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July 18, 1876: Royal Commissioners Wrinkle Their Noses

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July 18, 1876: Royal Commissioners Wrinkle Their Noses
1876: The British government appoints a Royal Commission on Noxious Vapours to look into the growing problem of industrial air pollution. Its report two years later would bring better regulation but warn of impeding economic growth.
England had been trying to do something about air quality for centuries. King Edward I in 1306 prohibited burning sea coal in London, because of all the smoke it caused. By act of Parliament, anyone who sold and burned the outlawed coal could be punished by torture or hanging. Richard II and Henry V issued further regulations and restrictions in the following centuries.
The Industrial Revolution worsened things, with factories putting out a toxic soup of new pollutants. The 1853 Smoke Nuisance Abatement (Metropolis) Act provided for an inspector to work with the metropolitan police to reduce "nuisance from the smoke of furnaces in the Metropolis and from steam vessels above London Bridge." A similar act four years later applied to Scotland.
A new process for manufacturing alkali (sodium carbonate, used in manufacturing glass and other products) was releasing huge volumes of the byproduct hydrochloric acid into the air. That led to a deluge of lawsuits and a loud public outcry. This resulted in passage of the Alkali Act in 1863. It required a minimum 95 percent capture of the acid and set dilution standards for what was emitted: 0.2 grains of HCl per cubic foot.
Chief inspector Robert Smith and four assistant inspectors worked with manufacturers to show them how to transform what would be pollution into marketable byproducts. The Alkali Act was extended and amended in 1874 to require manufacturers to use the "best practicable means" of controlling the acid vapors.
Still, things were so bad by 1876 that the Conservative government of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli appointed the Royal Commission on Noxious Vapours. The commissioners visited industrial areas around England, inspecting "alkali works, cement works, chemical manure works, coke ovens, copper works of all descriptions, glass, lead and metal works, potteries and salt works."
The commission asked 14,000 questions of 196 witnesses, including "manufacturers, landowners, farmers, clergymen, occupiers of houses, lands and gardens, land-agents, scientific witnesses, medical persons, local officers" and the Alkali Act inspectors.
Witnesses complained of damage to trees, crops, vegetation and human health. They said the noxious industrial gases were carried far and wide by the wind and caused coughing, difficulty breathing and nausea. The alkali manufacturers gave the commission a statement rebutting the allegations.
The commission made 10 recommendations in August 1878. New legislation increased the frequency of inspections and made the inspectors' reports public records. The commission concluded (.pdf) that "it is not a question of a few manufactories, but of industries all over the country, which in relation to man are causing pollution of the air in degrees sufficient to make them common-law nuisances." So, the Alkali Acts were extended to include the production of sulfuric acid, chemical fertilizer works and coke ovens.
But witnesses who argued that noxious vapors were inevitable if the nation was to prosper had their effect. The commission noted that regulation was only practical if it did not involve "ruinous expenditure." And courts remained reluctant to shut down polluters if the result would destroy the industry of a town.
London suffered a killer smog in December 1952 that killed as many as 12,000 people. Britain passed its Clean Air Act in 1956. The United States passed a weak Clean Air Act in 1963 and strengthened it in 1970.
Source: Various


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