Toxicity is Not New: The History of Pollution

Toxicity is Not New: The History of Pollution

Jun 27th 2017

The recent fiasco with the water supply in Flint, Michigan is just one illustration that toxins are all around us. The fact that the head of Michigan’s Health Department and four others were charged with involuntary manslaughter in connection with the lead contamination shows us that sometimes this pollution is due to human negligence.

True, in the last 120 years or so, we are surrounded by even more pollutants than ever in human history due to the industrial revolution. More industries have ignored both common sense and regulation when it comes to pollution, but this also is not new. Toxins have been around for centuries.

Air Pollution

By examining bubbles trapped in 1,600 foot long ice cores from Greenland, scientists have now proven that humans were emitting greenhouse gasses as long a 2,000 years ago. The gas, methane, was not connected to warming periods on the earth, as the scientist expected, but to human activity.

Particularly, there were spikes in methane emissions around 100 B.C., when metallurgy and large scale agriculture began. The ancient Romans kept domesticated livestock—cows, sheep and goats—which excrete methane gas as a byproduct of digestion. Around the same time, in China, the Han dynasty expanded its rice fields, which harbor methane-producing bacteria. Also, blacksmiths in both empires produced methane gas when they burned wood to fashion metal weapons. After those civilizations declined, emissions briefly decreased.

As the human population increased along with the amount of land used for agriculture, methane gas emissions rose steadily. Between 100 B.C. and 1600 A.D., methane emissions rose by nearly 31 million tons per year. In contrast, currently the United States alone emits 36 million tons per year.

These emissions were not enough to start altering the climate, however they did affect human health. As early as the 13th Century, King Edward I threatened Londoners with harsh consequences if they did not stop burning sea coal because the air pollution in London was so bad. His threats, and those of his successors had little effect.

By 1750 and into the 1800’s, the use of coal increased dramatically, and smog and soot had a huge impact on those living in large urban areas. In 1948, 20 people died and 7,000 more became sick in Donora, Pennsylvania from severe industrial pollution. In 1952, smoke and pollutants from factories and home fireplaces combined with condensation from the sea air and killed at least 4,000 people in London during a stretch of several days.

Water Pollution

Water pollution has also been a problem ever since people built cities. Wherever they wash clothes, use toilets, wash dishes, and even eat waste was created, and enough of it not handled properly could make the local water supply undrinkable. Even if it was drinkable, many people got sick and even died. Even in Rome, although they had somewhat revolutionary sanitation systems, residents would often throw waste out of windows and into the street.

This was common practice in much of Europe, and even sewage systems emptied into nearby streams, rivers, or lakes. But industrial pollution from mining, factories, and other activities made things even worse.

The Cuyahoga River, which empties into Lake Erie, was so polluted it would often catch on fire starting in around 1928, and there was a major fire on the river in 1936.

An environmental movement began in the 1960’s, and a desire rose to address the pollutants we were putting in the air and water. The Water Quality Act of 1965 was the first attempt to address this issue, followed by the Clean Water act in 1972. Since then, regulations and guidelines for water quality has evolved as scientists discover more about what pollution is harmful to both humans and wildlife.


The pollutants we have historically put in the air and water enter our body through a number of pathways. This does not even count chemicals we deliberately spray on plants to help them grow better and resist bugs.

Pesticides have been in use for 4,000 years. The first recorded use of pesticide was elemental sulphur dusting in ancient Sumer. The Rig Veda, a sanskrit collection of ancient Vedic hymns, mentions the use of poisonous plants for pest control. In the 15th and16th century, arsenic, mercury and lead were applied to crops to protect them.

In the 17th century, farmers began to use nicotine sulfates, extracted from tobacco, as an insecticide. Even until the 1950’s, arsenic based pesticides were predominant.

The first Federal regulation regarding pesticides was enacted in 1910. In the 1940’s, companies began to create synthetic pesticides, and the 1950’s are considered by most to be the start of the pesticide era. Even though the EPA was created in 1970, and new regulations regarding pesticide use were enacted in 1972, pesticide use has increased 50 times since 1950.

In the 1980’s, DDT was shown to be interfering with the reproductive systems of fish-eating birds, and its use is now banned under the Stockholm Convention. It is still used in some developing countries to repel mosquitos and prevent malaria.

In our modern world, there are many toxic substances all around us, and even if you are extremely careful, you can’t avoid them all. But pollution and toxicity are not new. They have been around for centuries.

Perhaps this is why detoxification is also not new, and has been embraced by many cultures for those same centuries.

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