Air is the most important element of life. For some ‘air pollution,’ let us give thanks. Dust and other particles in the atmosphere serve as nuclei about which raindrops form. But man has overloaded the sky. For centuries he has pumped particulate matter and gases into the atmosphere. As far back as 1661, a tract on air pollution was published in England: Fumifugium: or the Inconvenience of the Aer and Smoake of London Dissipated. Today much of the world suffers from the eye-smarting, lung-scarring curse we call smog. In Los Angeles and other great cities it comes in large part from automobile engines.
Last March I braved the streets of Tokyo, in that careening, cacophonous time of day the Japanese call rushawa. I was there for the first International Symposium on Environmental Disruption, where scientists from 13 countries had gathered to exchange views. ‘Environmental disruption’ was easy enough to see from the window of my taxi. Where else in the world, I wondered, must traffic policemen pause regularly to breathe oxygen. Conditions became so bad last summer that all cars were banned from 122 Tokyo streets on Sundays—the busiest of Japan’s shopping days.
In Essen, Germany, I saw disruption in another form—smog caused mainly by industries. The chief of air-pollution control and land protection for North Rhine Westphalia, Dr. Heinrich Stratmann, showed me two small steel squares. The first was bright and new. The second, exposed to the Ruhr’s smog for only two months, was chocolate brown and deeply corroded. We can clean up land before we use it, and purify water before we drink it, but—except in air-conditioned rooms—we must breathe air as it comes to us.
Scientists have tracked one type of air pollution—radioactive fallout—twice around the globe. The hazy air I am breathing now in Washington, D. C. , may contain sulphur from a Pittsburgh steel mill and carbon monoxide from a Chicago taxi, for this continent’s weather patterns often send a river of polluted air flowing southeastward. Someone in Norfolk, Virginia, will be using this air again when I am finished with it. Automobiles, factories, heating furnaces, power plants, trash incinerators—each adds to the problem, so control is difficult.
Compounding that difficulty has been the diversity of agencies responsible for control. Until the President this year established a new Environmental Protection Agency, air-pollution control came chiefly under the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, water pollution under the Department of the Interior, and land pollution under the Departments of Agriculture, HEW, and Interior. Now virtually all pollution control is to be directed by one federal agency. But it will still be a complex problem, with much responsibility devolving upon state, county, and municipal governments.