In early April 2020, the residents of the northern Indian city Punjab were able to see the Himalayas for the first time in three decades.
The coronavirus lockdown had begun on 22 March 2020. The resulting rapid drop in air pollution unmasked the peaks, which are about 100 miles away from Punjab.
The Central Pollution Control Board noted that air quality in cities across India began “showing improvements from the first day of the 21-day lockdown.” The average Air Quality Index (AQI) fell from 115 during mid-March “to 75 in the first three days of the lockdown.”
It would drop below 50 by late April.
Snow capped peaks of Himalaya are now visible from Saharnpur !
Lockdown and intermittent rains have significantly improved the AQI. These pictures were taken by Dushyant, an Income Tax inspector, from his house at Vasant Vihar colony on Monday evening. #lockdowneffect #nature pic.twitter.com/1vFfJqr05J
— Ramesh Pandey (@rameshpandeyifs) April 29, 2020
Not a modern problem
Writers from Ancient Greece and Rome documented air pollution, according to A chronology of global air quality. The Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote of the problem of smoke after having taken a “health break from Rome.”
As soon as I escaped from the oppressive atmosphere of the city, and from that awful odour of reeking kitchens which, when in use, pour forth a ruinous mess of steam and soot, I perceived at once that my health was mending…
In England, the 1273 Smoke Abatement Act banned the use of coal due to its being ‘prejudicial to health’.
The Industrial Revolution led to “rapid growth in coal combustion.” Industrial emissions came primarily from factory chimneys. Domestic emissions grew with the urban population; coal fueled both food and heat.
London began regulating some industries under the Smoke Nuisance Abatement (Metropolis) Act of 1853.
Rather oddly, a lot of the discussion about this Act focused not on the health risks of smoke, but on the expense of laundry caused by the dirty air of London (estimated as high as £2 million) – as one member of the House of Lords suggested: “The smoke so affected the clothing of the working classes that it was computed every mechanic paid at least five times the amount of the original cost of his shirt for the number of washings rendered necessary.”
On 18 July 1876, the British government established a Royal Commission on Noxious Vapours to investigate and suggest remedies to air pollution.
From August 1876 to November 1877, Commissioners interviewed 196 witnesses, including clergymen, farmers, landowners, manufacturers, medical persons and scientific witnesses. In its 1878 report, Commissioners described the scope of the problem:
“…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.”
English common law had been the first tool used to “combat instances of polluting activity in England.”
As early as 1610, William Aldred’s case, as it is known, saw the courts intervene against one Thomas Benton for building a pigsty ‘so near the house of the plaintiff that the air therof was corrupted’. The court found that light and clean air were considered necessary for wholesome habitation. In discussing the issues raised, the court drew a distinction between ‘trifling inconveniences’ that made life inconvenient or uncomfortable—when location could be a legitimate consideration in making such a finding—and material damage to property that diminished its value when location was largely irrelevant.
As far as a solution, however, the Commission was stumped. In a contest between air pollution and economic growth, the fear of economic loss from regulated pollution remained the path forward.
[W]e’re talking about 300 years of smog like this… They lasted two or three days, usually two, and then they’d be blown away by a wind and all the pollution would float to the atmosphere. That’s just not what happened [in 1952]. It stayed around for five days.
There were people who died in their bed, died in the hospital rooms, and because there were no central computerized systems for the hospitals, there was no data that connected all of the deaths. It was anecdotal evidence. But even the doctors in the hospital said, “You know, we just thought we had a really rough few days.” It didn’t occur to people that this happened across the city. The media didn’t connect it.
In 1956, 70 years after its first national investigation of air pollution, Parliament passed The Clean Air Act of 1956. The Act “regulated domestic fireplaces as well as industrial furnaces, and created smoke control areas where only smokeless fuels could be burnt.”
In the United States, common law nuisance litigation settled early cases of pollution. By the late 18th century, government agencies began broad regulation.
As air pollution control began to move away from reliance on this theory of nuisance, it became apparent that the prevention of air pollution was at least as important, if not more important, than abatement after the fact; that, under appropriate legislation, preventative action was possible.
As in Britain, regulation began at the city level. Chicago passed the first municipal smoke abatement ordinance in 1881.
State legislation regulated smoke in Boston, MA and Providence, RI between 1910 and 1912. The first “comprehensive” state legislation pass in 1952, in Oregon. It was followed by the first federal air pollution law in 1955, a year before Britain.
Short-term exposure to air pollutants is closely related to COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), cough, shortness of breath, wheezing, asthma, respiratory disease, and high rates of hospitalization (a measurement of morbidity).
The long-term effects associated with air pollution are chronic asthma, pulmonary insufficiency, cardiovascular diseases, and cardiovascular mortality. According to a Swedish cohort study, diabetes seems to be induced after long-term air pollution exposure. Moreover, air pollution seems to have various malign health effects in early human life, such as respiratory, cardiovascular, mental, and perinatal disorders, leading to infant mortality or chronic disease in adult age.
Yet, as residents of most of the world discovered during the coronavirus pandemic, governments have continued to privilege economic growth over air quality. Analysis of air quality data showed lockdown improvements in 4-out-of-5 countries.
Humans are not the only life on the short end of this regulatory stick: “the moment we paused, Earth was able to breathe again.”