I’m travelling for a few weeks so Dr Martin Cooke, who previously wrote an article about the history of human mess, has kindly agreed to write another guest article; thank you Martin.
Lauren is off on holiday so you’re stuck with me again, and more ramblings about pollution. This time I’m going to talk about the industrial legacy of environmental pollution.
The Mad Hatter: “There is a place, like no place on earth. A land full of wonder, mystery, and danger. Some say, to survive it, you need to be as mad as a hatter. Which, luckily, I am.” – Lewis Carroll
In the early 18th Century, heavy industry developed in the UK at the advent of the industrial revolution with the development of steam power and the mass production of iron. These developments quickly lead to the rise of factories and the mass movement of the population from the countryside to the cities, meeting the need for workers in the factories. The cities grew quickly and often became manufacturing centres for single industries due the presence of key manufacturing materials, transport links or simply the presence of other manufacturers. For example, Manchester became Cottonopolis, due to huge number of textile mills, Swansea became Copperopolis, copper refining and smelting, and Stoke-on-Trent became the Potteries, you can work that one out yourself.
Each industry has a unique set of processes and materials that they use to produce their goods, and the concentration of many manufacturers in a single place led to the build-up of unique types of waste. This pollution was generally unchecked; people didn’t know the long-term effects of pollution or didn’t really care about it. The pollutants left behind in each city have given cities a unique pollution fingerprint and when we are cleaning up contaminated land, we look for these fingerprints. The first step in the remediation of any contaminated land site is a desk study. Here we look into the history of a site, what used to be there, who the neighbours were, and what is there now. Once we know the history of the site, we can identify the process that took place there and the contaminants that these processes produced. By knowing the previous industries we can be much more accurate in identifying the pollution on the site.
So what has the Mad Hatter got to do with this? In the 19th Century, Luton was a centre for the hat making industry (the football team are nicknamed “The Hatters”). The process of making felt is sped up by the addition of mercury. Inhaling mercury vapour will give you mercury poisoning whose symptoms include erratic, flamboyant behaviour, excessive drooling and mood swings; the medical term is erethism. Thus the term “the Mad Hatter” was created, and used well before Alice in Wonderland. Similar symptoms were observed in Danbury, Conneticut, the world centre for hat making in the 19th Century, where it was called the Danbury Shakes.
Stoke-on-Trent is another classic example, the world’s leading pottery manufacturing centre in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Whilst pottery manufacturing mainly uses clay and heat from coal burning, it is the glazes which cause potential contamination issues. Glazes are the paints which are used to coat and colour pottery, making it attractive and waterproof. The colours in the bright glazes come from metal compounds in the glaze: red from cadmium, green from copper and uranium. The waste glazes can be found in the soils of Stoke-on-Trent and could present a possible health hazard which needs to be removed during development.
Radioactive uranium crops up a few times in industry due to its green colour, for example in coloured glass. Historically, this green colour was produced by adding uranium to the glass recipe (it’s not anymore). Therefore, places which made glass (for example Sunderland) have a legacy of uranium. Interestingly, the glass industry in Sunderland started in the 17th Century as a recycling industry. Sand was used as ballast in ships that were coming to the North East of England to collect coal; these huge amounts of sand were used to make glass.
These processes may seem a long time ago, but pollution can be very persistent and the impacts are still being felt today. I am currently undertaking a research project looking at the link between chronic disease and historic levels of cadmium pollution. Analysis of the environmental distribution of cadmium and this disease (I can’t tell you which one due to patient confidentiality) shows an association between them. That doesn’t mean that cadmium causes the disease, but it’s a new lead to follow. Such industrial pollutants pose a risk to human health, and the remediation of contaminated land is a major industry, cleaning up our environment. The good news is that we are running out of heavily contaminated land as we are very good a cleaning up, and modern industry is much more responsible.
Why not find out about your hometown? What industry is it famous for? What did it use, and what types of pollution might be found there?