History of Air Pollution and Protection

Air pollution has existed as a health and environmental concern for centuries. Ignited by industrial revolutions across the globe and the use of unclean energy sources (coal, gas, diesel), air contamination has grown as a longstanding problem with numerous negative consequences. 

Various complications arise from air pollution. Air pollution creates a myriad of health and environmental problems, contributes to climate warming, and significantly decreases the quality of life for those affected. But where did problematic air pollution really begin? And, more importantly, what methods do we use today to help protect the environment and public health against air contamination? The history and protection of our climate is extensive. In this article, we’ll focus on several key events which shaped modern clean air conservation. 

Read on to learn about the history of air pollution and protection, or scroll down to see the highlights in our timeline.

Table of Contents

    Brief History of Significant Air Pollution Events

    The primary causes of human-made air pollution are industrial in nature. The burning of materials create excessive clouds and smog which, over time, saturate the air with dangerous compounds like sulfur dioxide. Coal burning, for example, is one of the oldest examples of severe air pollution. In fact, severe air contamination caused by coal burning is traceable as far back as 1306, when regulations were created that sought to control intense coal burning in parts of London. 

    Some of the most significant examples of air pollution, however, begin in the 1900s with the acceleration of the Industrial Revolution. The combination of weather factors and heavy reliance on burning polluting material (again, coal) created hazardous conditions detrimental to the health of living beings.

    1948: Donora, PA Smog Incident

    In October 1948, Donora fell victim to a smog incident which killed 20 and hospitalized 600 others. The small Pennsylvania town of 14,000 people was a haven for steel mills which produced an abundance of heavy contaminants like zinc, carbon monoxide, and sulphuric acid. At the time, no regulatory standards were in place for the small town.

    During the smog incident, weather conditions trapped the air pollutants and created a thick atmosphere of poisonous fog. Elderly people and those with existing respiratory conditions died because of the contamination, and the clouds only dispersed after rainfall.

    1952: The Great Smog

    Infamous examples of disastrous air pollution are found throughout history, though many recognize events like the Great Smog as one of the worst. This event highlights the dangers created by mass air pollution events and the severe consequences it had on the general public’s health.

    The Great Smog started during the December winter season. A combination of industrial businesses, smoke stacks, and furnaces were used to combat the cold snap, overloading the air with dangerous particles. The soot and materials combined to form poisonous clouds of thick smoke, engulfing parts of London in a dangerous fog. Other contaminants, like diesel smoke, also added a layer of pollution.

    Weather inversion, where warm air trapped the cold, dangerous fog, created a “pea soup” of breathable poison. There was no wind to sweep away the smog and thus nowhere for it to disperse. City dwellers were exposed to an acidic vapor lasting for five days.

    More than a visual nuisance, the Great Smog quickly grew lethal. Children, eldelry, and those with respiratory conditions were the most vulnerable. Bronchitis, pneumonia, and critical lung conditions resulted in 4,000 fog related deaths, even after the pollution dissipated. 

    The resulting deaths and concerns spurred the Clean Air Act of 1956, transitioning homes away from coal heating. But the damage was done, and an event like the Great Smog punctuated how deadly air pollution was (and still is).

    air pollution in Windes - history of air pollution
    Air pollution in Windes, England in the late 1800s, as a result of industrial growth.
    Source: Hardie, D. W. F., A History of the Chemical Industry in Widnes, Imperial Chemical Industries Limited, 1950. Available online.

    1953: New York Air Pollution

    Almost a year later, in November 1953, a similar event in the United States occurred. While not as severe as the Great Smog, the ingredients for disaster were still there. Excessive air contamination from burning industrial materials created toxic conditions, resulting in the daily deaths of an average of 30 people in New York. Factory furnaces and filth created an atmosphere of deadly sulfur dioxide, lead, and carbon monoxide. 

    Once again, excessive pollution created deadly conditions in addition to long term respiratory problems and impact on wildlife. 

