Pollution Lessons from History

News about pollution has lately been dominated by reporting on China’s increasingly toxic air, water and land.  All this attention is crucial because it is the catalyst to change. We don’t know when or where, but change is bound to happen if we look at the history of industrialization. After all, what China is going through now has more or less already happened in the U.S. and Europe. Here are examples of a few pollution disasters that led to change:

  • In 1936, the Cuyahoga river in Cleveland, Ohio became so polluted that the water erupted into flames. Over the next 30 years, the river caught fire several more times until 1969, when a major fire prompted an outcry and action.
  • In 1948, about 40 people were killed and more than 7,000 became seriously ill as the result of a lethal haze over Donora, Pennsylvania. This led to the first federal attempt to control air pollution.
  • In 1952, what’s now known as the Great smog engulfed London, reportedly killing approximately 12,000 people.

Today, the problem of life-threatening pollution has been solved for the most part in U.S. and Europe.  While pollution still exists to some extent, it is nowhere near the levels they were at a century ago, and most of the worst contamination has been cleaned up.  As a result, none of the hotspots on Blacksmith’s list of world’s worst polluted places are in the U.S. or Europe.

The lesson that history is teaching us is that there is a solution to the pollution problem.  All we need is:

  1. attention to focus the forces of change
  2. resources to conduct cleanup
  3. Education, incentives and regulations to stop current pollution and prevent future contamination

The lessons and solutions learned from pollution prevention work in the U.S. and Europe can be applied to the rest of the world. The template for change already exists.  All we need to do is to make it accessible and provide support for change.  One way we are working to make this happen is through the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP). By coming together and sharing resources, we can make sure that in this instance, history will repeat itself.

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