By Bill Kovarik, PhD
We may think of air pollution as a modern problem, but in history, it is not confined to industrial cities or the modern era. Air quality issues were also found in any large city where people burned wood and worked at crafts and industry, whether or not they used fossil fuels.
In Rome, air pollution was known as gravioris caeli (heavy heaven) or infamis aer (infamous air), and it could be both a blessing and a curse. As the Roman poet Horace wrote: “Cease for a moment to admire the smoke, the wealth, the noise of Rome…”
Later, in the big coal and steel cities like Manchester, England and Pittsburgh, USA, smoke was an indicator of wealth but also a public health problem. Smoke in the stacks meant jobs and prosperity. And yet, in 1898, steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie told a Chamber of Commerce meeting that smoke was driving people “to leave Pittsburgh and reside under skies less clouded than ours.” And, he said: “The man who abolishes the Smoke Nuisance in Pittsburgh… [will earn] our deepest gratitude.”
So when we approach the history of issues like air pollution, we often find reflections of modern ideas and concerns, such as the apparently conflicting concerns about both jobs and the environment.
We also come across things that are less familiar, such as the “miasmatic” theory of disease — the idea that ill health comes through the air from sewage and rotting plants and animals. It was a theory that became obsolete with the advent of bacteriology and epidemiology in the mid-19th century.
“By the middle of the 19th century, coal smoke filled many British cities, yet few people saw it as detrimental to either human health or to the wider environment,” wrote Peter Thorsheim in a 2006 book. ” In their view, pollution came not from energy use or industry, but from natural biological processes. They blamed disease on miasma … Many people not only considered coal smoke to be harmless, but actually thought of it as an antidote to pollution…” (Thorsheim, 2006). Some then argue that since pollution wasn’t considered a problem at the time, it reflects our own imperfect ability to understand science (Lynch, 2017 in Forbes).
And yet on balance, the record does in fact show a considerable amount of concern about coal smoke as harmful pollution, both before and after the rise of miasmatic theory. More significantly, it shows trade associations, public health advocates, and politicians expressing concern and attempting to take action. These concerns accelerated in the wake of public health disasters like the Donora smog disaster in 1948 and the London killer fog of 1952.
The first major change from routine pre-industrial air pollution came in England with increased use of “sea coal” in the 13th and 14th centuries. (It was called “sea coal” because it came by ship from northern cities like New Castle). Royalty frequently fled London for the rural countryside because the smoke was unendurable. Try as they might, no laws could stop the use of coal because, by the mid 16th century, rapid industrialization led to heavy deforestation and increasing substitution of coal for wood.
TIMELINE (with links and further reading below)
Note: This air pollution timeline deals only with fossil-fuel related air pollution incidents and regulation of standard pollutants like sulfur and nitrogen oxides, fluorine gas, particulate matter, soot, etc. Toxics and GHG emissions are covered elsewhere.
1157 — “Unendurable” air pollution from wood smoke leads Henry II’s wife Elanor of Aquataine to flee Tutbury Castle in 1157.
1257 — Queen Eleanor of Provence is forced to leave Nottingham Castle for Tutbury Castle because heavy coal smoke fouls the air, (noted in Markham, Brimblecombe).
1306 — Edward I forbids coal burning in London when Parliament is in session. Like many attempts to regulate coal burning, it has little effect.
1560-1600 –– Rapid industrialization in England leads to heavy deforestation and increasing substitution of coal for wood.
c.1590 — Queen Elizabeth “greatly grieved and annoyed” by coal smoke in Westminster Palace. (Brimblecombe)
1603 — James I succeeds Elizabeth I and orders coal burned in his London household, but rather than smokey bituminous coal from Lancashire, Durham and Cornwall, he orders importation of hard, cleaner-burning anthracite from Scotland.
1661 — John Evelyn writes “Fumifugium, or the Inconvenience of the Aer and Smoake of London Dissipated” to propose remedies for London’s air pollution problem. These include large public parks and lots of flowers.
“The immoderate use of, and indulgence to, sea-coale in the city of London exposes it to one of the fowlest inconveniences and reproaches that can possibly befall so noble and otherwise incomparable City… Whilst they are belching it forth their sooty jaws, the City of London resembles the face rather of Mount Aetna, the Court of Vulcan… or the suburbs of Hell [rather] than an assembly of rational creatures…”
In his diary, Evelyn writes in 1684 that smoke was so severe “hardly could one see across the street, and this filling the lungs with its gross particles exceedingly obstructed the breast, so as one would scarce breathe.”
