June 1, 2017

We were Polluting the Air long before We even Knew It

We were Polluting the Air long before We even Knew It

Mining and metallurgy in medieval times caused plenty of lead pollution. Photo Credit: Wikiwand

In centuries past, people lived in harmony with nature. They led sustainable lifestyles and kept environmental pollution to a minimum. Then came the Industrial Revolution in the 17th century and everything changed: we began polluting the environment disastrously and carry on doing so.

So goes a common narrative about our destructive effects on the planet’s health, but this view, it turns out, isn’t entirely accurate. Here’s why: even before the Industrial Revolution began in earnest, we’d been polluting Mother Nature… and poisoning ourselves in the process.

According to a new study published in the journal GeoHealth, even in medieval times Europeans were causing widespread lead pollution in the air because of large-scale mining of metals and smelting of ores. And by then they’d been doing so for centuries.

A team of scientists, who comprised historians from Harvard University and climate scientists from the University of Maine in the US, reached this conclusion after having examined ice core data as well as historical records dating back to a deadly pandemic in Europe in the mid-14th century. The pandemic, known as the Black Death, spread across the continent between 1346 and 1353 and wiped out anywhere between 75 million and 200 million people in Europe and Asia.

The Industrial Revolution caused man-made pollution to skyrocket. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“These new data show that human activity has polluted European air almost uninterruptedly for the last 2,000 years,” the study’s authors write. “Only a devastating collapse in population and economic activity caused by pandemic disease reduced atmospheric pollution to what can now more accurately be termed ‘background’ or natural levels.”

For two millennia, levels of lead (an extremely dangerous pollutant that is toxic even in very small doses, especially to children) have been consistently high in the air of Europe, the scientists say. The scientists saw a decline in lead levels only once, and that was during the years of the pandemic, according to Alexander More, a historian at Harvard and lead author of the new study.

“In different parts of Europe, the Black Death wiped out as much as half of the population,” More explained. “It radically changed society in multiple ways. In terms of the labor force, the mining of lead essentially stopped in major areas of production. You see this reflected in the ice core in a large drop in atmospheric lead levels, and you see it in historical records for an extended period of time.”

That’s not to say, of course, that in times past, before the advent of industrialization, air pollution was just as bad as it is today. What this does mean, however, that we have always had a tendency to befoul our environment, even if unwittingly so. Now we do know that our activities can be harmful for the planet, so we can do something about it: we can pollute less.


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