Death in the Air! The menace of air pollution

Undated but probably 1956

inside cover:

Air Pollution Control in Pittsburgh, U.S.A.

A city ordinance prohibits the production or emission of “dense smoke” (i.e., that equal to or exceeding No. 2 on the Ringleman chart). The only exception is for steam locomotives when a fire is being cleaned out or newly built; after the engine enters service dense smoke must not exceed one minute in any 60 minutes. Dwelling houses are not exempt and there are no industrial exceptions, although steel production in and around Pittsburgh exceeds that of the whole of Great Britain.

The escape from any chimney of soot, cinders, noxious acids, fumes or gases in such quantity as to cause injury, detriment or nuisance to any person or to the public or to endanger the comfort, health or safety or any such person or of the public is prohibited. This section, unlike our bye-laws, which are restricted to black smoke, covers almost any considerable type of pollution.

The sale, exchange and transport of solid fuel for firing which contains more than 20 per cent of volatile matter, are prohibited. Purchasers of fuel-burning appliances to be connected to a vent or stack must inform the retailer in writing of the address to which the appliance will be installed; the retailer must pass this information to the Smoke Bureau within seven days. The department is thus able to keep track of all new installations; no new fuel-burning plant may be installed, erected, reconstructed, repaired or added to until the plans and specifications have been filed with the approval of the Bureau. It is unlawful to use plan subject to annual inspection without first obtaining the annual certificate and such certificate is no defence in case of a smoke violation. Smoke bye-laws take pre­cedence over building bye-laws.

After three or more notifications of smoke violation within twelve months, the superintendent has power, after investigation, to “seal” the plant until he is satisfied that it will be so used as not to cause a violation. A direct threat of loss of production is therefore incurred.

In power and heating plants there must be provided means by smoke invectors, mirrors or direct vision whereby the foreman is able to know, without leaving the firing floor, whether or not prohibited smoke is issuing from the stack. Failure to know that smoke is being emitted is no defence. Each day’s violation, and unlawful emission from each stack are separate offences. The Penalty is not less than $25 and not more than $100 for each offence.


THE main source of air pollution is the combustion of coal and attempts to abate smoke started from soon after its use began. In 1306 a Royal Proclamation prohibited artificers from using coal in their furnaces and ordered a return to wood or charcoal. Queen Elizabeth I is recorded as having been “greved and anoyed” by smoke from certain Westminster Breweries, and John Evelyn (1651-1706) complained bitterly of the “hellish and dismall cloud of sea-coale” which had such an effect on Londoners that “catarrhs, phthisicks, coughs and consumptions rage more in this one City than in the whole Earth besides;” he felt so strongly on the subject that he submitted to Charles II a vigorous and eloquent dissertation—”Fumifugium: or the Smoake of London Dissipated”, and advocated the removal of all works using coal to five miles from the City. In 1718 an official inquiry was held and further Parliamentary committees of inquiry were set up in 1819, 1843, 1845, 1920 and 1953. Legislation was enacted in 1845, 1895 and 1926, and a Clean Air Act has now been passed.

Effect on Plant Life

The effect of smoke on plant life was noted—again by Evelyn—who remarked that when the siege of Newcastle (1644) restricted the supply of “sea coale” to London, the gardens flourished unusually well. Fairchild, the author of “The City Gardener” (1727) stated that certain trees could not be grown in London because of the smoke. Ruston (1936), describing the effects on vegetation, stated that smoke reduces the available sunlight—needed to form carbohydrates—by anything up to 40%, thus stunting growth. The tarry matter from smoke also chokes the stomatal openings and interferes with transpiration as well as assimilation, plants with a hairy or crinkled surface (calceolaria, primrose, hollyhock) being chiefly affected: London Pride, with hard smooth leaves, survives well. Ruston also states that the presence of free acid in the air tends to lower the reproductive capacity of plants and to deprive them of the power to produce colour, while free acid in rainwater entering the soil makes it sour and limits the activity of soil organisms. Conifers suffered so much at Kew that the authorities had to set aside an area of land near Tunbridge Wells for the formation of a National Collection; London nurserymen have suffered severe losses of tomato and other seedlings and have had to move further up the Lea Valley, while in Yorkshire even farms have had to be abandoned.

