The Invisible Killer:
The Rising Global Threat of Air Pollution and How We Can Fight Back

Gary Fuller

Melville House 2018

Clearing the Air:
The Beginning and the End of Air Pollution

Tim Smedley

Bloomsbury 2019
A book review by Danny Yee © 2020
The Invisible Killer and Clearing the Air cover much the same material: both look at the history of air pollution as well as current concerns and possible solutions; both survey the different kinds of pollution and their provenance and effects; and both are UK-centred but address the situation around the world. But Fuller is a research scientist and Smedley is a journalist, and that shows in their different styles.

Smedley writes in the first person and much of his information comes through the stories of the people he meets and talks to, with a great deal as direct quotation. He also carries around a handheld particulate monitor to help provide immediacy. There is a lot of travel narrative and scene setting.

"The Beijing-based Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs (IPE) is a short but confusing walk from Jianguomen Metro station, and when I arrive at the tower block there is no company or organisation branding, simply unmarked doors and an elevator. I phone to check I am at the right place, and am told to come up a few floors, where I'm met by a young American who speaks fluent Chinese, Kate Logan, a director at IPE and a board member of the Beijing Energy Network. She offers me the customary drink of steaming hot water. IPE was founded in 2006 by Chinese environmental activist Ma Jun ..."

Fuller's digressions and anecdotes run more to the scientific and historical, explaining for example that there is an "air pollution divide" between northern and southern China, along the Huai River and Winling Mountains, resulting from policy decisions in the 1950s encouraging the use of coal for heating. And where he briefly foregrounds people, they are mostly scientists:

"The rediscovery of wood-burning in the cities of north-west Europe can be traced to Paris. In 2005 Olivier Favez was a young student researching for his PhD when he struck upon something unusual and worrying. He was measuring air pollution on the edge of Paris's Parc de Choisy. ..."

One notable difference is that Smedley is gung ho about electric cars, while Fuller mentions them but emphasizes reorientation of transport away from private vehicles.

Fuller begins with some early modern through Victorian history, the first scientific efforts to understand air pollution, and some notable early disasters resulting from industrial smog: in 1930 in the Meuse Valley in Belgium, in 1948 in Donora in the United States, and in 1950 in Poza Rica in Mexico. Four twentieth century challenges are then described: the Great Smog of London, leaded petrol, ozone and photochemical smog, and sulphur and acid rain. And the Six Cities study in the United States, starting in 1974, made clear the broad mortality and health implications of air pollution, which subsequent studies have confirmed. There is a consistent pattern of regulation being delayed by lobbying and special interests, and problems being dealt with much more slowly than they should have been.

Then comes a global tour of current problems, from Beijing's "crazy bad" air to less visible concerns such as ethane ground-level ozone. Topics treated in detail include the problem of counting particles rather than measuring their mass, the Volkswagen scandal and the problems with diesel, the revival of wood-burning for household heating, car-centric transport policies, and industrial and agricultural sources of pollution, as well as attempts to remove pollution from the air.

Making the transition to low-pollution lifestyles and low-pollution industry is now "the only obvious and rational choice" — "reducing the health burden from air pollution is a massive prize for our politicians to seize".

Smedley includes less history. He begins with a tour of five cities: London in 1952 and in the present, Beijing's 'crazy bad' (2010) and Airpocalypse (2013) events, Delhi in 2017, seventy years of photochemical smog in Los Angeles, and Paris's recent attempts to deal with NOx. Two chapters then introduce the range of pollutants involved. There are gases such as nitrogen dioxide, ammonia, ozone, an array of volatile organic compounds, and sulphur dioxide. And there is particulate matter, not just PM10 and PM2.5 but also the (mostly unmonitored and unmeasured) smaller particles that can penetrate further, come in vastly larger numbers, and collectively provide larger surface areas for chemical reactions.

There is a long history of air pollution from burning, for cooking and domestic heating and then in industry. As well as scandals, the "dash for diesel" saw emission controls that at least partly backfired, trading reductions in particulate mass for larger numbers of ultrafine nanoparticles. And the health effects of air pollution have become increasingly impossible to deny or ignore, affecting not just life expectancies but quality of life.

Looking to solutions, Smedley evaluates recent successes and failures in London, Beijing, Delhi, California and Paris. He looks in detail at the challenges of electrifying transport and shifting to public transport and cycling, as well as at green walls and other approaches to ameliorating road pollution. The public health costs of air pollution — Smedley emphasizes effects on intelligence and lung capacity — are such that not acting is more costly than acting. But we need to avoid coverups replacing genuine cleanups.

Both books are engaging and easy to read; if I had a slight preference for The Invisible Killer it was because it had more history and science and less personal anecdote. And reading both worked quite well, giving a kind of stereo view of the overlapping material. Fuller and Smedley have made timely and important contributions to informing increasingly urgent policymaking.

May 2020

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%T The Invisible Killer
%S The Rising Global Threat of Air Pollution and How We Can Fight Back
%A Fuller, Gary
%I Melville House
%D 2018
%O paperback, references, index
%G ISBN-13 9781911545514
%P 289pp

%T Clearing the Air
%S The Beginning and the End of Air Pollution
%A Smedley, Tim
%I Bloomsbury
%D 2019
%O hardcover, index
%G ISBN-13 9781472953315
%P 320pp