Air Pollution and Fossil Fuel Damage in Pictures and Stories

Air Pollution in New York in the 1950s from LIFE magazine

Some people do not trust or cannot absorb the horrific numbers that describe the scale of the damage and deaths from air pollution.

The direct benefits (mostly from fewer air pollution deaths and disease) from the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments are estimated to reach almost $2 trillion for the year 2020, a figure that dwarfs the direct costs of implementation ($65 billion).

Globally air pollution deaths still cause 3 million deaths each year which is comparable to the annual combat deaths of World War (each year 3 to 3.5 million people were killed in combat for each of the 7 years of World War 2.

People do not know the history of air pollution incidents

Severe episodes of smog continued in the 19th and 20th centuries and were nicknamed “pea-soupers”. The Great Smog of 1952 darkened the streets of London and killed approximately 4,000 people in the short time of 4 days (a further 8,000 died from its effects in the following weeks and months). Initially a flu epidemic was blamed for the loss of life. In 1956 the Clean Air Act introduced smokeless zones in the capital. Consequently, reduced sulfur dioxide levels made the intense and persistent London smog a thing of the past. It was after this the great clean-up of London began and buildings recovered their original stone façades which, during two centuries, had gradually blackened. Smog caused by traffic pollution, however, does occur in modern London.

But those numbers and descriptions do not convey the story as well as what is told by survivors of the Great London Fog National Public Radio covered the history of the Killer Fog

Cribb was then a mortician’s assistant, working for Tom Cribb, his elderly uncle. On Friday Dec. 5, they were driving to a wake, with a line of cars full of mourners close behind. Neither man knew a catastrophe was brewing. They didn’t know that a mass of stagnant air had just clamped a lid over London, trapping the smoke from millions of residential coal fires at ground level.

Cribb remembers being stunned by the blackness of the gathering fog. After a few minutes he couldn’t see the curb from his spot behind the wheel. After a few more minutes, Tom Cribb got out and started walking in front of the hearse, to keep his nephew on the road. He carried a powerful hurricane lantern in one hand, but it was useless.

“It’s like you were blind,” says Cribb.

Everyone in London walked blind for the next four days

By Sunday, Dec. 7, visibility fell to one foot. Roads were littered with abandoned cars. Cattle in the city’s Smithfield market were killed and thrown away before they could be slaughtered and sold — their lungs were black. On the second day of the smog, Saturday, Dec. 6, 500 people died in London. When the ambulances stopped running, thousands of gasping Londoners walked through the smog to the city’s hospitals. The lips of the dying were blue. Heavy smoking and chronic exposure to pollution had already weakened the lungs of those who fell ill during the smog. Particulates and acids in the killer brew finished the job by triggering massive inflammations. In essence, the dead had suffocated.

Maureen Scholes, a nurse at the Royal London Hospital in 1952, says the smog penetrated through clothes, blackening undergarments

Counting the increase in the dead from the fog was not hard. There was a massive jump. The correlation between people falling down dead was also pretty easy to work out

There would be air inversions that would trap the air pollution and cause mass deaths
* 1948, October 30–31, Donora, PA: 20 died, 600 hospitalized, thousands more stricken. Lawsuits were not settled until 1951.
* 1953, November, New York: Smog kills between 170 and 260 people.
* 1954, October, Los Angeles: heavy smog shuts down schools and industry for most of the month.
* 1963, New York: blamed for 200 deaths
* 1966, New York: blamed for 169 deaths

The air pollution was so obvious just like it is in Chinese cities now. When you are coughing up black, you know without a study – “well that cannot be good for me”.

So the EPA and the controls have got rid of the most visible and obvious aspects of air pollution, but air pollution still kills and causes damage.

As of 2000, there were more than 600 coal sludge impoundments across the Appalachian coalfields. Chemical analyses of this sludge indicate it contains large amounts of arsenic, mercury, lead, copper, and chromium, among other toxins, which eventually seep into the drinking water supply of nearby communities. Even worse than this seepage, however, is the threat of a dam break. Several dam breaches have occurred, one at Buffalo Creek in West Virginia, which took the lives of 125 people, many of whom were children.

Pretty obvious damage from Buffalo Creek when several thousand homes get destroyed.

The Buffalo Creek Flood (Feb, 1972): 125 dead, 1121 injured and 4000 homeless.
The 15- to 20-foot black wave of water gushed at an average of 7 feet per second and destroyed one town after another. A resident of Amherstdale commented that before the water reached her town, “There was such a cold stillness. There was no words, no dogs, no nothing. It felt like you could reach out and slice the stillness.” — quote from Everything in Its Path, by Kai T. Erikson

The 1300, two to four square mile sludge ponds that are left from coal processes like blowing up the mountain tops of about 7% of the Appalachian are also pretty obvious.

Arsenic and Flourine effects more obvious than some coal deaths and disease

So many toxins and pollution from coal that tens of thousands of tons/year of the poison arsenic are not even in the top five concerns about coal waste. Many thousands affected by arsenic poisoning and millions from volatized flourine and it ends up towards the bottom of the list of coal crimes.

Zheng et al. describe chronic arsenic poisoning, affecting several thousand people in Guizhou Province, PRC. Those affected exhibit typical symptoms of arsenic poisoning including hyperpigmentation (flushed appearance, freckles), hyperkeratosis
(scaly lesions on the skin, generally concentrated on the hands and feet), Bowen’s disease (dark, horny, precancerous lesions of the skin), and squamous cell carcinoma.

The health problems caused by fluorine volatilized during domestic coal use are far more extensive than those caused by arsenic. More than 10 million people in Guizhou Province and surrounding areas suffer from various forms of fluorosis, and coal combustion induced fluorosis has also been reported from 13 other provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities in China. Typical signs of fluorosis include mottling of tooth enamel (dental fluorosis) and various forms of skeletal fluorosis including osteosclerosis, limited movement of the joints, and outward manifestations such as knock-knees, bowlegs, and spinal curvature.

So crippling and disfiguring disease caused by the fact that a few tens of millions of tons of the burnable dirt (coal) has higher levels of flourine in it than the other 7 billion tons. However, the connection is more obvious and graphic than heart and lung disease.

The property damage from acid rain and air pollution is what causes the outside of buildings in areas with more air pollution to blacken and wear out faster than places with less air pollution.

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