Effect on Animal Life

A report by Col. A. E. Hamerton, Pathologist to the Zoological Society of London, stated that “Among birds that have lived for some years in the aviaries, fatal necrosis of the lung localised around carbon deposits causes many deaths” and that “many felines in the lion house die from chronic bronchitis, fibrosis and gangrene of the lungs associated with blackening of the lungs by dust deposit”. During a foggy period in December, 1873, some of the prize beasts at Islington Cattle Show were suffocated, and others had to be slaughtered to put them out of their misery. At the Smithfield Show, in December, 1952, sixty animals in prime conditions required major veterinary treatment, and twelve had to be destroyed.

Effect on Man

On November 14th, 1635, there died in London, at the alleged age of 152 years, Thomas Parr, a native of Shropshire, who had been brought from the country and presented to the king as a natural curiosity. A dissection of the body was performed by William Harvey, author of the “Circulation of the Blood”, who reported that the “chief mischief” appeared to be connected with the “change of air, which during the whole course of life had been inhaled of perfect purity—light, cool and mobile, whereby the lungs were freely ventilated and cooled”. Harvey noted that “in this great advantage, this grand cherisher of life, this city is especially destitute”, mentioning particularly “the smoke engendered by the general use of sulphurous coal as fuel, whereby the air is at all times rendered heavy, but more so in the autumn than at any other season”. “Such an atmosphere”, he said, “could not have been found otherwise than insalubrious to one coming from the open, sunny and healthy region of Salop.: it must have been especially so to one already aged and infirm”.

The invention of the steam engine was followed by a rapid increase in the use of coal and the Industrial Revolution led to the aggregation of large numbers of people in overcrowded, ill-planned towns where the houses were cheek-by-jowl with the factory or furnace. Britain led the world at this time but industrial development was at its crudest and “Dark Satanic mills” poured forth a pall that has still not disappeared from some of these areas, in spite of all the advances made in medicine and hygiene. The long-term effect of this on the health of those living under such conditions is not easily assessed because although it is known that in industrial areas the incidence of, for instance, respiratory disease, is three times that in rural districts, this is in part due to housing conditions and exposure to dust and fumes at work. Clearly industry bears an enormous responsibility in this matter in relation to all three factors, directly or indirectly, and the lungs of those who live and work in industrial towns, when examined after death, are sufficient witness to the consequences of our failure to control industry’s waste products.

Statistics reveal that the death rate from bronchitis in England and Wales is much higher than in other European countries for which figures are available. The Beaver Report quotes the following figures in illustration:

Death Rates from Bronchitis per 100,000, 1951
Males Females
Denmark 2.2 1.9
Norway 5.5 5.8
Sweden 5.0 4.0
England and Wales 107.9 62.7

The report states “it is the industrial towns liable to heavy pollution that have the highest death-rates” and concludes that “there is a clear association between pollution and the incidence of bronchitis and other respiratory diseases”. In Britain the death rate from bronchitis in industrial towns such as Warrington and Salford is five to six times that pertaining in Hastings or Eastbourne.

Such conditions are not inevitable; they are man made and can be controlled; unfortunately they are accepted, largely because their deleterious effects are not fully understood. Pollution of the air is regarded tolerantly and with little sense of urgency; clearly there is need for a greater understanding of its effect on health.

Smoke and grit reduce the amount of sunlight by anything up to 40%. The effects of this may be difficult to assess in specific terms, but are none the less damaging—besides diminishing resistance to infection and impairing growth, there is the depressing psychological effect of constantly living and working in surroundings which are not merely dismal and dirty, but extremely ugly. Little that is fresh or beautiful survives for long in our industrially-polluted towns and the loss to the inhabitants in the more positive aspects of healthy living is incalculable. Not only beauty departs in the presence of dirt, but much of the joy and calm that really make life worth living. Their place is taken by things less wholesome; where there is ugliness without —continuous and unrelieved—it is not difficult for the mind to become warped. Crudeness and coarseness are likely to be uppermost and the fair face of life is distorted and begrimed. Certainly it is grossly unfair that children should be reared and schooled in such surroundings. In the second half of the twentieth century these all too obvious blots on our civilisation are indications of wasteful inefficiency and lack of insight.

