Ohio is internationally known for buckeyes, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Cedar Point and, unfortunately, the river that caught on fire. The river was the Cuyahoga in northeast Ohio. This event took place in June 1969, yet the memory lingers today. I admit it is a shocking prospect that water could be so contaminated that it would catch on fire.
It is sad that Ohio's waters have a reputation for being dirty and polluted, but the shock of the Cuyahoga River fire was a strong impetus to improve the environment. Whether the motivation was to save face or a concern for health and safety, committees were created in the name of environmental improvement. Within three years of the fire, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, which monitored pollution.
So how did the river actually catch on fire? Apparently, oil and chemical-coated debris had collected in the water and was ignited by sparks from a passing rail car. The debris did not spontaneously combust as I had imagined, but why was the river filled with debris?
The water quality of the Cuyahoga River and nearby bodies of water have improved and are now safe for fishing and swimming. There is still work to do, but at least the threat of burning water is gone.
I have lived in northeast Ohio for 15 years. I swam in Lake Erie as a child, and I do not have any major health problems. But that is just me. I live a 10-minute bike ride away from Avon Lake, a city with high instances of cancer which people link to the industrial pollution. My high school science teacher told our class that when she lived in Avon Lake, her white curtains became coated in black ash.
The obvious conclusion to me is that pollution is harmful to the health of humans. I don't see how industry can be a priority over good health. Environmentalists don't have to be idealistic hippies wearing burlap sacks and quoting Buddha, they can be concerned moms who don't want their children to get leukemia.
Photo: Cuyahoga River Fire, Nov. 3, 1952, Courtesy of Cleveland Press Collection at Cleveland State University Library.