    Over the next several decades, the Environmental Protection Agency and other regulatory bodies have stepped in to monitor industrial and regulate air pollution. 

    NYC Air pollution - history of air pollution and protection
    New York City air pollution in 1973 vs. 2013, after the passage of the Clean Air Act.
    Source: EPA Then and Now Challenge

    Protective Measures for Air Pollution

    Today, while air contamination has been reduced, it still poses a serious health risk. The regulatory measures taken to control and reduce pollution are defined by a federal agency. For example, in the United States, the EPA handles environmental conservation policies, air pollution included. 

    The EPA was originally founded in December 1970 by President Nixon, and has since worked to reduce any and all forms of environmental pollutants. During the 70s and beyond, an increase in regulatory measures were taken in response to deteriorating conditions related to the environment and air quality.

    For air pollution, the EPA establishes a criteria to both identify serious air contamination and ways to reduce it. The EPA has created a combination of policies, set in place by the Clean Air Act. The Clean Air Act dictates the EPA set standards for air pollution, also known as the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. 

    The standards have a basis of six pollution criteria: particulate matter, lead, ozone, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide. 

    In the United States specifically, there have been other regulatory bodies introduced over the course of air pollution events. 

    • Cincinnati introduces clean air laws in 1881
    • LA creates Air Pollution Control District in 1947
    • 1968 sees the creation of the Clean Air Act
    • In 1978, the EPA sets standards for lead and lead pollution
    • While the Trump administration withdraws the US from the Paris Agreement, the US rejoins in 2021

    See our timeline below for more important years in the history of air pollution and air pollution protection.

    Key Takeaways

    Air pollution events have been occurring for centuries. Here are the main takeaways about air pollution and protection of clean air:

    • Contaminants from industrial pollutants caused by manufacturing are critical suppliers of air pollution.
    • Weather can contribute to the lethality of air pollution, as temperature changes trap the dangerous fog in the affected area.
    • Controlling and protecting against air pollution requires regulatory standards on the allowable “safe” amount of contaminants caused by manufacturing, with an emphasis on moving towards cleaner standards and energy sources.

    Unfortunately, while standards have improved, air pollution is still a serious global concern.


    chicago air pollution - history of air pollution and protection

    Cincinnati & Chicago Introduce Clean Air Laws

    As a result of pollution caused by the industrial revolution, the cities of Cincinnati and Chicago passed clean air laws.


    map donora - history of air pollution and protection

    Donora, PA Smog Incident

    In October 1948, Donora fell victim to a smog incident in which weather conditions trapped the air pollutants and created a thick atmosphere of poisonous fog., killing 20 people.


    london smog - history of air pollution and protection

    The Great Smog of London

    In London, in December 1952, increased pollution from industrial businesses contributed to a large smoke, that killed 4000 people.


    lethal smog in NYC - history of pollution

    New York’s Deadly Air Pollution

     Excessive air contamination from burning industrial materials created toxic conditions, resulting in the daily deaths of an average of 30 people in New York.


    air pollution control act - history of air pollution protection

    Air Pollution Control Act of 1955 Passed

    In response to health concerns caused by smog, this law provided funding for research into pollution, although it didn’t actually prevent pollution.


    signing clean air act - air pollution history

    Clean Air Act of 1963 passed

    This U.S. Federal law granted money to state and local governments to create programs to prevent air pollution. It also spurred the creation of car emissions standards.


    earth day protesters 1970 - air pollution protection

    Clean Air Act of 1970 Passed

    This amendment to earlier laws resulted in an entirely new Clean Air Act. The Act set standards for hazardous emissions and vehicle emissions.


    Chicago Image – Encyclopedia of Chicago

    Donora Image – Wikipedia

    London Image – History.com

    New York ImageNew York Times

    Air Pollution Newspaper Image – Library of Congress

    Johnson Signing Clean Air Act Image – autonews.com

    Clean Air Act 1970 Protesters Image – Doug Draper, greengroundswell.com