The effect on the respiratory system cannot at this stage, however, be clearly computed as other factors enter into the complex of causes— besides living conditions and exposure to dust at work there are smoking—particularly of cigarettes, infection of various kinds (the common cold, measles and whooping cough in childhood, and in­fluenza), and constitutional factors such as allergy and inherited predisposition. As the Beaver report says: “There is an urgent need of more precise knowledge regarding the effect of polluted air as the cause of disease and death and we consider that measures should be taken to ensure that consultants, and in particular, pathologists and interested general practitioners, should, in selected areas, have full opportunity and facilities to investigate in careful detail cases of illness or death the probable cause of which is air pollution”. Action, however, cannot be deferred until long-term investigations come to fruition; the fact that 4,000 deaths can be directly attributed to the single fog incidents of December, 1952, and a further 1,000 to another such incident in January, 1956, can leave little doubt in anyone’s mind of the lethal character of a polluted atmosphere under fog conditions; that conclusion alone is sufficient to warrant urgent and effective legislative action.

There is, however, little question that atmospheric pollution in general is a factor conducive towards our high incidence of respiratory illness. Not only bronchitis is more prevalent in industrial areas— cancer of the lung also shows an increased incidence and although it is not finally proved that this is due to air pollution a carcinogenic substance is known to be present in smoke.

The problem of bronchitis is becoming a matter of increasing concern. Nearly 30,000 people a year are certified as dying from this disease and thousands more are grossly incapacitated. Unlike pneumonia there has been no significant reduction in mortality following the introduction of the antibiotic drugs. The bronchitis sufferer has much to endure—constant cough, interrupting almost every activity, keeping him awake at night, disturbing and distressing other members of the household as well as himself; wheeziness and breathlessness which progressively get worse with each passing winter, accentuated ultimately by a failing heart musculature which can no longer respond adequately to the constant strain imposed by under oxygenation and overwork. Short spells off duty are followed by long absences, and the sufferer may lose his job or be forced into premature retirement. Morale steadily declines as time goes on and the chronic bronchitic becomes a pathetic figure, housebound by the slightest deterioration in the weather, spending his days by the fire, reaching up to the mantelpiece where stand bottles of medicine whose very multiplicity advertises their utter uselessness, coughing and stumbling about the house and gasping his way upstairs to bed where he spends his night propped up on pillows in an effort to render his breathing sufficiently tolerable for brief periods of sleep to be obtained. Thousands of elderly people spend their declining years in such a state and doctors can provide only palliative treatment. Nor is it only the very old who are affected. A letter to the Times describes how one patient, a man of 45, was so overcome in the smog that he had to be carried two miles to his home by his workmates; another, a woman of 50, fell down in the street unable to breathe and crawled half a mile to her home. The terror of suffocation that grips the bronchitic on such occasions can well be imagined and this fear is one of the factors which confines many a victim to the house for long periods during the winter months.

Mortality rates from bronchitis in middle-aged and elderly males are directly related to the degree of sulphur pollution in the atmosphere; the association with solid pollutant matter (smoke and grit) was much less consistent. Sulphur dioxide, too, has been shown to inhibit the activity of the cilia in the human trachea and in some patients to produce spasm of the bronchial muscles. In a cold environment the toxic effects are enhanced. Other factors than sulphur may bear responsibility but the case against general air pollution being a substantial cause of severe physical incapacity and death can at this stage be accepted as impregnable; the chief factor appears to be sulphur and its derivatives, but more research is required to elicit its exact role and that of other pollutants.

