Chasing the Wind: Regulating Air Pollution in the Common Law State

By Noga Morag-Levine | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THREE
Regulating “Noxious Vapours”: From
Aldred’s Case to the Alkali Act

“NOXIOUS VAPOURS” was the Victorian era’s term for the combination of fumes, gases and smells that surrounded a range of economic activities. Facilities in which animals were raised or animal products processed (such as slaughterhouses and tanneries) had long been a source of such pollution. But over the course of the nineteenth century, smells and gases from metal smelting and chemical manufacturing became the primary vapors of concern. Especially notable among the air-polluting industries of the era were the copper smelters and alkali works of Great Britain. Two classes of harm provoked concern regarding their emissions: injury to land as manifested by denuded forests, wilted vegetation, and failed crops; and injury to human health, including both immediate physical discomforts and worry about long-term disease. The severity, urgency, and multidimensionality of this problem can be seen in an 1862 account depicting the blighted environs of St. Helen’s:

The sturdy hawthorne makes an attempt to look gay every spring; but its leaves
… dry up like tea leaves and soon drop off. The farmer may sow if he pleases,
but he will only reap a crop of straw. Cattle will not fatten … and sheep throw
their lambs. Cows cast their calves; and the human animals suffer from smarting
eyes, disagreeable sensations in the throat, and irritating cough, and difficulty
of breathing.1

Located in the industrial midlands of England, not far from Liverpool, the town of St. Helen’s is closely associated with local landowners’ midnineteenth-century antipollution campaigns. These efforts, directed both at securing compensation for loss to property and the implementation of pollution mitigation measures, ultimately resulted in a bifurcated regime: compensation continued to fall under the auspices of the common law, but mitigation became the product of a technology-based statutory regime under the 1863 Alkali Act. That regime was geared at incremental reductions in both classes of harm (injuries to land and health) through implementation of available technology—even in the face of imperfect scientific knowledge regarding harm to health. In contrast, the common law regime denied compensation for “unproven” health effects of noxious vapors, but sought full protection against harm to property.

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