Clearing the Air: The Real Story of the War on Air Pollution

By Indur Goklany | Go to book overview

1. The History of Air Pollution and Its
Control

Introduction

Had the Ancients known about air pollution, Zeus would not have wreaked vengeance upon humanity for Prometheus's theft of fire by presenting Pandora, with her box, to Prometheus's brother, Epimetheus. Air pollution would have been vengeance enough.

Air pollution is at least as old as the first fire, but for millennia human beings simply endured it. Perceptions of air pollution began to change as wood, becoming scarcer and costlier with deforestation and urbanization, was replaced by coal. 1 Beginning in the 13th century, sea coal from Newcastle appeared in London, primarily in the smithies and lime burners. 2 Acceptance of coal as a household fuel came slower. Domestic consumption, originally concentrated in Scotland and northern England and apparently associated with the lower classes, spread to the south and London only after substantial price increases for fuelwood in the 16th century.

The first recorded complaint against air pollution in England came from Queen Eleanor when she visited Nottingham in 1257. 3 During King Edward I's reign, Parliament formed a body to rid London of smoke, the use of coal in furnaces was forbidden, and kilns were banned outright from functioning in the city of London when the Queen was in residence. Some modern writers on air pollution claim that a coal merchant was even tortured and hanged, 4 though at least one authority was unable to confirm this. 5 Reputedly, coal was taxed heavily by Richard III and Henry V. Nevertheless, despite taxes and fines, the shortage of fuelwood and the absence of economic alternatives led to a continual increase in the amount of sea coal imported into London.

In 1661, John Evelyn's Fumifugium, an "Invective against the Smoake of London"6 and its smells, grime, and effects on health and visibility, offered "a few proposals for the meliorating of the Aer of

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