Effect on Materials

The long-term effect of atmospheric pollution is more easily demonstrable in the case of materials than in man. Anything up to three tons of soot and grit fall each day on each square mile of our industrial towns, but, more serious still, is the effect of the oxides of sulphur. Smoke, grit and dust together amount to 2.8 million tons per annum discharged into the air, but the sulphur dioxide total is 5.2 million tons. This substance, diluted in the moisture of the atmosphere, forms sulphurous acid; sulphur trioxide which, though less in quantity is even more dangerous, gives rise to sulphuric acid. Holes, nine inches deep, have been eaten in the fabric of York Minster. Cleopatra’s Needle—originally of pink granite, has suffered more in its seventy years in London than from all its 7,000 years in Egypt. Dr. Fox, Archdeacon of Westminster Abbey, describing the ravages produced by corrosion says: “It is not only the outside of the Abbey which has suffered; in the vast interior, which is well over 100 feet high, this destructive grime has collected in places which are not easy to reach. The inside walls of the Abbey were originally built of pearly grey stone enlivened by gleaming shafts of Purbeck marble. Now both stone and marble are a drab, unsightly chocolate hue. In the cloisters, decorative stonework, which only a century ago was well preserved, has completely disappeared. The solid stone walls are encrusted with grime. Their surface is flaking as though they are suffering from some terrible disease—which indeed they are. In the higher parts of the building the stone is crumbling away. Many of the pinnacles which lent the exterior such grace and height are rapidly becoming unsafe. If they are left much longer without attention they will fall”.

Such alarming rapid disintegration of the stonework of many of our most treasured historic buildings is paralleled by its destructive effect on metals. Every year British Railways have to replace a quarter of a million tons of corroded rails, especially in city tunnels where sulphurous smoke collects; replacement of constructional steel as a consequence of pollution is at the rate of 0.5 per cent, per annum of existing structures; protective coverings have also to be provided. Chain stores, likewise, have to paint their branches in large towns three times as often as in country areas and stone fronts require cleaning twice as often; many buildings in industrial areas, however, are left to become coated in grime and come to form an integral part of the dreary picture.

Regarding damage to textiles, the Beaver committee’s conservative estimate reckons the cost at about £50 million per annum for replacement alone; additional laundry costs due to air pollution are put at £25 million per annum. Nor do rotting curtains and smutty linen constitute the whole story; the drain on the housewife’s energy in a constantly renewed battle to keep her home and her family clean, and all the extra effort and expense which could be used to better purposes have a serious effect on the morale of the whole household. Many take a pride in cleanliness in even the most adverse circumstances, but the years go by with no improvement forthcoming—the position indeed getting worse in many areas as the national consumption of coal rises.

The total cost of atmospheric pollution to the country as a whole is reckoned by the Beaver Committee to be over £250,000,000 per annum—more than £1 per ton of coal used. This excludes a loss of £25—£50,000,000 from the imperfect combustion of coal.

Aspects to be considered in the economic reckoning, besides the physical damage to buildings, metal and fabrics and the cost of labour and materials required for cleaning and maintenance, include the loss in agricultural productivity, the cost to transport (including aviation) of fogs made denser and lasting longer because of being polluted, additional lighting, and loss of working time due to illness—which is enormous—bronchitis alone accounting for over 26,600,000 working days in 1951, though other causative factors enter the reckoning here. General loss of efficiency due to air pollution is beyond any form of computation.

The Great Smog

On the morning of Friday, 5th December, 1952, an anti-cyclone was centred over Southern England and a trough of low pressure was slowly approaching Western Ireland from the Atlantic. During the following four days pressure remained high over the countries of Western Europe and the low pressure system remained relatively constant to the north-west of Scotland and Ireland; there was an almost complete absence of wind in the Thames valley and on the adjacent higher ground.

Normally the warmest air is at ground level, the temperature falling as altitude increases owing to the lessened amount of heat reflected from the earth; temperatures on this occasion had dropped to freezing point and, in the absence of wind, a cold layer of air accumulated at ground level, overlaid by a zone of warmer air, producing a “temperature inversion”. A patchy distribution of fog became widespread over many parts of England and was particularly bad in urban areas; in the lower Thames valley it persisted for the next four days. In the still, cold air chimneys continued to belch their effluent and in the central area the fog became extremely dense; not until the morning of December 9th was it eventually dispersed by a south-west wind. In this thickly-populated area the temperature inversion thus prevented the dispersal of the fog into the upper atmosphere and allowed a high concentration of smoke and other atmospheric pollutants to be built up. The suspended matter in the atmosphere provided nuclei for the deposition of moisture and the concentration of sulphur dioxide rose at individual sites to between three and twelve times the normal. Visibility was grossly interfered with, traffic dislocated and brought to a standstill, and the prize cattle at Smithfield Show developed acute respiratory distress. The fog layer was surprisingly shallow—but the more dangerous on this account as the pollution increased. On the North Downs it rose only to 250 feet and in the Chilterns to the north it generally dispersed on the higher ground during the day. Nearer London, Harrow Hill and Wimbledon Common were in sunshine on the afternoon of December 7th, and Shooters Hill (400 ft.) was reported clear all the time. There was much inconvenience, and hospital beds were full, but only later, when mortality returns were computed was it realised that a major disaster had taken place. Deaths registered in the weeks ending 13th and 20th December (i.e., the fog period and subsequent week) exceeded the average for the corresponding weeks, 1947-51, by 4,075, a figure representing approximately the number of deaths due to the fog and occurring within 15 days of its onset.