1690s — Thomas Newcomen invents first working steam engine, first used to pump water from coal mines, greatly increasing the amount of coal that could be mined, but also indirectly adding to the demand for coal through industrialization.
1775 — English scientist Percival Pott finds that coal is causing an unusually high incidence of cancer among chimney sweeps.
1814 — William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850) writes “Outrage done to nature” in Excursions, noting that people were no longer “breathing fresh air” or “treading the green earth.”
… I grieve, when on the darker side
Of this great change I look; and there behold
Such outrage done to nature …
1804 — Pittsburgh PA official Presley Neville writes: “The general dissatisfaction which prevails and the frequent complaints which are exhibited, in consequence of the Coal Smoke from many buildings in the Borough, particularly from smithies and blacksmith shops…” The smoke affected the “comfort, health and… peace and harmony” of the new city. As in most other cities, the remedy of the age was to build higher chimneys.
1812 — First gas lights introduced in London by the Gas Light & Coke Co, charterd despite opposition by Boulton & Watt steam manufacturerer. This “town gas” or manufactured gas would be used in every major US and European city, but residual coal tar would remain an environmental problem well into the 21st century.
1835 — Alexis de Tocqueville publishes Journey to England and describes the industrial city of Manchester: “Thirty or forty factories rise on the tops of the hills…six stories (high). The wretched dwellings of the poor are scattered haphazrd around them. Round them stretches land uncultivated but without the charm of rustic nature.,, the fetid, muddy waters stained with a thousand colours by the factories … Look up and all around this place and you will see the huge palaces of industry. you will hear the noise of furnaces, the whistle of steam. These vast structures keep air and light out of the human habitations which they dominate; they envelope them in perpetual fog; here is the slave, there the master; there is the wealth of some, here the poverty of most.”
1845 — Friedrick Engels writes in The Condition of the Working Class in England
“If anyone wishes to see in how little space a human being can move, how little air — and such air — he can breathe, how little of civilization he may share and yet live, it is only necessary to travel [to Manchester, England]… The cottages are old, dirty and of the smallest sort, the streets uneven, fallen into ruts and in part without drains or pavement; masses of refuse, offal and sickening filth lie among standing pools in all directions; the atmosphere is poisoned by the effluvia from these, and laden and darkened by the smoke of a dozen tall factory chimneys.
1848 — Public Health Act is passed by a reluctant Parliament fearful of spread of cholera. National Board of Health is formed and leads local boards to regulate water supply, sewerage, offensive trades. Smoke abatement becomes a political responsibility of the local health department.
1853 — Novelist Charles Dickens opens his novel Bleak House with an image of London as a twisted, twilight world of smoke, shadows and wraiths. Dickens writes:
“Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.”
1863 — Air pollution from British chemical industry spurs the Alkali Act, intended to create reductions in hydrogen chloride emissions during alkali production. It allows agents of the first British pollution control agency, the Alkali inspectorate, to question industry officials and suggest improvements; but there were no actual regulations concerning amounts of air pollution until the act was revised in 1906.
1880 — January inversion leads to what are becoming known as “killer” fogs in London.
1881 — Chicago becomes the first American city to create a local ordinance regulating smoke discharges, followed that same year by Cincinnati. Pittsburgh’s first smoke ordinance passed in 1892 and St. Louis created a smoke ordinance in 1893. The ordinances were extremely feeble, and as late as 1906, the Chicago Record-Herald noted sarcastically that a judge who normally handled smoke cases thought it to be “cruel and unusual punishment” if fines of $100 were handed out more than once or twice a year.
1889 — English writer Edward Carpenter publishes “Civilization: Its Cause and Cure” which later has a great influence on Mahatma Ghandi. At one point Carpenter looks down on the town of Sheffield and sees:
“Only a vast dense cloud, so think that I wondered how any human being could support life in it, that went up to heaven like the smoke from a great altar. An altar, indeed, it seemed to me, wherein thousands of lives were being yearly sacrificed. Beside me on the hills the sun was shining, the larks were singing; but down there a hundred thousand grown people, let alone children, were struggling for a little sun and air, toiling, moiling, living a life of suffocation, dying (as the sanitary reports only too clearly show) of diseases caused by foul air and want of light — all for what? To make a few people rich!”
