Cambridge, England — IN January, researchers at King’s College London announced that pollution levels on Oxford Street, in central London, had exceeded limits set for the entire year in just the first four days of 2015. Similarly alarming numbers have been recorded for other streets in the city — and yet the mayor, Boris Johnson, has delayed implementation of stricter air-quality measures until 2020.
What’s happening in London is being played out in cities worldwide, as efforts to curtail the onslaught of air pollution are stymied by short-term vested interests, with potentially disastrous results.
This is not the first time that society has confronted a threat of this kind. In the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution brought millions into the world’s cities, which expanded with unprecedented rapidity, leading to atmospheric pollution as the fossil fuels burned in urban homes poured huge quantities of sooty, sulfurous emissions into the air.
Nowhere was this more obvious, or more threatening, than in the greatest of all Victorian cities, London, where air pollution was literally in front of everyone’s face in the form of the city’s infamous, polluted fog.
The British capital is particularly liable to natural winter fogs. It is surrounded by low hills, with marshland on its outskirts, and a large river running through it. Its location encourages the meteorological phenomenon of temperature inversion, when warm air traps cold air beneath it for days on end. During such a fog, the sulfur-laden smoke from domestic coal fires and factory chimneys was unable to rise into the upper atmosphere, and seeped into the natural fog, turning it yellow, brown, green or black — a process beautifully captured by Claude Monet in his series of paintings of London fog.
Such fogs were known as “pea soupers.” As the name suggested, they were often so thick that people could not see their own feet as they walked through them on the city streets. As the city grew, these fogs occurred more frequently; they became more dense, and they lasted longer.
Londoners were well aware of the dangers the fogs posed to health. In 1873 a number of prize cattle at the Smithfield cattle show, in central London, choked to death during a particularly dense and suffocating fog. Newspapers and medical experts pointed to a statistical increase in deaths in London’s human population from bronchitis and other respiratory diseases during fogs. Now-forgotten pulp-fiction writers like William Delisle Hay produced alarmist stories imagining the destruction of London’s entire population caused by the fog.
Fog could also be a cover for crime. “Linklighters,” boys or men who earned a few pennies carrying lighted torches to lead people through the darkened world of the London streets, would sometimes lead people down a quiet alleyway to be robbed. Burglars were reported to be particularly fond of breaking into people’s houses during major fogs, which not only made them hard to see, but deadened sound as well.
And yet, for decades, every law proposed in Parliament to curb smoke emissions was watered down so heavily that it had no tangible effect. What explains such legislative inertia?
Vested interests were a major obstruction. In 19th- and 20th-century London, many industries thwarted attempts by successive governments to clean up the capital’s air. Often they would simply refuse to install smoke purifiers on their factory chimneys, blaming the smoke from household fires instead.
Moreover, the fines on violators were often so small that they could not serve as a deterrent. Magistrates had sympathy for the industrialists, especially the smaller ones, who could not afford to convert their furnaces to more efficient, cleaner models. And, above all, smoke from industrial chimneys represented jobs and growth — which, in turn, gave people wages with which they could afford a fire at home, thus exacerbating the problem.
There was a cultural component, too. The British were wedded to their open fires. Closed stoves, popular throughout much of Europe, especially in Germany, were shunned by Londoners. During World War I, Britons were exhorted, in the words of the famous song, to “keep the home fires burning.” Politicians were simply not willing to risk unpopularity by forcing Londoners to stop using coal and go over to gas or electric heating instead. In Britain today, in an echo of these earlier concerns, the government is cutting subsidies for onshore wind and solar farms, anxious not to offend voters in rural areas where such facilities would be built. MORE
By Christine L. Cortin
Photo: Credit General Photographic Agency/Getty Images