A Brief History of Air Pollution Control, & What We’re Doing to Clean up Our Act!

by Rebekah Fuller, Editor for IQS

Rebekah Fuller Author Pic

Since even before the industrial era, humans have been concerned with air pollution control. As early as the beginning of the 1300s in London, smoke pollution was a problem that Edward I recognized by enacting a ban on burning soft coal. However, that policy did not stick, and once the Industrial Revolution began in the late 1700s, air pollutants increased rapidly because of the dramatic shift to machine-based processes. Steam power fuelled by coal was introduced in the First Industrial Revolution of the 18th century and used for factory machinery. Steam-powered transportation became prevalent during the Second Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, with the internal combustion engine and electrical power generation making their appearance at the end of that century.

When smoke accumulation reared its ugly head in the 19th century, the British Parliament deemed it a good idea to do various studies of their urban pollutant and even passed the Public Health Act of 1875, which concluded the smoke to be a nuisance that needed to be eliminated. Groups of engineers were formed to define the quantity and composition of the pollutants, and to figure out ways of clean-burning, smokeless coal. Smoke-abatement caught on in America as well; we didn’t want to be wasting a natural resource by burning it inefficiently, as evidenced by the accumulation of soot.

By the late 1930s, most large cities and states had air pollution abatement laws in place, but they were seen as inconvenient and expensive. Much work had been done to analyze and define the makeup of smog and to educate on cleaner processes. However, environmental and health concerns didn’t catch on until much later (around the 1960s), as ecological disasters with large death tolls were brought on by smog. And the widespread use of natural gas and petroleum introduced pollutants that were harder to recognize. Though today we know much more about the composition of air pollutants and how to combat them with the combination of government policy and advanced technology, these contaminants are still highly, complexly volatile, leaving room for endless research. Here’s an overview of the various air pollutants in our atmosphere.

Throughout America’s modern history, certain presidential administrations have made great strides in environmentally friendly legislation, and President Obama is looking to increase our use of renewable sources considerably. Under President Nixon the Environmental Protection Agency was formed and the first Clean Air and Clean Water Acts were passed, and under the first President Bush the Clean Air Act Amendments were passed. These legislative efforts have done their parts to reduce toxic emissions in the air by regulating the allowable emissions from plants, factories and vehicles. Of course studies show that more should be done since hundreds of counties across the nation are still trying to catch up to not even the most recent air purity regulations. But, a recent federally funded study by researchers from Brigham Young University and Harvard School of Public Health reported that cleaner air practices over the last twenty years have added almost five months to the average American’s life expectancy.

So, the big question is – how? How do we as a society, even with recent economic turmoil, keep this clean air initiative going? Well, if Beijing, one of the most notorious cities for having terrible air quality, can clean up its act for the Olympics, surely there are ways with proper motivation. Certainly, its government has started the process of implementing emissions regulations. It has also made limitations on what vehicles can be on the road on certain days and at certain times of the day, like limiting trucks to night travel and alternating what days citizens can drive their personal vehicles based on license numbers.

Strides have been made in the U.S. to reformulate gasoline to include additives that result in cleaner emissions; however, studies are mixed as to how effective this has been. A better investment might be to develop alternate fuel altogether, like cars fueled by air. On President Obama’s agenda is utilizing various renewable resources to provide cleaner, green energy power. Sources include wind, solar, geothermal, wave motion, tidal, hydraulic, biomass (biodegradables including those of industrial and urban solid waste), landfill gas, treatment process gas and biogas.

Besides vehicle emissions, industrial manufacturing is the other major contributor to air pollution. Air pollution control equipment manufacturers have been around since the 1930s to offer solutions to combat the lengthy list of air pollutants: hydrocarbons (HC), carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulate matter (PM), sulfur dioxide (SO2), ozone, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), hydrogen sulfide (H2S), toxic air contaminants such as lead (Pb), and greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide (N2O), methane (CH4), and high-global warming potential gases.

Various equipment, such as air scrubbers, oxidizers, mist collectors, electrostatic precipitators, odor control systems, and incinerators, can be put in place and engineered for the needs of specific industrial processes. Anguil Environmental Systems, Inc. is an example of a company dedicated to helping industrial manufacturers meet clean air standards. The largest U.S.-based independent oil and gas producer recently came to Anguil for an innovative solution. Anguil offered a Regenerative Thermal Oxidizer (RTO) with heat recovery for the highest level of sustainable pollution control efficiency in its natural gas treatment facility. Air pollution control and energy conservation equipment provides solutions for many industries. Here’s a lengthy (but not exhaustive!) list of industries which can have dramatically cleaner processes with the help of air pollution control equipment: chemical, coating, composites / fiberglass, electronics / semiconductor, energy recovery, engine exhaust treatment, ethanol processing, food / bakery, metal decorating, paint / paint spray, petroleum and natural gas, pharmaceutical, printing / laminating / converting and rubber curing.