1892 — 1,000 Londoners die in a smog incident.
1898 — Steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie tells a Chamber of Commerce meeting that smoke was driving people “to leave Pittsburgh and reside under skies less clouded than ours.” Carnegie says: “The man who abolishes the Smoke Nuisance in Pittsburgh… [will earn] our deepest gratitude.” A Committee on Smoke Abatement is appointed by the chamber, but the Engineer’s Society of Allegheny County refused to cooperate. Legislation, not engineering, is needed.
1903 — Preparations for the Louisiana Exposition spark the St. Louis smoke abatement movement. Civic boosters who wanted Chicago to stay ahead of St. Louis add fuel to the movement there. A New York City health commissioner comments that the idea is to keep one’s city out of the “notorious circle” of cities with a smoky reputation that might decrease a city’s appeal to business. Blue skies have become almost as important a matter of civic pride (and business climate) as the public’s health. Regulating smoke proves difficult.
1906 — Pittsburgh establishes smoke abatement ordinances and a smoke inspector’s office. Gross emissions noticeably decreased. The city loses a legal challenge in 1911 when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court says that only the state legislature, and not city governments, has the authority to create smoke abatement laws. Within months, the Pennsylvania legislature specifically gives city governments that authority.
1907 — Smoke Prevention Association of America founded in Chicago.
1909 — Glasgow, Scotland, winter inversions and smoke accumulations kill over 1,000 in a city long known as “old reeky” for its air pollution.
1911 — Preparing a report about the 1909 Glascow incidents, Dr. Harold Antoine Des Voeux coins term “smog” as a contraction for smoke-fog which he proposes at the Smoke Coal Abatement Society meeting in Manchester, England.
1915 – US Supreme Court rules that limits may be placed on the amount of sulfur and other noxious fumes that can emerge from the Tennessee Copper Co. following a suit by the State of Georgia complaining about Copper Basin smelters in Tennessee that were killing forests and orchards and making people sick over the Georgia border. The court mandated pollution reduction and mandatory inspections by a Vanderbilt university professor. The majority opinion was delivered by an indignant Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes:
“It is a fair and reasonable demand on the part of a sovereign that the air over its territory should not be polluted on a great scale by sulphurous acid gas, that the forests on its mountains ä should not be further destroyed or threatened by the act of persons beyond its control, that the crops and orchards on its hills should not be endangered.” — Georgia v. Tennessee Copper Co. and Ducktown Sulphur, Copper & Iron Co, 206 U.S. 230
1928 — US Public Health Service begins checking air pollution in eastern US cities, reporting sunlight cut by 20 to 50 percent in New York city.
1930 — Meuse River Valley killer smog incident, Belgium, three day weather inversion in this industrial valley holds in smoke and kills 63, with 6,000 made ill.
1937 — Another Public Health Service survey of air pollution in New York shows conditions worsening.
1938 — Justice Department launches successful suit against Ethyl for anti-competitive behavior in gasoline markets.
1939 — October 11 — St. Louis smog episode. Smog is so thick that lanterns are needed during daylight for a week. The smog episode sparks a crusade by the St. Louis Post Dispatch.
1941 — St. Louis adopts first strict smoke control ordinance in U.S. St. Louis Post Dispatch wins first Pulitzer Prize for environmental reporting. The Pulitzer committee cites the Dispatch “For its successful campaign against the smoke nuisance.”
1941 — “Action Club” formed to combat pollution from paper mills near Augusta, Maine.
1947 — Los Angeles Air Pollution Control District formed; first air pollution control bureau in the nation.
1948 — Women are urged by the New York Times to join an anti-pollution demonstration in New York city.
1948 — Oct. 30 – 31 — Donora, Pennsylvania smog incident. Twenty two people die, 600 are hospitalized and thousands made ill in this nationally publicized environmental disaster. A PHS report concludes:
While no single substance was responsible for the October 1948 episode, [it] could have been produced by a combination … of two or more contaminants. Sulfur dioxide and its oxidation products, together with particulate matter, are considered significant contaminants…
1948 — 600 deaths in London in a “killer fog.”
1949 — First US conference on air pollution sponsored by Public Health Service.
