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Pollution, Past and Present



Air pollution, Louisville, 1943

The history of pollution goes back a long time:

First it was wood fires in ancient homes, the effects of which have been found in the blackened lungs of mummified tissue from Egypt, Peru and Great Britain. And the Romans earn the dubious credit of being perhaps the first to spew metallic pollutants into the air, long before the Industrial Revolution.

“We saw the harmful effects of air pollution even in Roman times,” says Mark Z. Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program and author of the textbook Air Pollution and Global Warming: History, Science, and Solutions.

The residents of ancient Rome referred to their city’s smoke cloud as gravioris caeli (“heavy heaven”) and infamis aer (“infamous air”). Several complaints about its effects can be found in classical writings. “No sooner had I left behind the oppressive atmosphere of the city [Rome] and that reek of smoking cookers which pour out, along with clouds of ashes, all the poisonous fumes they’ve accumulated in their interiors whenever they’re started up, than I noticed the change in my condition,” wrote the philosopher and statesman Seneca in A.D. 61.

Roman courts considered civil claims over smoke pollution 2,000 years ago, notes Stephen Mosley, a lecturer at the School of Cultural Studies at Leeds Metropolitan University who has written extensively about the history of air pollution. The jurist Aristo declared, for example, that a cheese shop could not discharge smoke into the buildings above it.

The empire even tried a very early version of the Clean Air Act. In 535, then Emperor Justinian proclaimed the importance of clean air as a birthright. “By the law of nature these things are common to mankind—the air, running water, the sea,” he wrote.

Later, smelting to create lead and copper came along, fouling medieval air. Analyses of ice cores from the Arctic reveal that extraction and smelting on the Iberian Peninsula, England, Greece and elsewhere increased lead in the environment by a factor of ten.

Pollution is also with us today, often for the most nefarious and morally bankrupt reasons. Like in Flint:

But emergency managers, particularly the ones appointed by Governor Snyder (a Republican) have been far more focused on cuts for their own sake, particularly crushing unionized public sector workers. The idea to temporarily use Flint River water while another pipeline was being constructed was one of those cost-saving measures.

It was immediately obvious that the water was filthy, and residents loudly protested that it was cloudy, smelled bad, and tasted worse. General Motors stopped using the water because it was literally corroding their machinery. But Snyder and his handpicked head environmental official Dan Wyant studiously ignored the problem — despite internal warnings of lead poisoning as early as July of last year — until an outside scientific study demonstrated extreme levels of lead in Flint children. In late December — over a year after the water switch — Snyder finally apologized and Wyant quietly resigned.

Now Snyder has already been forced to pony up over $10 million to switch the Flint water system back to the way it was before (hooked up to Detroit, basically), and the city is asking for some $50 million more to replace lead pipes. But that’s very likely only the beginning. Flint’s population is roughly 100,000, and several families have already sued state and local officials over the lead issue. It’s unclear so far how badly the city’s children have been poisoned, but it’s a pretty safe bet the state will end up spending tens or perhaps even hundreds of millions on settlements.

And that’s where a moral atrocity becomes an economic self-kneecapping. Aside from the cost of settlements, children are the major portion of the future’s economic capacity, which depends critically on their ability to function normally. Destroying their brains with heavy metals will rather impede their ability to get the jobs and pay the taxes that will get Flint on a sound fiscal footing.

Returning poor Americans to lead exposure is basically the upshot of Republican governance; no doubt Rick Snyder sees the real problem here as the ability of citizens to sue over this. The temerity of anti-government Snyder now begging President Obama for federal relief would be LOL material if it wasn’t so serious and if it all wasn’t part of the drowning government in a bathtub so long as I don’t need strategy of Republicans. See here:

“Mistrust in government is at a heightened level,” Snyder, a Republican, said in a request dated Thursday and released to The Associated Press.

Huh, I wonder why that would be? No doubt Republicans will spin all this as why government doesn’t work and waltz into another couple of terms in the statehouse in Lansing.