The Government at first turned down proposals for a special inquiry and it was not until July 21st, 1953, that the membership of a committee, under the chairmanship of Sir Hugh Beaver, was announced.

The majority of the deaths occurred in people over the age of 45, particularly males, and there was a lesser increase in children under one year. Respiratory and cardio-vascular disease were responsible for no less than 84 per cent, of the increase during the two weeks mentioned. Deaths began to increase on Friday, December 5th, the first day of the fog, mounted to a peak on Sunday and Monday, December 7th and 8th, and were still above normal on December 20th. During the period of the fog sudden deaths from respiratory disease were more than four times what they were during the preceding four days and out of 135 cases dying suddenly at home, 65, or nearly half, were found dead in bed. The elderly were affected worst of all, no less than 70 per cent, of the deaths occurring in people over 65. It appears that many of the deaths occurred in those whose lungs were already damaged, bronchitis and emphysema standing out as the two conditions showing the greatest proportionate increase.

The extra strain on the elderly heart in particular was more than it could bear, and deaths from coronary thrombosis showed a considerable increase mongst those over 65. Those under 45 were affected comparatively little by the fog but it would be over-optimistic to assume that in them the effects were entirely transient; several patients previously free of chest disease have since dated the onset of their complaint to the smog of 1952; and we are certainly in no position to dismiss the cumulative long-term effect on the lungs of such incidents, or indeed of ordinary every-day atmospheric pollution.

The Sources of Atmospheric Pollution

The main cause of atmospheric pollution is the combustion of coal, of which this country consumes over 200,000,000 tons annually. Incomplete and often inefficient combustion results in the discharge into the atmosphere of more than two and three-quarter million tons of smoke and grit every year. “Smoke” is legally defined as any visible chimney emission and is made up of fine particles of carbon, together with a smaller quantity of tarry or oily matter formed when Coal is so burned that part of its volatile constituents fail to be con­sumed; also drawn up by the draught of the fire are particles of ash and grit. When pollution is considerable these particles scatter much of the daytime sunshine back into space; in foggy conditions the layers below are not warmed and dispersal is thereby delayed. The larger particles generally fall to the ground quite near to their source of origin, but the smaller may be carried many miles; London’s smoke has been observed over Northern France and that from the North and Midlands over the Isle of Man, and further off still over Ireland.

Visible smoke, however, is much less than half the problem. Invisible gases, of which the oxides of sulphur are the most important, account for twice the weight in tons of pollutant that smoke does. Under dry conditions these gases are moderately well diffused in the air, but during fog they become dissolved in the droplets of moisture of which fog is made up and also adsorbed on to the surface of the soot particles. These droplets and particles are inspired into the lungs, where they are immensely irritant to the lining of the bronchial tubes. What in effect is being breathed is dilute sulphuric acid. There may be other irritants, but present consensus of opinion inculpates the sulphur content of polluted air as the factor chiefly responsible for respiratory illness and deaths during smog. The total sulphuric acid content of the 1952 smog has been estimated at 800 tons.

Under cold conditions the effect on the lungs is considerably enhanced because cold damps down the activity of the cilia in the bronchial tubes. These tiny hairs are the sweepers of the bronchial airways and are amongst the first of the lung tissues to be affected in bronchitis. A cold smog is therefore much more dangerous than a warm one; in December, 1952, the temperature was in the neighbourhood of freezing point most of the time.

