Stephen Mosley: Learn lessons of history for cleaner air

AS dirty air has re-emerged as a major public health issue in urban areas like Leeds, environmental historians like myself have begun to investigate the origins of atmospheric pollution problems in Britain and the wider world.

Smog was still a common problem in Leeds in the late 1990s.

Our aim is to raise awareness of how such problems were tackled in the past, so that today’s policy-makers can make better informed decisions for the future. The 60th anniversary of the 1956 Clean Air Act, which cleared city air by introducing Smokeless Zones, seems an apt moment to reflect on lessons that might be learned from the passage of this landmark piece of environmental legislation.

When Britain was ‘the workshop of the world’ coal consumption in homes and factories increased from around 10 million tonnes per annum in 1800 to over 200 million tonnes in 1950.

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A permanent smoke haze gradually enveloped cities like Leeds, London and Manchester, blocking out the sun, blackening buildings, increasing the severity of smog episodes, and damaging people’s health.

By the last quarter of the 20th century, respiratory diseases such as bronchitis had become the nation’s commonest cause of death, killing between 50,000 and 70,000 people per annum.

Archival research shows that most victims were to be found among the very young, the elderly and those living in the poorest parts of industrial towns.

In 1938, the Medical Officer of Health for Leeds, J. Johnstone Jervis, vented his frustration about the high mortality caused by urban air pollution. He wrote: “I feel on safe ground when I say that the majority of lives lost from respiratory diseases are lives thrown away. Their prevalence and the high mortality rate due to them are a grave indictment of our modern civilisation. They are preventable; yet they are not prevented. They are curable; yet they continue to kill. Prevention can only be achieved by tackling the smoke problem resolutely.”

Until the mid-20th century, however, anti-smoke legislation offered little protection to people or the urban environment. Smoke control laws – from the early local acts of the 1840s, through the smoke clauses in the Public Health Act of 1875, to the Public Health (Smoke Abatement) Act of 1926 – all contained fundamental flaws, with insignificant fines, weak enforcement asnd widespread exemptions.

It was the 1952 London smog disaster – which is now thought to have claimed as many as 12,000 lives – that was the catalyst for the development of comprehensive air pollution controls.

Following this tragedy, the government passed the Clean Air Act of 1956, which for the first time regulated both domestic and industrial smoke emissions. Widely considered by historians to be an important milestone in environmental protection, the legislation not only created smokeless zones in towns and cities, it also provided generous subsidies to householders to convert to cleaner fuels.

But this energy transition did not happen overnight. It took around three decades, and another Clean Air Act in 1968, before smoke control programmes were finally completed. By the 1980s, the smoke-laden urban skies had cleared.

But city air still was not clean. Ironically, clearer skies allowed more sunlight to penetrate to the streets of formerly smoky cities, where it reacted with pollutants from rising numbers of vehicle exhausts to form hazardous photochemical smog.

A recent report by the Royal College of Physicians revealed that outdoor air pollution now causes some 40,000 respiratory deaths every year. Although the urban pollution mix is very different today, respiratory disease mortality rates are rising to levels last seen at the height of the industrial revolution.

Leeds, identified by the World Health Organisation as one of Britain’s air pollution ‘hotspots’, is one of five cities around the country set to introduce Clean Air Zones by 2020.

Announced by former Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss, new Clean Air Zones aim to improve air quality by charging old, polluting vehicles such as buses, trucks and taxis to enter city centres. However, private cars – a major source of urban air pollution – are to be exempted. The initiative also ignores many other towns and cities where poor air quality is a significant public health problem.

History suggests that we need to tackle this problem more resolutely.