As long as there has been air, there has been air pollution. On Earth, the atmosphere can be polluted by many natural causes, such as volcanos and wild fires. However, when people talk about air pollution, they are usually talking about manmade activities that negatively impact air quality. Despite what we might think today, air pollution has been a problem for thousands of years. In the 3rd century, B.C., a student of Aristotle complained about the “disagreeable and troublesome” smell of burning coal, and citizens of ancient Rome frequently dealt with air pollution from ore smelting, leather tanning, and other manufacturing concerns, which were often set up right in the middle of a residential neighborhood (Georgia Institute of Technology 1).
As the world’s population increased, the problems of “bad air” became worse, especially in large cities. Those in authority did their best to deal with the problem, although their solutions were usually for their benefit rather than for the good of all. For example, in medieval London, residents were forbidden to burn coal while Parliament was in session, thereby ensuring that the lawmakers were not troubled by the usual fog of coal smoke (Brimblecombe 11). Of course, even without industrial pollution from coal and wood, London’s air was notoriously bad due to overcrowding, poor ventilation in homes, and totally inadequate sewer systems. This culminated in the “Great Stink” of 1858, when sewage in the Thames River overflowed until the Houses of Parliament had to shut down until a new sewer system was built (Hudson).
The worldwide Industrial Revolution of the early 19th century greatly accelerated the pace and severity of air pollution. Goods were being made in huge factories instead of small workshops, and these factories were burning enormous amounts of wood, coal, and oil, with little or no concern about the resulting clouds of tainted smoke and ash, which gave rise to “black lung” and other diseases among the factory workers and those who lived nearby (Kiil and Houmoller).
Unfortunately, the explorers who conquered the New World were no more environmentally conscious than the Europeans of the same era. When the Spaniards forced the Incas to mine for silver in the mountains of what is now Bolivia, the European overlords figured out that by making the workers grind the silver ore and treat it with mercury, they could separate out more silver. However, the resulting dust polluted the air to such an extent that modern scientists have found traces of the dust plume hundreds of miles away, preserved in the snow and ice of a mountaintop in Peru (Dussault).
As America continued to grow into a fully industrialized nation, air pollution became a constant issue. By the 20th century, with the advent of the combustion engine and the automobile, air pollution rose to dangerous levels in many major cities. One of the most notable incidents was the first great smog in Los Angeles in 1943. The choking clouds were so bad that many residents believed they were under attack by the Japanese using chemical warfare. Smog in Los Angeles became a perpetual problem. As many as 200 days a year were “high smog” days, with accompanying health risks for those who breathed in the muck (McNally).
Today, with ever-larger populations and more industrialized nations, air pollution is a global challenge, one that has no easy solutions. People in developing countries want the advantages technology brings, and those of us in industrialized countries want to keep the comforts we have. Despite new technologies such as wind and solar, much of the electrical power in the United States is still generated by burning coal. This makes Electric Power, Duke Energy, and Southern Company the three largest corporate polluters in America, followed closely by the U.S. government itself. However, the single most polluting coal plant in the world is in Taiwan, and it produces 36 million tons of carbon dioxide per year (Helman). One of the best alternatives to generate clean electricity is to use nuclear power, which is also a renewable fuel, unlike coal and oil. However, it has its own safety drawbacks, including of course the possibility of serious accidents that allow high levels of radiation to be leaked into the atmosphere (Nuclear Energy.net).
The worldwide effects of air pollution are serious and far-reaching. For example, environmental scientists have concluded that CFCs (chlorofluorocarbon compounds), used in refrigeration, solvents, and aerosol propellants, have contributed to the erosion of the stratospheric ozone (Carey). This is important because the earth’s ozone blocks some of the harmful radiation from the sun. The loss of ozone is linked to an increase in cancer and cataracts among humans. In addition, heavy air pollution has created a health hazard known as acid rain, which occurs when rain falls through particles of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. The resulting precipitation has a hugely negative impact on water quality, fish, birds, and other wildlife, and even buildings and monuments (Environmental Protection Agency).
Air pollution is also believed to cause global warming, a phenomenon that is raising the planet’s average temperature, causing polar ice melts, floods, droughts, and other weather-related issues that impact humans, animals, and plants. Scientists believe that global warming is occurring because of a build-up of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, sometimes called greenhouse gases, which are mainly generated by industrial activity. If global warming continues, some parts of the planet may become uninhabitable (National Geographic News).
So what can be done? Many countries and companies are working on ways to reduce air pollution. For example, in the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency and American car manufacturers have developed emissions standards, using technologies designed to reduce the amount of pollution generated by cars (Environmental Protection Agency). Internationally, the Kyoto Protocol Treaty, which went into effect in 2005, is designed to reduce greenhouse gases production by all its member nations. Unfortunately, while some countries have met their goal, levels of greenhouse gases produced by the United States and China have risen enough to wipe out whatever improvements other countries have made (Henson).
Air pollution is a complicated issue that affects every person on Earth. Countries and corporations need to work together to find ways to deal with this issue and reverse some of the damage that has been done. If this does not happen, we may lose our most precious natural resource, breathable air.
- Brimblecombe, Peter. The Big Smoke: A History of Air Pollution in London since Medieval Times. London: Routledge Press, 1987.
- Carey, Francis. “CFC.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 2013. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/113689/chlorofluorocarbon-CFC
- Dussault, Joseph. “Humans Polluted the Air Long before the Industrial Revolution, Study Finds.” The Christian Science Monitor, 2015.http://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2015/0209/Humans-polluted-the-air-long-before-Industrial-Revolution-study-finds
- Environmental Protection Agency. “Air and Radiation.” EPA.gov. http://www.epa.gov/air/basic.html
- Environmental Protection Agency. “Emissions Standards Reference Guide.” EPA.gov. http://www.epa.gov/otaq/standards/index.htm