As early as the 13th century, restrictions were put on the burning of coal as a precaution against the health hazards of air pollution

Blackening the neighbourhood:< (Credit: PHOTOS COURTESY : BRITISH COUN)as early as the ninth century, "sea coales", found in the northeast coast of England, were burned as fuel. Soon the air was reeking of dirty fumes, making it intolerable to breathe in London. A few centuries later, the then monarch of England, King Edward I (1272-1307), banned its use in his kingdom.

"The air there is polluted over a wide area... to the detriment of their (citizens) bodily health," said the environmentalist king to his mayors and sheriffs. In his order, he stated that he wished "to take precautions... to provide for the safety of prelates, magnates and citizens". The king ordered the use of alternative material such as wood.

The king's successor, Edward II (1307-1327), went a step further. Those found fouling the air with coal smoke were to be tortured. But, the order was diluted by the time Richard II (1377-1399) took over. He adopted a moderate position and sought to restrict its use through taxation. Thereafter, Henry V's (1413-1422) reign saw the establishment of a commission to regulate the entry of coal into London.

That was almost 900 years ago. Very little scientific information was available about the health hazards of air pollution then. But it is remarkable how such drastic measures were taken to control it. Today, it is well-known that burning of coal releases particulate matter, sulphur-dioxide, nitrogen oxides and other hazardous substances, all detrimental to human health. But, with the exception of a few countries, most others are yet to wake up to the problems of air pollution.
The beginning of air pollution All the stringent measures that were taken against the burning of coal were, however, rendered ineffective by the 16th century. To meet the demands of the growing population, forest areas were cleared. With no wood left to meet the fuel requirements, burning of coal became essential. Further, with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the number of fuel-based industries grew rapidly. And the smoke released from poorly designed chimneys started polluting the air.

Transportation was by railroad run by coal-fired steam engines which blackened the neighbourhood. Even as late as 1950, it was reported that in Glasgow, Scotland, three tonnes of soot per acre per year were sprayed by the steam engines. And while the poor lived in filth, the rich migrated to the hills or made weekend houses in the countryside. The court physician of Queen Elizabeth I invented a way of removing the sulphur content, but the process was neither cheap nor reliable.

With the spread of Industrial Revolution, the problems of air pollution spread to other countries as well. The first half of the 20th century witnessed the revival in the efforts to control air pollution. The first method that was adopted was to make tall chimney stacks to disperse the smoke to greater heights in the atmosphere. Heads of states believed this measure was adequate to ensure a healthy environment as smoke released at a height would not return back to the ground via precipitation.

Subsequently, measures were taken to install devices in chimneys to filter the smoke of heavy particulates, thus leaving mostly small aerosols to escape into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, sulphur and nitrogen oxides, being gases, also escaped the devices designed to collect particles. But the problem was not only caused by industrial activity. Most houses in northern Europe and the us were heated by soft coal, and domestic burners used low chimney stacks that had no device to suppress particulate, sulphur and nitrogen oxides.

During the latter half of the 20th century, a few disastrous incidents of air poisoning shocked the world. In December 1930, air pollutants trapped at the Meuse valley in Belgium killed at least 60 people. Sulphur-dioxide concentrations were in the range of 25,000 to 100,000 microgramme per cubic metre (g/cum), as much as 2,000 times more than the current World Health Organisation ( who ) standard of 40-60 g/cum.

In October 1948, the concentrations of sulphur dioxide in Pennsylvania, usa , were more than 100 times higher than the current who standard. Twenty deaths were reported and almost half the population -- some 14,000 -- fell ill, some 10 per cent severely. Sulphur dioxide levels were in the range of 1,400 to 5,500 g/cum.
But this was not the end of it. In 1952, a terrible fog hit London. Particulate levels became as high as 4 billion g/cum and got trapped in the Thames Valley for several days. A five-fold increase in the death rate was observed in the days starting just after the rise in the pollution level. Although the exact cause of the poisoning is still not known, it is believed that sulphur dioxide was the root cause. The incident had such an enormous health impact on the uk that the country's Parliament immediately enacted the Clean Air Act that banned the use of coal. As an alternative, they made oil and natural gas easily available and cheap.
Where things stand today Today, much has changed in terms of the status of air pollution around the world. Pollution at the local level in countries such as the us and Europe has improved tremendously. But huge investments made by them in industries over the years have released large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Besides, in most countries, vehicles have taken over industries in terms of contribution to the air pollution load. Poor quality fuels used in vehicles have further aggravated the problem. Large particles are no longer considered as much of a health concern as the smaller ones. For example, small particulate matter produced by diesel fumes, which remains in the atmosphere and is easily inhaled, has become a major cause for concern because it is carcinogenic.

Countries in the West have continued to make investments to improve technology, create awareness and bring about social discipline to tackle air pollution. They have thus managed to keep the local air pollution under control to a large extent. However, developing countries such as India still have a long way to go in cleaning the atmosphere of pollutants.

Based on the book entitled Particles in Our Air: Concentrations and Health Effects , edited by Richard Wilson and John D Spengler

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