History of Air Pollution
Air pollution, particularly in cities, is certainly not a new problem. Back in the Middle Ages the use of coal in cities such as London was beginning to escalate. The problems of poor urban air quality even as early as the end of the 16th century are well documented.
In the UK the Industrial Revolution during the 18th and 19th centuries was based on the use of coal. Industries were often located in towns and cities, and together with the burning of coal in homes for domestic heat, urban air pollution levels often reached very high levels. During foggy conditions, pollution levels escalated and urban smogs (smoke and fog) were formed. These often brought cities to a halt, disrupting traffic but more dangerously causing death rates to dramatically rise. The effects of this pollution on buildings and vegetation also became obvious. The 1875 Public Health Act contained a smoke abatement section to try and reduce smoke pollution in urban areas.
During the first part of the 20th century, tighter industrial controls lead to a reduction in smog pollution in urban areas. The 1926 Smoke Abatement Act was aimed at reducing smoke emissions from industrial sources, but despite the declining importance of coal as a domestic fuel, pollution from domestic sources remained significant.
The Great London Smog of 1952, which resulted in around 4,000 extra deaths in the city, led to the introduction of the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968. These introduced smokeless zones in urban areas, with a tall chimney policy to help disperse industrial air pollutants away from built up areas into the atmosphere.
Following the Clean Air Acts, air quality improvements continued throughout the 1970s. Further regulations were introduced 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.
However, during the 1980s the number of motor vehicles in urban areas steadily increased and air quality problems associated with motor vehicles became more prevalent. In the early 1980s, the main interest was the effects of lead pollution on human health, but by the late 1980s and early 1990s, the effects of other motor vehicle pollutants became a major concern. The 1990s have seen the occurrence of wintertime and summertime smogs. These are not caused by smoke and sulphur dioxide pollution but by chemical reactions occurring between motor vehicle pollutants and sunlight. These are known as ‘photochemical smogs’.
In 1995, the Government passed its Environment Act, requiring the publication of a National Air Quality Strategy to set standards for the regulation of the most common air pollutants. Published in 1997, the National Air Quality Strategy has set commitments for local authorities to achieve new air quality objectives throughout the UK by 2005. It is reviewed periodically.