The domestic chimney has been widely blamed as the main source of air pollution, because of its inefficient burning of coal, the low level at which most of the smoke is discharged and the large number of houses in the country. It does produce a relatively large proportion of smoke, nearly half the total according to the Beaver Report, but it accounts for under one-fifth of the sulphur discharge. Power stations alone produce more sulphur than all the domestic users, and railways nearly half as much. The threat from power stations is increasing as more and more are being erected in built-up areas—already there are twenty in London area with others in course of construction. Such stations use enormous quantities of coal—one plant consumes 3,000,000 tons a year and only a few are equipped for the washing of sulphur dixoide from the flue gases. The worst effects of air pollution are apparent in their immediate vicinity. Unfortunately, even 90 per cent, extraction of the sulphur content affords no relief to those near at hand, as washing cools the gases and the water droplets containing the remaining 10 per cent, fall more rapidly and still in concentration upon the nearby dwellings.

Industrial users, as apart from power stations, gas works and railways produce twice as much sulphur as the domestic grate; much of it descends on nearby territory and in areas where industry is concentrated the effects are profound. Warrington, for instance, has a death rate—from bronchitis—which is the highest in the country (321), Salford (319), and Oldham (302), are little better. In Hastings the rate is 51, and in Coventry, where industry is mostly modern, it is 80. The black areas in the industrial North and in the Midlands are probably the ugliest in the world; in no other country is such a dreary picture of grime and misery to be discovered; the Ruhr has nothing like it, and Pittsburgh, which had, has done away with it.

Nearly all the grit and dust come from industrial plant and in some districts are sources of much annoyance and some danger to the inhabitants. Mechanical arresters, electrostatic precipitators and fabric filters are required to cope with this problem.

Railway engines are responsible for over one-seventh of the smoke discharged into the atmosphere; most of this is produced in yard where locomotives are fired or by shunting engines. At Chalk Farm, near St. Pancras rail terminus, where scores of locomotives are stocked-up daily—each taking several hours—the effect of the polluted air on the neighbouring district has elicitated strong and sustained protest from the inhabitants who are no longer apathetic but indignant and determined to see the nuisance ended.

Other sources of air pollution include colliery spoilbanks (the fumes from one burning pit-heap had concentrations of 200 parts per million hydrogen sulphide and 300 parts per million sulphur dioxide), particular industries such as the production of cement, soap, paint, and motor vehicle exhausts. The last-mentioned constitute an increasing problem in large cities where traffic blocks are common and add somewhat, though not greatly, to the sulphur content of the atmosphere; they also produce considerable quantities of carbon monoxide, a dangerous gas in concentrated form—this, however, disperses quickly except in enclosed streets where there is little movement of air.

Air Pollution in Other Countries

Comparable incidents to the smog of 1952 have occurred, though on a considerably smaller scale, in two countries; in December, 1930, in the narrow industrial valley of the Meuse, in Belgium, sixty people died, and a commission of enquiry concluded that sulphur dioxide and sulphuric acid were present in the fog in sufficient quantity to have caused the disaster; and in Donora, Pennsylvania, again an industrial valley town where, in 1948, the death roll was eighteen, and “sulphur dioxide and its oxidation products, together with particulate matter”, were considered to be significant contaminants. The magnitude of the London disaster assumes new proportion in the light of the figures relating to these incidents, which caused a sensation at the time. In America, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh have been the areas chiefly affected. The former is particularly liable to temperature inversions and, because of its oil installations, irritant substances other than sulphur oxides are present; certain hydrocarbons, including petroleum vapours, have been found capable of oxidation in air, of forming compounds which produce the same eye, nose and throat irritation associated with the city’s smog. Pittsburgh, the centre of an enormous industrial belt, was described by Anthony Trollope, writing just after the American Civil War, as “without exception, the blackest place I ever saw”. Only ten years ago, yellow, dirty smogs would persist for several days and lights in many buildings burned continuously. As a result of a combined effort on the part of the citizens, however, hours of “heavy smoke” declined from 298, in 1946, to 21, in 1952, by which year the Superintendent Smoke Inspector was able to report that “there have been no smogs for several years past”. Although the city has ten official smoke inspectors it is claimed that public con­sciousness is such that “every citizen is a smoke inspector”. A United Smoke Council, described as a “strong civic body” has for several years been arranging talks to gatherings in all parts of the city, making radio addresses, writing news articles and publishing propa­ganda posters. The saving due to reduction of pollution is estimated at $27,000,000 per annum or $41 per head of population. It is stated that “the general demand of the citizens has reacted to make industry more and more co-operative”. A summary of legislation in Pittsburgh will be found on the inside front cover.