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  • bexley

    Huh, I wonder why that would be? No doubt Republicans will spin all this as why government doesn’t work and waltz into another couple of terms in the statehouse in Lansing.

    Kevin Williamson is already blaming the Democrats for this over at NRO.

    • Of course. Flint’s mayor is a Democrat. That’s all we need to know, amirite?

      • joe from Lowell

        In Flint, they’ll find some way to make this the fault of the governor of Michigan, who is a Republican.

        I am not often speechless.

      • Davis

        And not the fact that Flint is run by an Emergency Manager appointed by Snyder.

        • Linnaeus

          Technically, Flint’s no longer under emergency management – it’s run by a transition board and a city administrator that are supposed to help pave the way for return to local control. Recently, Snyder has asked the board to transfer some powers to the mayor of Flint. How convenient.

          Of course, Flint was run by an EM at the time the decision to use Flint River water was made. Appointed by Snyder and answerable only to him, but he worked for the Democrats at one time, so it’s really all the Democrats’ fault.

    • Linnaeus

      Wow. That’s an incredibly dishonest piece.

      • I wonder where it rates on the Williamson Dishonesty Scale?

        • bexley

          The most dishonest thing he has ever written until he next posts something up at NRO.

  • Linnaeus

    No doubt Republicans will spin all this as why government doesn’t work

    I linked it a while back, and I’m too lazy right now to find it again, but a Detroit News columnist used the Flint disaster to, yes, make this very argument.

    • Phil Perspective

      Your “liberal media”!! Maybe that’s why newspapers are dying? Because they employ a lot of right-wing hacks and people don’t want that?

      • rea

        The News was always the Republican paper, just as the Free Press was the Democratic paper. Later, they merged into the News-Free Press.

        • Linnaeus

          Yes, the column to which I referred really is par for the course for the News, so I wasn’t at all surprised.

        • Lee Rudolph

          Later, they merged into the News-Free Press.

          Not to be confused with the news-free press that is available almost everywhere.

  • guthrie

    Actually, smelting lead and copper was a problem in Roman times too. The lead pollution levels recording in the Arctic ice took until the late medieval period to match those of the height of Roman times, showing how much of a drop in industrial production when the Empire fell.

    Nice to see quotes indicating that the Romans knew about bad air though, shame the author didn’t get the lead stuff right.

    Oops, found another mistake. Amalgamation refers to mixing mercury with silver, not lead. That’s cupellation. The Spaniards used mercury a lot in the new world, and probably also cupellation, I’d have to check.

    • Bill Murray

      smelting goes back longer than the Romans, as early as the fifth millenium BC, although not necessarily close to large settlements and probably not on a level to lead to large levels of pollution.

      Amalgamation was also used quite a bit for gold recovery until cyanidization became the norm a little over 100 years ago.

      and to be clear cupellation is the method used for separating noble metals from base metals by heating the ores up. the base metals oxidize and form a liquid slag that separates from the non-oxidizing noble metals. This was the primary way to obtain noble metals from probably 500 BC until superseded by amalgamation in the form of the patio process (and then the pan amalgamation process), which was developed by a Spaniard in Mexico in the mid-1500s.

      Amalgamation was probably the dirtiest process, since you recovered the gold by retorting the mercury (basically boiling the mercury away, then condensing it in a different area). This led to the destruction of native silver production in South America, and the mita and much of the horribleness occurring at Potosi and similar mines. Bartolome de Medina has much to answer for.

      • guthrie

        Yup, that’s right.

        The paper studying Arctic levels of pollution made it clear that there wasn’t much until the Roman period, I just can’t recall whether it really increased in early BC or AD.

        I do have a qualification in archaeometallurgy, I just didn’t feel the need to splurge it all over the blog.

  • Phil Perspective

    No doubt Republicans will spin all this as why government doesn’t work and waltz into another couple of terms in the statehouse in Lansing.

    And the Michigan Democratic Party is doing what?

