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The ‘Good Old Days’ - Growing Up Before Clean Air

March 6, 2017

 The aerial image shows my old neighborhood in Scotstoun, Glasgow in March of 1950. I was born the month before this image was captured. In My life in a Glasgow tenement in the 1950s I described the lifestyle. One thing I did not mention was the level of air pollution that we experienced in the 1950s and even into the 1960s.

 

While some of the pollution resulted from industry, as the image shows, a substantial amount came from domestic chimneys. In those times the main (and usually only) source of heat in the tenements was a coal fire. In our room and kitchen the coal fire also served to provide heat for cooking in the adjacent range and oven. 

 

Behind our tenement there was a railway line that ran along an embankment situated behind what we called the back court. Emerging from the back close or passageway (that ran front to back through the tenement), there was a small stretch of blighted bare earth with scattered weeds, the middens, where trash and ash from the coal fires were deposited, and then the railway. In my memory this was a working line and steam locomotives would pass up and down it, often pulling wagons.

 

Those who visit Glasgow today are seeing a very different city from the one I grew up in. For one thing, the surviving tenements, once crusted and blackened with soot, now show the beauty of the native sandstone from which many are constructed. The shipyards are mostly gone, and the constant pall of coal smoke is remembered now only by those, like myself, who are of a certain age.

 

At times local weather conditions would trap the coal smoke close to the ground. Although many locals used the term fog to describe this it was in fact a highly toxic and lethal swirling cloud of smog. It is hard to fully convey to anyone who has not experienced such an event the full scope of what this was like.

 

In my teens I attended a high school located near the city center. By that time we had moved to Drumchapel (see My Life in a Glasgow Housing Scheme - Drumchapel in the 1950s and 60s), a public housing scheme on the edge of the city. In extreme smog events the air became almost fully opaque. Looking from

the windows of our top floor flat often all that could be seen was a grayish-green wall of smoke. Visibility could be measured in feet at best and was so poor that traffic ground almost to a halt. The image shown of a London bus in a 1950s smog event gives an idea of what this was like but, while quite bad enough in itself, is actually better visibility (if you can believe it) than I experienced during some of my lengthy trips home.

 

The following quote is from a BBC report in 1962:

 

“A thick layer of fog which has covered London for the last three days is spreading all over the country. Leeds has recorded its highest ever

level of sulphur dioxide in the air and pneumonia cases in Glasgow have trebled. A spokesman for London’s Emergency Bed Service said 235 people had been admitted to hospital in the last 24 hours and issued a "red warning" to prepare for more patients as thick fog continues to affect public health. So far 90 people have died since the crisis began and the fog is not expected to lift for another 24 hours.”

 

A four day event in 1952, sometimes called the Great Smog of London, produced estimates of deaths ranging from 4000 to 12,000 with many others suffering adverse health effects. In 1956 Great Britain introduced the Clean Air Act, which restricted the burning of domestic coal in cities. Smoke continued to be an issue into the 1960s due to lag times designed to allow conversion to other methods of heating. The act was revised in 1968 to require industry to use higher chimneys. 

 

In the 1960s our coal fire was replaced with a radiant electric heater. Since our hot water supply had depended on heat from the coal fire to warm a water tank behind the flue the tank was also modified with an electric immersion heater. With domestic chimneys no longer contributing significant amounts of coal smoke the situation in Glasgow improved dramatically and the coal smoke smog events became a thing of the past.

 

Air pollution as a concern has not gone away. Many coal burning energy plants remain and vehicles, particularly diesel powered ones, are continuing sources. Other parts of the world such as India and China now experience what was once common in Britain and the United States. That our air is now cleaner than it was compared with half a century ago does not mean that we should relax our vigilance about regulating pollution. Air pollution still shortens lives in many parts of the world. Added to that are concerns about rising levels of carbon dioxide and global warming. That CO2 levels would rise exponentially was known at least by the 1970s and was acceptable enough for a graph of the projected rise to make it into the meteorology text book I used to teach a University level course in the subject in the 1980s. For the record our current levels already surpass what was projected in the early 1980s.

 

For many years industries were allowed to externalize costs to the public and the environment. By not incorporating the true cost of their activities into their businesses they were able to maintain higher profit margins. Pollution has effects that are costs, whether in health through shortened lives or poorer quality of life, or in global ways that will eventually come home to roost. For those like me who remember a time when environmental conditions were far worse, it is important to convey that message to those who don’t.

 

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