Air pollution is not a modern problem – scientists have been aware of its impact since the seventeenth century. Thick, black smoke and infamous pea-soupers were once a mainstay of city life but the pollution we are subject to now, though a lot less visible, is even more harmful.
Whilst cities like London and LA have put the horrific pollution of the mid-late twentieth century behind them, across China, India, and East Asia cities are now contending with all-time high levels. In 2016 95% of all humanity breathed air that did not meet World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines. Particle and ozone pollution caused 4.5 million premature deaths in 2015 alone.
The Invisible Killer: The Rising Global Threat of Air Pollution – and How We Can Fight Back is our book of the month for November. This is a title that has been much-needed for a long time. A new and groundbreaking work by Gary Fuller, air pollution scientist at King’s College London, asks why we still do not understand air pollution and why have we allowed the crisis to go so far?
Fuller’s research at King’s College focuses on major sources of urban air pollution. Looking at WHO’s list of the world’s most polluted cities we see largely East Asian cities in the top 50, with all but 1 city from the top 10 in India. However several large cities – Vancouver and Stockholm especially – come very low down, proving that extreme air pollution is preventable.
Many of the most common sources of air pollution are obvious – traffic fumes, industry, fossil fuels and coal-burning – but some aren’t: agriculture, wood-burning, ozone, and… volcanoes!
Starting in medieval London and travelling through Paris, India, Mexico, New Zealand and LA, The Invisible Killer discovers the cost of air pollution on our health and the politics behind the agenda of its control.
At one time thought to be good for the health – a preservative against miasma (bad air from rotting organic matter) – coal smoke was believed to clear the air during the plague and its inhalation was prescribed for TB, along with creosote, tar, pitch, and naphtha. Victorian-era smog was perceived as a nuisance – people fell into the Thames, pickpockets and thieves roamed the streets, carriages and horse were lost in the fog – but not truly harmful. Today’s smog – as seen in Beijing and Delhi, caused by particle pollution – differs from that of the nineteenth century, which was caused by water droplets combining with soot and sulphur from coal-powered industry.
Fuller’s writing is shocking, hugely informative and eye-opening yet completely engaging and very intelligible. The first book of its kind on this subject, The Invisible Killer is packed with extraordinary stories of the people, towns and communities affected by air pollution, as well what has been done in the past and what needs to be done in the future to lessen and prevent pollution.
So what can we do? Well, start by reading this book! With infrastructure networks set to double over the next fifteen year, and the number of people living in towns and cities to double over the next forty, something has to change. The problem, as the title of this book makes clear, is that air pollution is not directly attributable for the number of early deaths it actually contributes to – “no one has air pollution listed on their death certificate, but there is over whelming evidence that air pollution is shortening our lives. It increases deaths and illnesses from everyday causes including respiratory problems, heart disease, strokes and many more.” Air is a precious resource that we cannot continue to abuse – it needs to be protected.
The Invisible Killer: The Rising Global Threat of Air Pollution – and How We Can Fight Back is published on 29 November by Melville House
(9781911545194, p/b, £12.99)