The History Of Air Pollution And Air Pollution Legislation

The burning of wood and coal for warmth and energy has caused problems for centuries, or even millennia. Ever since early humans made wood fires in their caves, people have been choking on the air. In 1306, King Edward I of England banned the use of sea coal, which produced acrid smoke, in London. The air in the city was so bad in 1661 that John Evelyn, the English author, wrote in Fumifugium, (one of the earliest books written about pollution problems), "That this Glorious and Ancient City . . . should wrap her stately head in clouds of smoke and sulphur, so full of stink and darkness, I deplore with just indignation."

In the 1850s, the term smog was coined for the combination of coal smoke and fog that regularly descended on London. The London fog was considered a symbol of power, mystery, and prosperity, despite the tens of thousands of Londoners who were afflicted with lung damage and rickets (due to the lack of sunlight). Smog was blamed for 700 deaths in 1873—19 of them people who accidentally walked into the Thames River because visibility was so poor—and 1,150 deaths in 1911. The worst event, called the "Big Smoke," came in early December 1952, when a thermal inversion and a stationary weather front calmed the winds to zero. All over London, the smog became so thick that visibility was reduced to nothing and pedestrians walking down the sidewalk had to feel their way along the outside walls of buildings.

Although many wore masks over their mouths, 4,000 people died over a period of five days. Twice as many others may have died over the next two months from influenza and other illnesses exacerbated by lung damage from the smog. Many of the fatalities occurred in adults who had chronic heart or lung disease, although infant mortality was twice the normal rate. This dire event prompted Parliament to pass a Clean Air Act in 1956 and, as a result, London's air is now much cleaner.

London's affliction was industrial smog, which pours through the smokestacks of coal- and heavy oil-burning factories. Cities in the United States have suffered similar difficulties; Chicago and Cincinnati passed their first clean air legislation in 1881. In the 1940s, the air above some coal-producing eastern U.S. cities became so laden with coal smoke that automobile headlights had to be turned on during the day. The turning point came in late October 1948, when coal smoke became trapped in the river valley where Donora, Pennsylvania, was located; 20 people died, and over 7,000—half of the town's population—were hospitalized or became ill. It was the first time U.S. officials recognized the relationship between smog and public health. This, and other incidents, led to passage of the federal Air Pollution Control Act of 1955, although its purpose was primarily to raise public awareness of the problem, and the act had little muscle. After its passage, pollution levels continued to be extremely high, with several severe events in the 1960s in New York City. In 1963, the first federal Clean Air Act was passed to reduce pollution from stationary sources, such as steel mills and power plants.

While the hazards of industrial pollution had been recognized for decades, photochemical smog was discovered in Southern California only in 1953. The first smog alert in Los Angeles occurred toward the end of World War II, and the problem continued to increase as the population of the area and number of vehicles grew. The first air pollution control agency in the area asked Arie Haagen-Smit, a plant biologist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, to determine the source of the smog. Dr. Haagen-Smit, who had been using ozone as a tool to study pineapple scent, was the first to discover the chemical reaction that creates photochemical smog. Dr. Haagen-

Smit discovered that the sources of the raw material for photochemical smog were primarily cars and oil refineries and that the smog was a toxic soup that consisted of about 100 compounds. Although Haagen-Smit had intended to return to the study of pineapples, the condemnation he received from transportation-industry scientists spurred him to change his field of study to pollution science. He later became the first head of California's Air Resources Board.

The growing air pollution problems in Los Angeles, New York, and other cities led to the passage of the Clean Air Act of 1970. This law established primary and secondary standards for ambient air quality, set limits on emissions from stationary and mobile sources, empowered state and federal governments to enforce the law, and increased funding for air pollution research. The act was updated in 1990 to make emission requirements stricter. The Clean Air Act now regulates 189 toxic air pollutants and alternative fuels, and also monitors the pollutants that contribute to acid rain and stratospheric ozone depletion.

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