the bill unanimously — sent the CAA to President Lyndon Johnson who signed it on December 17, 1963, thereby giving the federal government the authority to research and combat air pollution. “We are about to come of age in our relationship with our environment,” declared Oregon senator Maurine Neuberger.
For the past 60 years, during which the CAA has been amended and expanded several times, the law has done a remarkable job of removing toxic pollutants from the air, from lead and carbon monoxide to the chemical constituents of acid rain and the chlorofluorocarbon refrigerants that put a hole in the ozone layer. While we certainly have a long way to go — controlling particulates and greenhouse gases remain a challenge — we certainly have a lot to celebrate. The CAA helped us breathe easier, saved countless lives, prevented a myriad of respiratory diseases, and, by one estimate, added almost half a year to our lifespans.
In Avalonia’s programs throughout the CAA’s anniversary year, we’ll be saluting these successes. But ensuring an abundance of clean air takes more than legislation — it requires an equal abundance of oxygen-providing healthy plants, trees in particular. The preservation of woodlands, which are celebrated throughout the world every March 21 during the UN-sponsored International Day of Forests, is a core Avalonia mission. So, when you’re out on a wooded trail and watching the leaf and flower buds fatten with promise, take time to rejoice. Take time to breathe deeply.
Story by Bruce Fellman, photo by Jeff Alexander