Can you dig it?
By the 13th century coal mining was well established in the North East and coal was shipped to London as an alternative fuel to wood. Air pollution began to be noticeable, and people began to feel unwell. Some tried to restrict the use of coal.
Air pollution was a serious problem caused by coal being burned for domestic heating and industry.
The First Study
Charles II commissioned the scientist and diarist John Evelyn to make a study of the effects of coal smoke on health, plant life and buildings. Evelyn’s paper “Fumifugium; or the Inconveniencie of the Aer and Smoak of London Dissipated” published was in 1661.
This was the first complete study of air pollution.
Steam, gas, and more smoke!
During the Industrial Revolution, there was an increasing use of coal not only as a domestic fuel but for steam power and gas production, creating even more pollution.
Robert Smith, the government’s very first Alkali Inspector, invented the phrase ‘Acid Rain’ as he worked to make sure chemical works obeyed new pollution laws.
This was the start of the organisation now known as the Environment Agency.
Acts You’ll Alka-like
In the 19th Century regulations were introduced to start to tackle air pollution.
In 1863 and 1874, the Alkali Act was brought in to control pollution from chemical works.
I haven’t the smoggiest
Burning coal to heat homes was now a real problem as smoke and sulphur dioxide continued to pollute the air. Winter fogs often prevented the smoke and sulphur dioxide from dispersing and this resulted in the so-called “smogs”.
Offensive gases banned
The Alkali Act was updated in 1906 to include lists of specific ‘offensive gases’ and industrial processes. It became the main legislative control of industrial pollution in the UK.
The Big Smoke
In December 1952 London was affected by a severe “smog” lasting 5 days. It was estimated that there were at least 4000 additional deaths as a result of the smog, including a nine fold increase in deaths from bronchitis. The conditions affected all age groups, not just the very young and elderly.
Clean your act up!
The Clean Air Act of 1956 was the first serious attempt to deal with air pollution from domestic sources, and which introduced the concept of smoke control areas. This led to the replacement of coal for domestic use by smokeless fuels and gas, which then brought dramatic reductions in levels of smoke and sulphur dioxide.
Sophisticated methods were developed to measure pollutants, and there was a greater awareness of their effects on health.
In 1961 the UK established the world's first co-ordinated national air pollution monitoring network, called the National Survey.
Following the Clean Air Acts, air quality improvements continued throughout the 1970s and further regulations were required through the 1974 Control of Air Pollution Act. This included regulations for the composition of motor fuel and limits for the sulphur content of industrial fuel oil.
During the 1980s the number of motor vehicles in the UK steadily increased and air quality problems associated with motor vehicles became a major concern. In urban areas, this is now the main source of air pollution.
A new authority
In 1990, the Environmental Protection Act replaced the Alkali Act to become the authority for waste management and control of emissions into the environment.
Throughout the late 20th Century, automatic air pollution monitoring networks were set up to measure the environmental impact of poor air quality.
The AURN (Automatic Urban and Rural Network) is the most important and comprehensive automatic national monitoring network in the country, currently there are 105 sites, across the UK with data available from 22 September 1973 to the present day.
A strategy for success
The UK Air Quality Strategy (AQS), first published in 1997, sets targets for eight air pollutants: benzene, 1,3-butadiene, CO, lead, NO2
, ozone, PM10
, and SO2
, to be achieved between 2003 and 2008. It includes European Union (EU) targets set through ‘Daughter Directives’ of the Air Quality Framework Directive, as well as more stringent national targets.
The UK Government and the devolved administrations are required under the Environment Act 1995 to produce a national air quality strategy. This was last reviewed and published in 2007. The strategy sets out the UK’s air quality objectives and recognises that action at national, regional and local level may be needed, depending on the scale and nature of the air quality problem. Local councils are required to produce air quality action plans wherever an air quality management area is designated.
As the population of London continues to grow, more cars and buildings will mean more pollution. However, advancements in vehicle technology and improvements to transport mean people have an option to travel sustainably. Car manufacturers are even offering low or zero emission options for drivers.
Buildings can even be heated using renewable energy or by high-efficiency boilers, and can be adapted to reduce heat loss.
As we move further into the 21st Century there's still more to do to improve air quality - and we can do it if we make good decisions on small and big scale!