06/21/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The History Of Earth Day Plus How You Can Get Involved

On April 22, the 40th anniversary of Earth Day will be celebrated from coast-to-coast; a day which was first realized by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson who wanted to find a way to increase environmental awareness and to promote urgently needed federal legislation to deal with an alarming ecological crisis.

It wasn't until visiting Santa Barbara Calif in August, 1969, and reading about the popularity of "teach-ins'' at college campuses as way of educating students about the Vietnam War that an idea caught hold in Nelson's head to hold a similar "teach-in'' only with a focus on environmental awareness.

Since the first Earth Day was held on April 22, 1970, when a chorus of demonstrators around the nation (some 20 million strong) voiced their concerns about the environment, specifically about the pollution of air and water, that a significant amount of federal legislation was passed to protect the environment.

Nelson, who was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995 by President Bill Clinton, the nation's highest civilian honor, died at his Bethesda, Md home on July 3, 2005 at the age of 89.

What follows are summaries of some of the most important federal legislation that was passed during the 1970's, thanks in large part, to Sen. Nelson and his grassroots environmental movement.

• The Environmental Protection Agency was created on December 2, 1970, in response to the nationwide concern over environmental pollution. The newly formed agency was responsible for consolidating a variety of federal research, monitoring, standard-setting and enforcement activities under a single regulatory agency to protect health and safeguard the natural environment, including air, water, and land

• The Clean Air Act of 1970 is a comprehensive federal law, which required the EPA to set National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) to protect against common pollutants, including ozone (smog), carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, lead, and particulate soot.

The Act was subsequently amended in 1977 and 1990 to set new goals for achieving NAAQS. In particular, the phasing out of lead gas by the mid-1980's, was hailed by many as one of the most important health initiatives of the 20th century. Additional amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1990 included the controlling of acid rain and the elimination of leaded gas in automobiles by the end of 1995.

Despite repeated violations of basic health standards, leaving millions of Americans at risk, important progress has been made since the Act was passed, including the reduction of emissions of toxic by 98 percent, the reduction of emissions of sulfur dioxide by 35 percent, and the reduction of emissions of carbon monoxide by 32 percent

• The Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed on December 29, 1970 which created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) under the U.S. Department of Labor, responsible for enforcing workplace safety by requiring employers to keep a safe workplace, inform employees of potential hazards in the workplace, properly train them how to deal with potential hazards and maintain a written record of workplace injuries.
Specific workplace safety conditions were additionally created for the following industries: General industry, Maritime, Construction, and Agriculture.

• Clean Water Act of 1972: With the aim of regulating quality standards for surface waters, including the regulation of discharges of pollutants into the waters of the United States, the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, requiring that every U.S. city install a water treatment plant through the use of grant money.

The CWA additionally set national goals that lakes and rivers should be "fishable'' and "swimmable.''

In addition to the CWA, in 1974, the Safe Drinking Water Act was passed, which made the EPA responsible for setting water quality standards to protect against man-made and natural occurring contaminants, as well as making sure these standards were being enforced at the state and local level.

• The Endangered Species Act of 1973: was passed by Congress and later signed by President Richard Nixon on December 28, 1973 amid growing concern that various "species'' of fish, wildlife, and plants in the United States were growing extinct. The Act authorized the federal government to protect endangered species and threatened wildlife, considered by the president to be a "irreplaceable part of our national heritage.''

Among other provisions, ESA prohibits the unauthorized taking, possession, sale, and transport of endangered species, authorizes the issuing of civil and criminal penalties for violating the Act or regulations. The Act additionally requires federal agencies to develop programs to preserve and recover listed species.

Amendments to the ESA passed in 1978 require the Secretary to review the list of endangered species every five years, including providing for public hearings before the listing of a species or its habitat.

