Timeline of pollution
This is a timeline of pollution, attempting to describe the historical evolution of contamination in its different kinds, as well as the scientific understanding and international treaties aimed at coping and controlling.
|Time period||Development summary|
|17th century||Conversion of coal to coke for iron smelting develops, causing considerable air pollution.|
|18th century||During the Industrial Revolution, coal comes into large-scale use. The resulting smog and soot starts having serious health impacts on the residents of growing urban centers.|
|19th century||The Industrial Revolution of the mid-century introduces new sources of air and water pollution.|
|20th century||Pollution grows very rapidly in the Western countries soon after the economic boom following the Second World War. By the late 1950s, pollution becomes a serious issue, leading to a powerful environmental movement in the 1960s, which gains force during the 1970s. Towards the 1990s, sulfur dioxide emissions start to peak in developing countries.|
|21st century||Today, carbon dioxide and other air pollutants, water pollutants and land pollutants are the most common types of substances contaminating the Earth.|
|Prehistory||Air pollution||Crisis||Pollution starts early, when humans create the first fires. Also, there is evidence of human-induced animal and plant extinctions from 50,000 BCE, when only about 200,000 Homo sapiens roamed the Earth.|
|5000 BC||Ecological awareness appears this early with Vedic sages praising the wild forests in their hymns, Taoists urging that human life should reflect nature’s patterns and the Buddha teaching compassion for all sentient beings.||Indian subcontinent|
|1000 CE||Air pollution||Crisis||The use of coal for fuel causes considerable air pollution in cities.|
|1272||Air pollution||Policy||King Edward I of England bans the burning of sea-coal by proclamation in London, after its smoke becomes a problem.||United Kingdom|
|1377 – 1399||Air pollution||Policy||Richard II of England restricts and regulates the use of coal.||United Kingdom|
|1525–1569||Water pollution||Dutch artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder paints scenes of raw sewage and other pollution emptying into rivers.||Netherlands|
|1609||General||Literature||Dutch lawyer Hugo Grotius writes Mare Liberum ("The Freedom of the Seas"), claiming that pollution and war violate natural law.||Netherlands|
|1661||Air pollution||Literature||Charles II of England commands writer John Evelyn of the Royal Society to publish Fumifugium; or the Inconvenience of the Air and Smoke dissipated; together with Some Remedies Humbly Proposed|
|1681||General||Policy||The English Tort Law develops as a law concerning the compensation for harm to people's rights to health and safety, a clean environment, property, their economic interests, or their reputations. In a case happening in the year, a judge determines: “The law does not so much concern itself with the intent of the actor as with the loss and damage of the party suffering.”||United Kingdom|
|1793||Water pollution||Crisis||The 1793 Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic occurs. After the crisis, Benjamin Franklin petitions to manage waste and to remove tanneries for clean air as a public “right”.||United States|
|1798||General||Literature||English cleric Thomas Malthus publishes An Essay on the Principle of Population, warning that human overpopulation would lead to ecological destruction.||United Kingdom|
|1824||Air pollution||Research||Modern understanding of how certain atmospheric gases trap heat originates when French mathematician Joseph Fourier describes the greenhouse effect.||France|
|1833||General||Research||The theory preluding the tragedy of the commons concept originates in an essay by British economist William Forster Lloyd, who uses a hypothetical example of the effects of unregulated grazing on common land (also known as a "common") in Great Britain and Ireland.||United Kingdom|
|1850s||Air pollution||Crisis||Acid rain is first discovered. By the time it is another problem resulting from coal-powered plants.|
|1858||Air pollution||Crisis||Sewers emptied into the River Thames cause the Great Stink, a powerful stench that terrorizes London for two months.||United Kingdom|
|1862||Air pollution||Research||Irish physicist John Tyndall discovers that certain gases (water and carbon dioxide) help trap heat from escaping the atmosphere.||Ireland|
|1868||General||Policy||Rylands v Fletcher is introduced in England as a new area of English tort law. The new rule defines strict liability for landowners for damage caused by dangerous substances which escapes from their land and damages others.||United Kingdom|
|1874||General||Literature||Henry Sidgwick publishes Methods of Ethics, a classical utilitarian volume which analizes externality-related problems with the system of natural liberty and the effects of self-interested behavior.||United Kingdom|
|1887||General||Literature||Henry Sidgwick publishes The Principles of Political Economy and gives birth to the concept of externality (the cost or benefit that affects a party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit) when discussing potential divergences between individual and social utility.||United Kingdom|
|1892 (May 28)||General||Organization||Sierra Club is founded in San Francisco, California. It was one of the first large-scale environmental preservation organizations in the world.||United States|
|1895||Air pollution||Research||Swedish Chemist Svante Arrhenius observes the infrared-absorbing properties of carbon dioxide and water molecules.||Sweden|