The Clean Air Bill

On Thursday, 3rd November, 1955, one year after the publication of the Beaver Report, the Government’s Clean Air Bill was read a second time. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, introducing the measure, said, “We think the Bill represents a big step forward in combating the scourge of air pollution, the evils of which are by now widely known. It outlines a series of practical steps which we believe will make, within a short term of five years our towns and cities cleaner and healthier places in which to live”.

In the subsequent debate, Dr. Edith Summerskill (Warrington), quoted the Superintendent Smoke Inspector of Sheffield: “If the Bill were accepted as it stood, the offspring would be still-born—strangled by timidity; denied the breath of life by ineptitude”. Ineptitude was shown in the use of the word “practicable”, which was used no less then twelve times in the first thirteen pages of the Bill (and these were the pages that mattered) with varying grades of qualification. As defined in Section 28 it was “fatal to the purpose of the Act”. Where maximum strength was required there was maximum weakness. In conclusion Dr. Summerskill said: “The Government are being too lenient with the industrialists. If they really felt strongly about the matter, if they felt passionately anxious to clear the air, they would not have produced this kind of Bill”.

Dr. Gerald Nabarro (Kidderminster) stated “there are many serious shortcomings to the Bill. It is ill-drafted. It is much too leisurely, it has wide escape routes and—I speak as a Tory, as an employer and a member of the Federation of British Industries—the hand of the Federation of British Industries is writ large between the lines. I ought to know. I presented a much tougher Bill than this to this House last February and members of the Federation of British Industries tried to dissuade me”.

Mr. R. E. Winterbottom (Sheffield, Brightside), who followed, said: “I suggest that air pollution by smoke, grit, fumes and filth is now unnecessary. It can be eliminated by the most modern forms of technology and machinery”. He quoted a report on industry in Sheffield by Mr. Sarjint, of Sheffield University, which stated: “The smoke problem is due to two main causes: (i) The use of old fashioned appliances and outmoded techniques, for which there may be no valid and scientific reason, and (ii) the lack of application of existing knowledge, either from lack of interest or ignorance”. Later, Mr. Winterbottom said that “industries do not generally replace machinery because doing so would be in the interests of the health of the community. Industrialists do not willingly and voluntarily judge replacement from the point of view of public well-being”. “The scheduled industries are now protected by law and take advantage of that, till all the efforts of the medical officer of health, the smoke abatement officer and Sheffield’s excellent health committee are rendered completely abortive”. “British Industry will never again rise to world industrial supremacy unless it is in advance of the rest of the world in mechanisation. It is not without significance that modern machines do not emit filth into the atmosphere. Public health is synonymous with modern mechanisation”. Sir Leslie Plummer (Deptford) quoted the Medical World: “Surely public health and industrial efficiency are complementary and not antagonistic”. Referring to a speech by another member he said: “It was a masterpiece of understatement to refer to the Bill as having some imperfections”.

Regarding the length of time before the provisions of the Bill become operative, Sir Leslie said: “Industry and the railways between them are responsible for something like seven-eighths of the grit and four-fifths of the sulphur that is produced. Under these conditions why are the Government so tender to industry? Why have they been so permissive to industry? Why are they saying that industry has seven years—it is seven years from the appointed day, which may mean eight or nine years. We do not know when the appointed day will be. We do not know how long the Bill will take to get through both Houses of Parliament. During all that time these people who are putting four-fifths of the four and a half million (sic) tons of sulphur into the air will be allowed to continue and to get away with it. Why should not the many factories making a profit out of the processes which cause the emission of this smoke charge against their profits whatever is necessary to ensure that smoke is not emitted. We cannot go on playing about with the lives of the people like this. We have to make industry safeguard the lives of the people and we must therefore insist that statutory powers are both given and used”.

Mr. Somerville Hastings, F.R.C.S. (Barking), in one telling sentence said: “The word sulphur is not mentioned in the Bill”.

