AUGUST 31, 2019
GARY FULLER’S NEW BOOK, The Invisible Killer: The Rising Global Threat of Air Pollution — and How We Can Fight Back, opens with a powerful dedication: “This book is for the 12,000 people whose lives were cut short by the London smog of 1952. They have no memorial.” Fuller makes the stakes starkly clear when it comes to the largely “invisible killer” that is modern-day air pollution: humans can live for about three weeks without food and three days without water — but only (generally) three minutes without air. And that air has not always been the same — pollution has significantly altered it over the centuries. Today, as Fuller explains, air pollution comes from many sources, such as traffic, industry, coal-burning, wood-burning, agriculture, and volcanoes. Moreover, there is huge diversity in its nature from place to place depending on the weather, where the air has been before, and how air is utilized as a waste disposal route depending on local controls.
Ninety percent of the world’s population is exposed to air pollution concentrations that exceed World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines. Moreover, the WHO argues that 4.2 million deaths every year are due to ambient, or outdoor, air pollution. And yet, in comparison to anthropogenic global warming for example, (which, by the way, still does not get enough attention either), air pollution has not generated the same level of attention or concern. But, as Fuller points out, air pollution is not an inevitable part of city life, and something can and should be done about it. He makes a number of recommendations, ranging from walking, cycling, or using public transport where possible, as well as contacting your political representatives, to more concrete measures, such as enshrining the “polluter pays” principle in law.
He takes the reader on a historical journey that begins in medieval London. It seems that even in the 17th century, people complained about smog. At the time, London had undergone an energy revolution, and the deforestation of the areas around the city led to shortages of wood fuel. The city therefore turned to charcoal-burning and then to coal, previously limited to blacksmiths and lime kilns. Coal eventually became the main fuel powering London in the 1600s, and the change in the air was patently obvious. In a 1661 letter to King Charles II and to Parliament, the diarist and gardener John Evelyn protested that the smoke in London was akin to the “face of Mount Etna,” “or even the very suburbs of hell” — a smoke so dense that apparently even the sun itself had trouble penetrating it. London’s air pollution, he opined, was harmful to birds, bees, and flowers, as well as affecting manmade physical structures, with the smoke eating away at the hardest stone “because of the caustic elements that accompany the sulphur.” Even then, writers like Evelyn knew of the damaging effects of such air pollution on the lungs. According to Evelyn’s interpretation of death records at the time, almost half of the people who died in London did so from “disorders of the throat or lungs.”
Nonetheless, in spite of this glaring evidence, the prevailing consensus, including among physicians, was that smoke was somehow good for individuals and even acted as protection against infection. Centuries later, this misperception still held sway. In 1859, a House of Commons Committee investigation concluded that the air of large towns had no ill effects on the lungs when compared to the air supplied by nature.
According to Fuller, it was not until the London smog of 1952 — which claimed thousands of lives — that air pollution was finally recognized as unequivocally harmful, albeit with two caveats: first, that air pollution is only harmful when it is severe, and so controlling smog events would suffice to control the health risks; and second, that air pollution is a localized concern, rather than having wider, long-term impacts that cannot be restricted geographically or temporally.
In one of the most interesting chapters, Fuller traces the origin of the gasoline additive tetraethyl lead (TEL). In the early 20th century, the neurotoxic properties of lead were already well known. In fact, as far back as the first century AD, a Roman physician had noted that “lead makes the mind give way.” Fuller exposes the TEL story as inherently about profit and greed trumping concerns about human and environmental health. As Fuller recounts, Thomas Midgley, the American chemist behind TEL, came up with 143 fuel additives, with the initial prime candidate being ethyl alcohol. However, since ethyl alcohol could easily be manufactured by anyone, it offered little competitive advantage. Midgley eventually settled on a lead compound, originally discovered in Germany, which could be patented as an additive and manufactured at considerable profit. With the toxic effects of lead being well known, Midgley had his work cut out for him when it came to convincing the US government that TEL was safe. An early decision was made to market the product as ethyl, erasing the word lead from any advertisements. Three of the United States’s largest companies — Standard Oil, DuPont, and General Motors — assembled to form the Ethyl Corporation. General Motors paid the United States Bureau of Mines to investigate the product under strict provisos, which included replacing the word lead by ethyl throughout the project. One scientist who dared question the independence of the study found that their long-standing contract was not renewed.
Despite mounting evidence of TEL’s environmental and health harms, it was not until 1999 that the United Kingdom banned lead in gasoline, 30 years after the phase-out began in the United States. And yet, even then, the search for profit via lead was not halted. As Fuller argues, after the UK, European, and US bans, the company Octel created new markets for lead gasoline additives in the developing world, generating new sales of $1.8 billion and profits of $600 million. In addition, in 2010, Octel was found guilty in UK courts of, among other things, bribing the head of the Indonesian state oil company and delaying a ban through the use of a slush fund whose purpose was to bribe government figures into blocking legislative moves to ban TEL.
In another chapter, the author shows how the issue of air pollution was affected by the international crisis arising from tensions between the Warsaw Pact and NATO countries in Cold War Europe. The USSR and Warsaw Pact countries became strong supporters of sulfur reduction, advocating for a 30 percent cut. They were the first to ratify protocols. Differing views exist as to the Russians’ motivations at the time — did they want to appeal to the public in Western Europe, or was their “sudden enthusiasm for sulfur controls” a ploy designed to divide Western allies? If it was the latter, then, as Fuller points out, it was highly effective. As he puts it, “The blame attached to the movement of air pollution between countries caused tensions between the United States and Canada, between the Scandinavians and the rest of Europe, and between the UK and everyone else.” Indeed, in an analysis carried out at the time, the United Kingdom was found to be Europe’s largest exporter of sulfuric air pollution as a result of industrial coal and oil-burning and westerly winds. This led to the United Kingdom being labeled as the “dirty man of Europe.”
Obviously, the consequences of air pollution are not suffered by all equally. For example, as Fuller notes, car ownership is mainly concentrated in wealthy suburbs, yet these areas experience the least air pollution. The worst air pollution occurs instead in city centers and alongside the busiest roads, where car ownership also happens to be lowest. On a global scale, the world’s poorest endure the greatest air pollution burden, and those with the least access to food suffer the worst damage to their crops. Air pollution, much like anthropogenic global warming, is a problem whose effects are disproportionately shouldered by the Global South. And by women in the Global South in particular, as well as by the elderly and children. For example, in the chapter on wood-burning in the home, Fuller notes that not only does household wood-burning (or the burning of straw, dung, or other biomass) have a much greater impact in the developing world, but it also has a greater impact still on women insofar as they do the majority of the cooking.
Full of interesting and disturbing tidbits of this sort, the book nonetheless suffers from its tendency toward oversimplification — by not, for example, undertaking in-depth political, economic, or gendered critiques. In the author’s defense, it could be argued that the duty of such a book is accessibility (something Fuller himself makes clear). It must perforce reach as wide an audience as possible to make a difference. And yet, Fuller’s tendency to oversimplification means that he underestimates the intelligence of many of his likely readers, and his book ends up reading as somewhat superficial. Of course, this does not change the fact that spotlighting this topic is incredibly important — it remains inadequately addressed in political debates, and, as Fuller rightly argues, is sorely lacking the leadership and vision it needs on local, national, and international levels.
Linda Roland Danil completed her PhD in the School of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Leeds, in 2015. She has since published articles and book reviews in journals such as Law and Critique; Law, Culture and the Humanities; Critical Studies on Security; Legal Studies; and the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences. She has also guest-edited a special issue for the journal Critical Studies on Security and co-edited a special issue for the Australian Feminist Law Journal.