In addition to 1978, amendments to the ESA were added in 1979, 1982 and 1988

• Toxic Substances Control Act (of 1976) was signed into law on October 11, 1976, which requires the EPA to ensure industries maintain testing, control, and recordkeeping for individual chemicals and chemical mixtures, whether it be food, drugs, or cosmetics. The Act also requires the labeling of chemicals, including requiring the industry to test both old and new chemicals.

Among the many environmental breakthroughs, TSCA extensively studied the adverse effects of asbestos, which led to the creation of the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) and the regulation for the training, inspection, and handling of asbestos in schools, including publicly-accessible and privately-owned facilities.

• The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (of 1976) for the first time, established standards for the storage, treatment, and disposal of solid wastes (garbage, refuse, or sludge) and hazardous wastes (solid wastes or the combination of solid wastes) on land and directed federal agencies to order the cleanup of contaminated sites.

An amendment to the RCRA in 1984 phased out land disposal of hazardous material, along with the creation of a comprehensive underground storage tank program.

How YOU can get involved:

The Earth Day Network has a number of strategies for concerned citizens to get involved in raising environmental awareness in your community, including how to take action and ways to push for change with the U.S. Congress and the White House through the signing of petitions, or pledging to become more environmentally active, such as "10 Easy things you can do at home to protect endangered species." Check for local events below!

Where: The National Mall, Washington D.C.

When: April 25, 11 am-7 pm

Event: The Earth Day Network will organize a climate rally on The National Mall to demand Congress pass stronger environmental legislation. Featured guests will include: the Rev. Jesse Jackson, film director, James Cameron, AFL-CIO President, Richard Trumka, Olympic gold medalist, Billy Demong, producer, Trudie Styler, and author, Margaret Atwood.

Where: Times Square, New York City

When: April 22, 11 am to 2 pm

Event: A special 40th anniversary Earth Day commemoration. Among other activities, messages will be delivered from local, national and international environmental activities, as well as business leaders, government officials and musical guests all committed to promoting environmental awareness.

Where: New York City

When: April 17-25

Time: Throughout the day (refer to schedule for locations)

Event: Battery Park City's cultural institutions have teamed up to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Earth Week with a week of environmental workshops, bird watching, poetry readings, panel discussions, street painting, and much more.

Where: Grand Central Terminal, New York City

When: April 19-24, 10 am to 7 pm

Event: Earth Day New York will present a multi-day exhibit focusing on the City of the Future, green technology, sustainable fashion and other major displays, including photographs and graphic images contributed by artists such as Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Roy Lichtenstein, and Rafal Olbinski.

NOTE: For a complete listing of Earth Day events in NYC go here.

Where: City Hall Council Chambers (600 4th Avenue - 2nd Floor), Seattle

When: April 22, 12pm to 1pm

Event: The film, "A Sense of Wonder" will examine the life of Rachel Carson, writer, scientist, and ecologist who became one of the most influential and inspirational figures in American history through her persistent appeals for new policies to protect human health and the environment. The event is free and open to the public.

Where: 824 West Lancaster Avenue, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania

When: April 22, 12pm to 7pm

Event: In celebration of Earth Day, the Bryn Mawr Film Institute is partnering with Whole Foods Market to devote films exclusively dealing with the important topic of the future of food.

Where: Hermann Park, Houston

When: April 22, 6pm to 10pm

Event: Da Camera of Houston, Waste Management, and Whole Foods Market present Earth Day Jazz in the Park featuring the University of Houston Jazz Orchestra with special guest saxophonist Bill Evans and student jazz ensembles from around the Bayou City. The evening of jazz additionally includes environmental education activities for children and families

Where: The Houston Zoo, Houston

When: April 24 & 25, 9am to 3pm

Event: A Recycling Relay Race, an environmental maze, and a re-usable giant coloring mural is just some of the activities planned to celebrate Mother Earth and learn what you can do to protect the planet at Waste Management Earth Day at the Houston Zoo!

For those of you outside these areas, refer to the Earth Day Event Page where users can type in a state and zip code for events nearest you.