Forty years ago today Republican president, Richard Nixon, created the Environmental Protection Agency. At the time the nation had no law mandating clean water, clean air or the safety of chemicals. Lead was still in all gasoline, and acid rain was poisoning the waterways downwind of the nation's coal-burning power plants.

Forty years later, we have the EPA to thank for reductions in air and water pollution, unleaded gasoline—as well as cars more efficient at burning it—and even new efforts to evaluate hundreds of thousands of chemicals for safety. In fact, before the EPA, "nearly every meal in America contained elements of pesticides linked to nerve damage, cancer and sometimes death," the agency's current administrator Lisa Jackson noted in the Wall Street Journal. After all, among the EPA's first major acts was to ban the pesticide DDT, made infamous by Rachel Carson's environmental screed Silent Spring.

As for accusations that the EPA has sacrificed the economy to environmental priorities, Jackson counters by pointing to the innovation the agency has spurred—from the catalytic converter to alternatives for the refrigerants that created the "Ozone Hole." At the same time, regulations like the Clean Air Act have prevented hundreds of thousands of premature deaths.

Now the EPA stands poised to regulate the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change. The only question is: will it take another 40 years for Americans to appreciate that?

Image: New York City smog before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Courtesy of EPA.