The health hazards of atmospheric pollution have turn out to be a significant concern in Britain and all over the world. Much less is thought about its effects up to now. But economic historians have give you latest ways of shedding light on this murky subject.

In the early industrial age, Britain was famous for its dark satanic mills. And the economic revolution, which did a lot to lift income and wealth, depended almost entirely on one fuel source: coal. Coal supplied domestic hearths and coal-powered steam engines turned the wheels of industry and transport.

In Britain, emissions of black smoke were as much as 50 times higher within the a long time before the clean air acts than they’re today. The great London smog of 1952, that prompted policymakers to act, killed 4,000 within the space of per week. But even that was not as dramatic as what went before.

Unregulated coal burning darkened the skies in Britain’s industrial cities, and it was plain for all to see. But air quality was not measured and monitored until well into the twentieth century. And while soot blackened buildings and clothing, the consequences of toxic air on health weren’t assessed, until recently.

In the absence of information on emissions, economic historians have give you a novel way of measuring its effects. They combined coal consumption by industry with the economic composition of the workforce to estimate annual coal use in each district. Not surprisingly, coal intensity was highest within the Midlands the north of England and in South Wales, and so that is where we must always expect to see the worst effects on health.

Coal intensity in England and Wales, 1901.
Bailey et al. 2016, Author provided

Coal intensity linked to early death

As early because the 1850s, higher coal intensity was related to higher death rates from respiratory diseases, especially among the many old and the very young. An increase of just 1% in coal intensity raised the deaths of infants by one in every 100 births. Indeed, the effect of pollution in India and China today is comparable with that in Britain’s industrial cities within the late nineteenth century.

Geography mattered. Those positioned downwind from a coal intensive district suffered from their neighbour’s pollution. And communities in valleys surrounded by hills suffered more deaths as their very own smoke emissions became trapped and concentrated.

Coal combustion also affected the health of people who survived. It led to repeated respiratory illness, slower growth during childhood and shorter adult stature. Although much of the variation in individual height is genetic, we are able to nevertheless compare the adult heights of those that grew up in kind of polluted districts.

The effect of atmospheric pollution may be measured by men who were born within the Eighteen Nineties whose heights were recorded after they enlisted within the British army during World War I. Their average height was five feet six inches (168cm), but 10% were shorter than five feet three (160cm).

Those who grew up in probably the most polluted districts were almost an inch shorter than those that experienced the cleanest air, even after allowing for a spread of household and native characteristics. This is twice as much because the difference in adult height between the youngsters of white-collar and manual employees.

The average height of men increased by about three inches (7.6cm) over the twentieth century. Increases in height have been related to gains in life expectancy, education, ability and productivity. Improved air quality could have helped almost as much as higher hygiene or improved weight-reduction plan.

Recent scientific reports have warned that we face increasing pollution from a spread of sources, especially vehicle emissions. Failure to keep up and further improve air quality risks jeopardising the improvements in health which have been achieved by technological advances and public policies during the last century.

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