1950 — Dr. Arie Haagen-Smit identifies causes of smog in LA as interaction of hydrocarbons (cars largest source) and oxides of nitrogen.
1950 — Poza Rica killer smog incident leaves 22 dead, hundreds hospitalized in Mexico. The killer smog was caused by gas fumes from an oil refinery
1950 — President Harry Truman says government and industry should join forces in a battle against death-dealing smog.
1951 — American Steel and Wire Co. settles the Donora, Pennsylvania smog disaster suits for a reported $235,000 in Pittsburgh April 17. Some 130 suits seeking $4,643,000 were filed as a result of the 1948 disaster in which 22 died and 5,190 were made ill.
1952 — Dec. 4-8 — Four thousand people die in the worst of the London “killer fogs.” Vehicles use lamps in broad daylight, but smog is so thick that busses run only with a guide walking ahead. By Dec. 8 all transportation except the subway had come to a halt.
1953 — New York smog incident kills between 170 and 260 in November.
1954 — Heavy smog conditions shut down industry and schools in Los Angeles for most of October.
1955 — Congress passes Air Pollution Control Act, a forerunner of the Clean Air Act of 1963 and subsequent legislation.
1955 — International Air Pollution Congress held in New York City.
1956 — Another killer smog in London; 1,000 die. British Parliament passes Clean Air Act.
1959 — California becomes first to impose automotive emissions standards, requiring “blow-by” valve to recycle crankcase emissions. Automakers combine to fight mandatory use of $7 device, a fight which leads to an anti-trust suit by the U.S. Justice Dept. not settled until 1969.
1960 — US Congress funds two-year Public Health Service study on air pollution from cars.
1962 — Another London smog; 750 die.
1962 — General Motors and Standard Oil of New Jersey (Exxon) abandon Ethyl Corp., selling it to Albemarle Paper Co. in $200 million leveraged buyout which the corporations themselves finance.
1963 — Major smog event in New York City.
1963 — Senate Subcommittee on Air and Water Pollution created. US Congress passes Clean Air Act with $95 million for study and cleanup efforts at local, state and federal level.
1967 — Congress passes Air Quality Act / Clean Air Act which authorizes planning grants to state air pollution control agencies.
1969 — Auto makers settle suit by Justice Department for conspiracy to stifle the development of pollution-control devices started in the mid-1950s.
1969 — National Environmental Policy Act passed in Congress.
1970 — General Motors president Edward Cole promises “pollution free” cars by 1980 and urges the elimination of lead additives from gasoline in order to allow the use of catalytic converters.
1970 — April 22 First Earth Day organized by Sen. Gaylord Nelson and Dennis Hayes, creates a national political presence for environmental concerns. Millions of Americans demonstrate for air and water cleanup and preservation of nature.
1970 — Clean Air Act is passed. Environmental Protection Agency signed into law. The EPA brings ttogether key federal programs including the Health Education and Welfare National Air Pollution Control 1972 — EPA announces all gasoline stations required to carry “nonleaded” gasoline. But EPA delays setting standards until 1973, then is sued by Ethyl Corp.
1977 — Federal Clean Air Act Amendments require review of all National Ambient Air Quality Standards by 1980. Congress also adds additional protection for Class I National Park and Wilderness air quality.
1990 — Clean Air Act amendments strengthen rules on SOx and NOx emissions from electric power plants helping reduce acid rain.
2003 — Bush administration proposes “Clear Skies” legislation to Congress amending the Clean Air Act (the primary federal law governing air quality). New, weaker targets would be set for emissions of sulfur dioxide, mercury, and nitrogen oxides from U.S. power plants. According to the NRDC, “the Clear Skies plan would allow three times more toxic mercury emissions, 50 percent more sulfur emissions, and hundreds of thousands more tons of smog-forming nitrogen oxides. It would also delay cleaning up this pollution by up to a decade compared to current law and force residents of heavily-polluted areas to wait years longer for clean air compared to the existing Clean Air Act.”
2003 — Senate rolls back New Source Review An attempt by Sen. John Edwards (D-NC) to postpone a rollback of the New Source Review rules is defeated in the Senate (46-50) during amendment votes on the 2003 budget bill; a competing amendment by Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) wins (51-46), clearing the way for the Clean Air Act rollback.
