And you thought you had a bad-air day – Part 2: Lessons from the past

Progress, quality-of-life and standard-of-living matters are front and center in Part 1.

In this, the second – and last – installment of this two-part air-quality series, I am going back in time – figuratively speaking, of course – to find reasons on how, when and maybe why this whole air pollution dilemma came to be. I figure the Industrial Revolution is as good a place to start as any. Air pollution-wise and in our understanding of it, even though we have indeed come a long way, there is more to be learned still.

Industry doings

It wasn’t so long ago that the sight of an industrial smokestack spewing, well, smoke, was looked upon as a sign of progress. This was especially true during World Wars I and II. With the introduction of the Industrial Revolution (IR) circa the 1760s, the world had embarked on a new journey. For humans, this was big, so big in fact, that this pivotal moment in time was truly extraordinary, a life-altering and history shaping event if ever there was one, the likes of which had not been known before. Not only has the IR withstood the test of time (lasting centuries), its impact was – and is – far-reaching, so much so, there is no corner of the globe that has not been touched in some way.

Since then, though, times have changed and a heightened environmental awareness of pollution – air, land, water – has been put in the spotlight. There are those who detest polluted air and there are those who wonder why more is not being done to rid the air of the toxics and poisons present in it – there is no doubt some overlap within the two groups. If people are angered, they have every right to be.

The California Environmental Protection Agency Air Resources Board (ARB) provides a listing of “Key Events in the History of Air Quality in California.” Depending on one’s point of view, a non-California event starts (or ends) the listing.

It was in 1930, according to what is presented in the aforesaid listing, that: “Meuse Valley, Belgium air inversion results in 60 dead and thousands sick from exposure to industrial air emissions.”

Just a skosh more recent in the “Key Events” timeline, the entry for 1943 reads as follows: “First recognized episodes of smog occur in Los Angeles in the summer of 1943. Visibility is only three blocks and people suffer from smarting eyes, respiratory discomfort, nausea, and vomiting. The phenomenon is termed a ‘gas attack’ and blamed on a nearby butadiene plant. The situation does not improve when the plant is shut down.”

From this period forward, the more compounded, complex and intertwined conditions became.

To help better explain what was going on, there is this from the Center for Clean Air Policy:

“Patterns of urban growth characteristic of post WWII North American development have created cities and regions that are centered upon and are dependent on the car to meet transportation needs. Located largely at the urban fringe, this pattern of suburban, or greenfield, development is typically dominated by housing-only enclaves consisting of single family homes with two-car garages and a hierarchical road system (with one way in and out). Here, land use functions are isolated (residential, commercial, employment), origins and destinations are farther apart, infrastructure design is oriented toward the automobile, and low population densities are not conducive to public transportation. With the automobile as the only realistic transportation mode for suburbanites in these sprawling communities, commuters are faced with increased driving distances and increased congestion. All told, this pattern of growth has resulted in deteriorating urban air quality and human health, increased emissions of greenhouse gases, limited transportation and housing choice, inefficient use of infrastructure, and communities that are less able to meet the needs of their residents.”

Now you know.

Concluding thought

Reducing greenhouse gas, particulate matter, nitrogen oxide, ozone and other polluting emissions throughout America, no one said was going to be easy. But that’s not an excuse not to try.

And please keep in mind this: If there was clean air for everyone to breathe, this entire discussion would be moot. If only that was the case. If only.

– Alan Kandel