Pollution – Gone With the Past

Whenever I hear someone complain about the pollution in this country I wish I had a time-machine so I could take them back to my childhood.

The confluence

The confluence

Pittsburgh is known for its three rivers. For many people, the thought process ends there. However, those of us who lived in the area know that there are many creeks and streams that add to the volume of those mighty waters.

Chartiers Creek was within walking distance of my home in Crafton Heights and we were given strict orders to stay away from it. Of course, that meant we’d go and play along its banks every chance we got.

I don’t think my parents were worried about us drowning so much as being contaminated by the filth that flowed through that creek bed. It was a mixture of raw sewage and chemicals that killed the heartiest of fish. Its waters had a similar effect when they finally emptied into the Ohio River.

We boys called it Turd-le Creek so it wouldn’t be confused with the Turtle Creek that flowed in another area of Western Pennsylvania. My guess is that Turtle Creek wasn’t much cleaner than Chartiers Creek and the many other streams in the Pittsburgh area.

Then there was the smoke. Pittsburgh long held the title “Old Smokey” for obvious reasons. The steel mills belched thick black smoke almost twenty-four hours a day. Added to that pollution was the smoke from the coke furnaces found throughout the area, the slag dump, and all the coal fired furnaces in the homes, schools, and many businesses.

Most women used clothes lines hung in their cellars rather than hang their clean clothes outside where they’d get dirty before they had a chance to dry. And motorists had to use their headlights in the middle of the day.

We grew up breathing that air and never gave it a second thought.

Fortunately, there were people who recognized the danger and forced the city to clean up its act. People like my parents were given deadlines to replace their coal burning furnaces with natural gas furnaces… or face heavy fines. Mills were given similar ultimatums. By the mid fifties, headlights were no longer needed during the day and laundry began appearing on clotheslines outside.

Litter was another major problem during my childhood… and it wasn’t confined to Pittsburgh. Candy wrappers, empty potato chip bags, and many other wrappings were simply dropped on the ground once they were emptied.

As a young boy looking for spending money, those who threw their empty bottles on the ground were greatly appreciated. We could collect two cents deposit for each twelve ounce bottle and five cents for each larger bottle. Considering it cost only thirty-five cents to get into the movies, it didn’t take long to gather enough bottles to pay for the pop corn as well.

Looking back, the thing I find most appaling is something my parents did when we vacationed in South Jersey. When our garbage can got filled to capacity, we’d drive through the salt marshes and toss the bags of trash out of the car windows into the marsh.

I don’t know if we did that because there was no place to take it – which was most likely at least partially true, or if there was somewhere to take it, but we couldn’t afford to pay for its disposal. All I know is that in hindsight, it was a terrible thing to do.

Unfortunately, there are folks out there who continue to do such things. I’ve often driven along country roads and seen trash that was obviously tossed from a moving vehicle.

Like the poor, I believe litterbugs will always be with us. All we can do is make sure we don’t add to the problem.

I almost forgot to mention the main point of this article. That is – no bad people might think the pollution is in the United States, it is nothing like what it was sixty years ago.

Those rivers in Pittsburgh held very few living things when I was a lad. Today, there are all sorts of game fish and every one of them is safe to eat. As for Chartiers Creek, it looks more like a clear mountain stream.

Pittsburgh has come a long way, and so have all the other parts of our country. Perhaps we can pass the lessons we’ve learned on to China, India, and a few other countries that have yet to learn we are only borrowing this planet.


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