In committee many amendments to the Bill were put forward, but it still has too many escape clauses which will enable industrial undertakings to evade responsibility with ease; it also removes certain powers from local authorities and thereby deprives local inhabitants of recourse to action; and it completely ignores pollution by sulphur derivatives. It will do something towards the elimination of solid matter from the air, but far too slowly, and it completely fails to look to the future in which modernisation of our out-of-date industry and the development of atomic energy must play a leading part.

The Act encourages the use of smokeless fuel, but although this substance produces little smoke, it emits almost as much sulphur as coal; oil contains rather more sulphur than coal so that the substitution of oil for coal in industrial installations and railway engines will not diminish air pollution by sulphur dioxides.

The Heart of the Matter

It has been said of the Beaver Report that it was primarily concerned with the interests of the employer; the Clean Air Act as presented by the Government, prepared with the advice of the Federation of British Industry, clearly affords such interests prior consideration. Its vision never rises above the narrow horizon imposed by costs; the menace to health and decent living of the 12,000,000 families who live in industrial areas is to be relieved only to the extent permitted by this limitation. It is indeed, as Jennie Lee said, a “little mouse of a Bill”.

The word “practicable” so freely used in essential clauses gives the key; section 34 defines it as “reasonably practicable having regard amongst other things to the financial implications . . . “. Dr. Barnet Stross, in the debate, pointed out: “There is a very serious principle involved in this. We think it foolish at this stage in our civilization, in the environment we have created for ourselves by our industry and our mode of living, to say that costs and financial consequences must limit what is practicable when it is a matter of saving life and health. It really is short-sighted, it is out of time”.

Air pollution is enormous and its elimination must involve considerable initial financial outlay; so did clean water, which was achieved in the nineteenth century. But the continuing annual cost in financial terms is £300,000,000. The loss of health and of the beautiful cannot be reckoned in money—these are the treasures of life itself and we lose immeasurably when they are debased; raising the standard of living includes, amongst other things, restoring our environment to wholesomeness and decency. “Where there’s muck there’s brass”, is a phrase from a coarse currency we should no longer stoop to employ; in the context of a modern civilisation it is—or should be—defunct. Air pollution, too, is an anachronism, only too apparent to visitors from overseas; that it persists to the extent it does in this country today is a blatant publication of our shame.

Clean Air — Longer Life

Clean air means longer life, more enjoyment and greater happiness for the majority of our citizens—things worth having, things worth fighting to win—the things at stake. There are barriers in the way; the terms of the Clean Air Bill serve clear notice that the present Government is not prepared to compel an out-of-date industry to cease befouling the air although the cost of avoiding such pollution is a rightful charge against the profits of every undertaking in the country. This policy, even from the aspect of private gain, is short-sighted to the point of being ludicrous; as other countries have recognised, air pollution is a sign of grossly wasteful production. But the Government’s ignorance is matched by our apathy, their lack of vision by our want of determination; meantime, the chimneys belch, flowers wither and men die. Here is work to be done—strenuous, difficult, but visibly rewarding—a task calling for collaboration between poli­ticians, specialists and ordinary citizens, and with aims all can under­stand—clean air, healthy lungs and a longer, fuller life.

Matters to Raise

Methods of stoking—are there mechanical stokers fully trained?

Are there efficient means of measuring smoke pollution (including sulphur) in your area?

Have other protests been made?

Are sufficient hospital beds available for the treatment of patients with chronic bronchitis?

Urge wherever possible —

1.research regarding means of eliminating sulphur, especially in regard to power stations.

2.electrification of railways.

3.more rapid development and application of atomic energy.

What to Do

Where there is visible pollution — protest — write to your local council, to the medical officers of health, to your MP., to the press. point it out to others, discuss it with your friends, inform people of the dangers and call protest meetings.

Call on the SMA branches and HQ. for co­operation and for speakers and technical assistance.

Raise the matter in trade union branches and at local meetings, arrange public debates.

Organised protest will bring results.

Published by The Socialist Medical Association and printed for Today and Tomorrow Publications, Ltd. by Dimbleby & Sons, Ltd. (T.U.), 14 King Street, Richmond, Surrey