This Saturday marks the 47th anniversary of the first Earth Day. Held in 1970, it was born in reaction to a massive oil spill off the Santa Barbara coast in 1969. Its organizers, among them the late Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson, had hoped to raise public awareness of threats to our nation's environment. The event was a great success: more than 2,000 teach-ins were held across the country, and about 10,000 public schools also held environment-related events. More than 100,000 people clogged New York's Fifth Ave. and it's estimated that, nationwide, more than 20 million people took part in the day's activities.

Other environmental crises, among them the Cuyahoga River fire of 1969, also led up to that first Earth Day. The river fire was caused by steel and chemical companies dumping untreated industrial waste directly into it. Toxic sludge floating on the river spontaneously burst into flames — the river was unsafe to drink from or swim in; the stench of rotting fish filled the air. That mess resulted in bipartisan congressional action: in 1970, the EPA was created, and the Clean Air Act was strengthened. The Clean Water Act of 1972 and the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 were all signed into law by President Richard Nixon. Over the years, political parties put aside their differences to enact regulations covering areas as diverse as nuclear waste, oil pollution, cleanup of industrial contamination, food quality, energy independence and noise control. The Superfund law allowed the government to clean up hazardous waste sites and seek compensation from polluters for the cost to the public of those cleanups.


These laws and regulations drew heavily on both public opinion and scientific research and knowledge. For instance, the Safe Drinking Water Act calls for the EPA to review and revise standards for determining safe levels of contaminants in drinking water. Those reviews analyze the health effects of various chemicals, places where contaminants are at a level requiring monitoring and control, and the cost benefits of different methods for controlling them. It's fair to say that the ways our health is protected depend on hard work carried out by many scientists and technologists.

The value of scientific research isn't limited to keeping toxic chemicals out of our water and food. Research conducted as part of the space program has had incalculable impact on our lives. If you ever used a cordless vacuum cleaner or slept on memory foam, live in a house with fire-retardant insulation, had a doctor take your temperature with an IR ear thermometer, or got scratch-resistant lenses in your glasses, you're the beneficiary of research funded by NASA and conducted at one or several of the thousands of universities and private companies that have received NASA grants.

The National Institute of Health also funds primary research. If you've survived a heart attack or cancer, had an artificial hip or knee, or taken antibiotics, the odds are about 100 percent that NIH funds went into the scientific studies keeping you alive and moving.

This Saturday, Earth Day 2017, will be joined by the March for Science, a nonpartisan coalition of educators, museums, professional organizations, medical professionals, clergy, lawyers, firefighters, elected officials and concerned citizens. Its message is "to defend the vital role science plays in our health, safety, economies and governments." The March for Science advocates "evidence-based policymaking, science education, research funding, inclusive and accessible science."

One of the March's goals is the open exchange of scientific information. Our tax dollars support research; gag rules on scientists working for the government deprive us all of information we've all paid for and are entitled to. More fundamentally, science is never conducted in isolation. Researchers exchange ideas, collaborate and get new ideas from their colleagues, as well the public at large. When policy makers don't know or ignore peer-reviewed scientific consensus, they are more likely to produce public policy that fails to serve our best interests. The March for Science is working to ensure that the scientific community is making our democracy stronger.

Events are scheduled for more than 500 cities worldwide. In Maryland, rallies will be held in Annapolis and Ocean City, as well as on the National Mall in Washington. You can participate in this global event in person or virtually by registering at marchforscience.com/rsvp. Please take advantage of this historic opportunity to participate in direct democracy and communicate with our country's leaders on one of the most important issues we face.

Mitch Edelman writes from Finksburg. Email him at mjemath@gmail.com.