Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff on the history and legacy of air pollution.
Air pollution in the UK is not something new; in fact, it’s been happening since the 19th century and the advent of the industrial revolution. Pollution got so bad in places such as Swansea and Sheffield that in 1874 the government introduced an Alkali Act, which forced manufacturers to find a way of controlling the toxic substances they produced. London too was often prone to Victorian smog, caused by smoking chimneys and the extensive use of coal.
But how do these facts link to modern society? Well, on Wednesday it was announced that South-East England and Wales were facing incredibly high levels of air pollution. Some news corporations have focused on the fact that this has been caused by winds from the Sahara desert, but as notes air pollution campaigner Jenny Bates, quoted by the Guardian, ‘the authorities could and should be doing far more to deal with the UK’s contribution to this air pollution episode, particularly from road traffic emissions.’
UK levels of inland air pollution are pretty abysmal, and although when we see Chinese tourists wearing facemasks around our cities it is an odd sight, it is one that we are running the risk of having to copy. Air pollution is caused by the introduction of harmful chemicals and materials into the earth’s atmosphere and has been named the single biggest environmental health risk by the World Health Organization, causing up to 4.3 million deaths in 2012 alone. It is most prevalent in Lagos, Beijing, Shanghai, Paris, Singapore, London, LA and New York.
The worldwide phenomenon of air pollution is one of the most indisputable pointers towards the devastating effects of global warming. This is because not only does it physically affect many human beings – it also has no scruples in whom it affects. While throughout the world in many situations it is the impoverished and the animal kingdom that pay the price for human’s destructive environmental escapades, air pollution is often found in wealthy cities. It is just as likely to cause heart problems for the rich as it is for the poor.
There is no quick fix solution to this problem, but by becoming part of a wider movement of environmental appreciation and respect, and by collectively inspiring each other to do better by the environment, we can make the necessary changes. Try biking instead of taking your car, petition against devious oil companies, and volunteer for environmental NGO’s. It is up to us to add strength to the long war against global warming and air pollution.