Has air pollution actually got cleaner in London?

From the Observer in 2001:-

“The Skeptical Environmentalist by Professor Bjørn Lomborg draws on a range of different sources to show that the level of smoke particles – the most dangerous pollutant – and sulphur dioxide has fallen by more than 95 per cent since their peak in the nineteenth century. The last time there was such little air pollution in the capital was 1585. His findings challenge the long-held assumption that London’s air quality has been deteriorating for years. ‘London air has not been as clean as it is today since the Middle Ages. Almost all the modern period has been more polluted with smoke than it is today,’ said Lomborg, professor of statistics at Aarhus University in Denmark.

Figures from coal production show that smoke pollution increased dramatically over 300 years to reach a peak in around 1900. Emissions of sulphur dioxide reached a peak around 1850, with concentrations in the air of about 900 microgrammes per cubic metre, worse than even today’s Third World mega-cities. However, pollution fell sharply as dirty coal was phased out and gas and electricity became more popular. Coal-powered trains were replaced by electric ones. Pollution dropped more dramatically after the Clean Air Act of 1956 banned the burning of all dirty fuels, putting an end to ‘pea-soup’ smogs. Crackdowns on emissions from cars and lorries, including the introduction of lead-free fuel and catalytic converters, have meant that the air has continued getting purer.

‘Air pollution is not a new problem getting worse, but an old problem getting ever better,’ said Lomborg.

London’s air pollution problems started at least a thousand years ago. In 1285 King Edward I set up the world’s first air pollution commission and banned the burning of coal. It didn’t last long. As the area around London became deforested and the wood was all burnt, households increasingly turned to the burning of cheap dirty coal, high in sulphur. Elizabeth I was ‘greatly grieved and annoyed with the taste and smoke’ and banned coal-burning in London, but only when Parliament was sitting. The seven teenth-century diarist, John Evelyn, fumed against the ‘filthy vapour’ and ‘thick mist’ which made ‘catharrs, phthisicks, coughs and consumptions rage more in this one City than in the whole Earth besides’.

In the eighteenth century ditches were often used as toilets, butchers threw offal into the street, and dead animals were left to rot where they lay. Before the Victorians built a sewage system, people would throw their ablutions into the street at night. In 1742 Dr Samuel Johnson described London as a city which ‘abounds with such heaps of filth as a savage would look on in amazement’.

Visitors to the city were forced to block up their noses to survive the foul smell. It was so dirty that Shelley wrote: ‘That Hell must be much like London, a smoky and populous city.’ Pollution and soot from coal was so intense that buildings were almost instantly blackened. London fogs rose from 20 days a year in the eighteenth century to 60 days a year in the nineteenth. The National Society for Clean Air is one of Britain’s oldest environmental pressure groups, founded 100 years ago.

The pea-soup smogs had a calamitous impact. Bronchitis was known as the ‘British disease’.”

My colleagues remember The Smog – it was not just in London but in major towns too. I wonder if the pollution we have now, with all the chemicals, is a lot worse? They are often ‘invisible’. I know that I still get cataahh(sp?), coughs and a sore throat after a visit in London, after a cycle along Bow and Stepney.


2 responses to “Has air pollution actually got cleaner in London?

  1. Pingback: Tuesday 1st June « now say hello back

  2. Stumbled upon your post while trying to find out if London air is cleaner by night, due to less traffic and temperature differences. Didn’t answer that question but still very interesting! Though I agree there’s probably loads of stuff out there we can’t see but still suck in. Yuck (better than doing it on the tube though!)


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