2004 — September 9 — Scientists publish a study showing that air pollution damages the lungs of Southern California children in the New England Journal of Medicine. The study examined children who were subjected to higher levels of air pollution and found that they developed underperforming lungs at a higher rate than children in lower-pollution areas.
2009 Sept. 30 — US EPA announces new Clean Air Act regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from electric power plants.
2011 — June 13– American Electric Power, on the the largest electric utilities in the US, claims that Clean Air regulations passed in 2007 will force it to close two dozen coal fired power plants and lay off hundreds of workers. What AEP does not say is that these are plants with an average age of 55 years running at low capacity. It’s a transparent scare tactic, says the New York Times. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops welcomed the new EPA regulations on behalf of the most vulnerable members of society.
2012 Aug. 21 — US air pollution rule blocked — A panel of federal judges invalidates the EPA’s rule targeting soot- and smog-forming air pollution that crossed state lines. The effect is to reduce limits on coal fired power plant pollution in one state that affects other states.
2013 — Air pollution in northern China from unrestricted use of coal caused 500 million residents of Northern China to lose more than 2.5 billion life years of life expectancy, or an average of five years each, compared to residents of southern China, where coal is not used for heating, according to aPNAS paper by Yuyu Chen and colleagues.
2015 — President Obama notes environmental history of air pollution in announcing plans to fight climate change through EPA’s Clean Power Plan. The plan essentially puts limits on emissions from oil and coal plants, encourages a shift to natural gas, and greatly encourages a shift to renewable energy, which it says has “lower cost and greater availability” than in the past. The clean power plan will not give nuclear power the favorable economic treatment it would need to survive in the US market, according to former NRC commissioner Peter A. Bradford.
2015 — India’s government says air pollution killed 35,000 people over the past nine years. Epidemiologists say coal is cutting the average person’s life in India by about three years, but this has not yet led to any meaningful action. Pressure to take steps against climate change may help. In contrast, China is creating a “war on pollution” after epidemiological studies showed that coal was cutting off an average of 5 years per person in the country’s north.
2016 — June 27 — Early deaths from air pollution will continue to rise if current policies are allowed to continue, the International Energy Agency says.
2017 — March 28 — Donald Trump signs an executive order pushing back air pollution regulations and greenhouse gas regulations.
2017 — April 27 –Trump’s EPA wins a court battle halting a challenge by states and industry groups to an Obama administration rule aimed at reducing toxic emissions from power stations. Pruitt, in his previous role as attorney general of Oklahoma, had sued the EPA to stop the rule, which is known as MATS.
2017 — Oct 2 — Maryland and other states sue the US EPA over its lack of enforcement of Clean Air Act regulations.
- Air Pollution in Donora, PA. US Public Health Service, 1949.
- American Journal of Public Health, Editorial, The Donora Episode, Jan. 1950.
Lester Breslow, The Health Effects of Air Pollution, American Journal of Public Health, July 1958
- Peter Brimblecombe, The Big Smoke: A History of Air Pollution in London since Medieval Times. Routledge, 1986.
- Chris Bryson The Donora fluoride fog: a secret history of America’s worst air pollution disaster. ActionPA.org
- Devra Davis, When Smoke Ran Like Water: Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution. New York: Basic Books, 2002.
- William Helfand, Jan Lazarus and Paul Theerman, “Donora, Pennsylvania: An environmental Disaster of the 20th Century,” AJPH, April 2001
- Michael Lynch, “The Fight Against British Coal Smoke and Current Environmental Debates,” Forbes, May 20, 2017.
- Mark Neuzil and Bill Kovarik, Mass Media & Environmental Conflict, Sage, 1996. See esp. Ch. 7, the Donora Killer Smog and Smoke Abatement Campaigns.
- Thorsheim, Peter. Inventing Pollution : Coal, Smoke, and Culture in Britain since 1800, Ohio University Press, 2006.
- Lynn Snyder, The Death-Dealing Smog over Donora, Pennsylvania: Industrial Air Pollution, Public Health Policy, and the Politics of Expertise, 1948–1949 [dissertation]. Philadelphia, Pa: University of Pennsylvania; 1994. Cited by: B
- JM Townsend, Investigation of the Smog Incident in Donora, PA and Vicinity, AJPH, Feb. 1950.
- Sourcewatch / Coalswarm : Clean Air Act