Air pollution has been around since the beginning of time.  In the stone age, some 10,000 years ago, smoke produced from fires covered the walls of caves in black soot and was breathed in by the cavemen. Lungs of mummified bodies that are thousands of years old from Egypt and Peru are frequently black.

As man evolved so too did the pollution he created. The smelting of lead became widespread during the time of the Roman empire. Lead was used for piping & water storage and the particles & emissions from the smelting process were spread across the globe, appearing in studies of arctic ice for signs of historic global pollution. It was also noted by the writers and philosophers of the time who noted the pollution was visibly scarring the buildings of ancient Rome & affecting their health.

The next major pollutant culprit in history was coal.

King Edward the First was among the first to tackle Britain’s growing pollution problem. In 1306 he banned the burning of coal when it had gotten so bad that even his own mother was forced to flee Nottingham because of the conditions. At first the laws were simply ignored. With few other options for heat most people had no choice but to burn coal to heat their homes & cook their food, forcing the king to impose huge fines and the destruction of offenders furnaces. Yet still it had no effect, once again people had little choice when it came to energy sources and the risks of being caught outweighed those of going without heat or food. With so many flaunting the law it would be an arduous task to enforce it across the land. So, as a final measure, the King installed the death penalty in an attempt to shock the people into changing their ways and stop burning coal. However even this extreme measure was ignored too, even after the execution of one offender. People had become dependent on coal; it was the difference between life & death for many so much so that even the death penalty offered little in the way of deterrent. Edward reasoned that he couldn't execute his whole kingdom – tho it did cross his mind. Besides, even if he could have, then he wouldn't have had anybody to tax or torture. Consequently, the law was simply ignored.

The Industrial Revolution destroyed any hopes of banning coal burning. Coal usage in the UK multiplied by 100 between 1800 and 1900 as factory owners put making money ahead of health concerns. The air was heavily polluted from the chimneys of factories and other industry. Around 1860 it was noticed that air pollution was so bad in some areas it was killing crops and other plant life.

It all came to a head in 1952 with the Great Smog of London. Smog is a mixture of smoke and fog, the cold weather at the time meant that Londoners were burning even more coal than usual to keep warm.  It was a fog so thick and polluted it left 4,000 people dead. It was even reported to have choked cows to death in the fields and an Arsenal football game had to be abandoned.

It was this that made the Government realise that more action had to be taken to improve air quality. The result of this was the introduction of the Clean Air Acts 1956 and 1968. These acts banned emissions of black smoke and made residents in urban areas and factories use smokeless fuel. However history would repeat itself as the curbs on coal would arrive as the rise of another pollutant, the automobile.

The first petrol car was invented by Karl Benz in 1886. At first there were very few cars on the road, so they didn’t have a huge effect on air quality but through the 20th century the numbers exploded and by the 1980s, the numbers of vehicles on the road was rapidly increasing and so were emissions of nitrogen dioxide and fine particles.

At this time the catalytic converter was introduced to reduce the amount of dangerous emissions from car exhausts by filtering them out. By 1993 all new cars sold in Europe had to be fitted with one and this lead to a rapid decline in emissions.

The Electric Car is believed to be the next step in the reduction of traffic emissions. Electric Vehicles do not produce any emissions directly, as they are battery powered and don’t have an exhaust. However, the way the Electricity to power them is generated could be a source of pollution but as we move towards renewable energy sources the Electric Car becomes even cleaner for the environment.

In the UK today, various laws have been brought in, as people’s knowledge and awareness of air pollution has increased. As well as new laws there have been advances in technology so that pollution from vehicles, factories and other polluting sources can be cleaned up before they reach the atmosphere.

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