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Pollution, Past and Present

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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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