    • Linnaeus

      Behind the scenes, I couldn’t tell you. Most recently, the party has been calling for an independent investigator into the Flint crisis (the AG says he’ll do an investigation, but I wouldn’t expect much from him). In the legislature, they can’t do a whole lot, since they’re in the minority in both houses.

      • Phil Perspective

        I know that part. I mean about selecting candidates and pledging to make things as right as possible is they’re elected. Basically promising to reverse everything Snyder has done.

    • DrDick

      Given that Republicans dominate both houses of the legislature and the hold the governorship, there is not really much that they can do.

      • Snarki, child of Loki

        “…there is not really much that they can do.”

        having the GOP politicians driven from office in a hail of lead comes to mind…

      • Murc

        How the hell does that happen, anyway? Michigan is reliably blue in Presidential years. Are their governor and lege elections deliberately and permanently offset?

        • Linnaeus

          To answer your second question, Michigan’s gubernatorial election takes place in off years, as do elections for state senators. State house elections take place in the same years as elections for the US Congress. This is, IIRC, in the Michigan state Constitution adopted in 1963.

          To answer your first, I’ll venture a multipart hypothesis that people with greater knowledge than me are at liberty to dispute, in whole or in part:

          1. See my answer to your second question. The political situation in Michigan state government is a fairly recent development. Arguably, it began under Governor John Engler in the 1990s, but didn’t really come to fruition until 2010, when Michigan got caught in the Tea Party wave in a relatively low-turnout election.

          2. The Michigan GOP has been moving steadily rightward for years, becoming increasingly ruthless and less willing to work with Democrats. For a long time, the state GOP had a significant center-right wing that was actually willing to govern. But the party’s center of power has shifted away from that to a much more conservative faction whose power base is in western Michigan (a longtime Republican stronghold) and in Detroit’s exurbs.

          3. The GOP taking power in 2010 fortuitously (for them) allowed them to gerrymander the hell out of the state.

          4. In 2010, Snyder successfully sold himself as a moderate in a crowded GOP field who was electable. In the general election, he came off as a reasonable technocrat who just wanted to get things done.

          5. The Michigan Democratic Party has some problems, among them the erosion of its voter base, particularly in organized labor.

          6. The legislature, controlled by strong conservative Republican majorities, has not had to deal with Democrats much and is, IMHO, really driving what’s going on Michigan. State government has been parliamentarized to a notable degree; Snyder has either agreed with what comes across his desk, or has been unable/unwilling to bring legislative Republican leaders around when they go too far even for him. The recent roads debacle – LGM readers from Michigan will know what I’m talking about here – is a perfect example: roads in Michigan need serious repair, Snyder had a plan to try to address this, and the legislature refused to pass it (because of its antitax zealotry), instead kicking the issue to the voters in the referendum and campaigning against it, after which the referendum failed. Snyder’s plan actually had decently broad-based support and the legislature still told him to fuck off to protect the Tea Partiers.

          I’m sure there’s more I can come up with, but that’s what I’ve got for now.

      • With Phil, everything is always ultimately the fault of the Democrats.

    • wjts

      Goddamn right. If Debbie Stabenow only had the balls to commandeer a train, we’d have a socialist utopia by Tuesday.

  • DrDick

    This is all part of the Republican plan to return to the golden age of American capitalism (aka The Gilded Age), when breathing the air in most cities was the equivalent to smoking 2 packs of cigarettes a day, rivers burned, Great Lakes were dead, and industrialists were free to maim and poison the plebes at will.

    • marcel proust

      This is all part of the Republican plan to increase the number of Republican voters: given the effects of lead poisoning, whom will those lead-poisoned adults vote for in the near term, and those lead-poisoned children vote for in the longer term?

  • KadeKo

    Is Flint going to be a man-made Centralia PA?

    When does this water poisoning become unfixable?

  • Destroying their brains with heavy metals will rather impede their ability to get the jobs and pay the taxes that will get Flint on a sound fiscal footing.

    But it does leave the survivors who aren’t in jail unable to put up a fight when someone decides their neighborhood would be much nicer if all of the homes and things were replaced by a mega-mall or a garbage dump.

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