|1920||General||Literature||British economist Arthur Cecil Pigou publishes The Economics of Welfare, which suggests that government tax polluters an amount equivalent to the cost of the harm to others as a way to compensate the negative externality (the economic activity that imposes a negative effect on an unrelated third party).||United Kingdom|
|1940s||Air pollution||Crisis||Los Angeles, becomes one of the first cities to experience severe air pollution problems then called “gas attacks.”||United States|
|1946||Water pollution, radioactive waste||Crisis||Ocean disposal of radioactive waste: First dumping operation takes place at Northeast Pacific Ocean (about 80 km off the coast of California).||United States|
|1948||Air pollution||Crisis||The worst single incident of air pollution in the United States occurs in Donora, Pennsylvania, when severe industrial air pollution create a deadly smog. 20 people die and over 7,000 are injured.||United States|
|1952||Air pollution||Crisis||The Great Smog of London occurs. Pollutants from factories and home fireplaces mix with air condensation, killing at least 4,000 people over the course of several days.||United Kingdom|
|1957–1958||General||International meeting||The International Geophysical Year is organized as an international scientific project. Scientists from 67 nations collaborate during an 18-month period to study atmospheric gases, the ozone layer, and the ocean floor. Antarctica is declared a neutral zone to be used only for international scientific research.|
|1960s||Air pollution||Research||Jet planes are used to investigate dangers to the ozone layer.|
|1962||General||Literature||American biologist Rachel Carson publishes Silent Spring, which focuses attention on environmental damage caused by improper use of pesticides such as DDT and other persistent chemicals that accumulate in the food chain and disrupt the natural balance of ecosystems on a wide scale.||United States|
|1963||Air pollution||Policy||The United States Congress passes the Clean Air Act legislation, in an effort to reduce air pollution. The law would be amended and strengthened in the ensuing decades.||United States|
|1967||General||Organization||The Environmental Defense Fund is formed as an environmental advocacy group.||United States|
|1968||General||Research||The Tragedy of the commons starts becoming a widely known concept due to an article written by American ecologist and philosopher Garrett Hardin.||United States|
|1969||General||Organization||Greenpeace is formed in Vancouver as a nuclear war protest movement. It would be later turned into a non-governmental environmental organization.||Canada|
|1969||General||Organization||Pollution Probe is founded as an environmental organization.||Canada|
|~1970||Air pollution||Crisis||Sulfur dioxide emissions peak in North America.||North America|
|1971||General||Organization||Earthjustice is founded in the United States. It is dedicated to litigating environmental issues.||United States|
|1972||General||Treaty||The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm is held, gathering representatives of 113 nations to develop plans for international action to protect the world environment.||Sweden|
|1972||Water pollution||Treaty||The London Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter is adopted as an agreement to control pollution of the sea by dumping.||United Kingdom|
|1972 (June 5)||General||Program||United Nations Environment Programme is launched, with the purpose to guide and coordinate environmental activities within the United Nations.|
|1973||Water pollution||Treaty||MARPOL 73/78 is adopted as an international convention covering prevention of pollution of the marine environment by ships from operational or accidental causes. It is a combination of two treaties adopted in 1973 and 1978 respectively, and updated by amendments through the years.|
|1974 (September 22)||General||Organization||The Central Pollution Control Board is formed in India.||India|
|1979 (November 13)||Air pollution||Treaty||The Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution opens for signature. It would enter into force on March 16, 1983.|
|1979||Air pollution||Crisis||An accidental leak of anthrax spores from a Soviet biological warfare laboratory near Sverdlovsk is believed to cause at least 64 deaths.||Russia|
|~1980||Air pollution||Crisis||Sulfur dioxide emissions peak in Europe.||Europe|
|1980||General||Organization||The Centre for Science and Environment opens. It's one of India’s first environmental NGOs to analyze and study the relationship between environment and development and create public consciousness about the need for sustainable development.||India|
|1982||Air pollution||Crisis||British geophysicist Joe Farman discovers a hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica.||Antarctica|
|1982 (December 10)||Water pollution||Treaty||The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea is signed with the purpose to lay down a comprehensive regime of law and order in the world's oceans and seas establishing rules governing all uses of the oceans and their resources.|
|1982||Air pollution||Policy||The Torts Branch, Environmental Tort Litigation Section (ETL) is established in the United States to defend the country in asbestos litigation brought against the government principally by asbestos product manufacturers.||United States|
|1983||Air pollution||Research||According to article published in the journal Science, "soot" found on ceilings of prehistoric caves provides ample evidence of the high levels of pollution that was associated with inadequate ventilation of open fires at the time.|
|1984||Air pollution||Crisis||The Bhopal Disaster happens as the world's worst short-term civilian pollution crisis.||India|
|1986||Air pollution||Research||The U.S. National Academy of Sciences reports that the burning of coal, gasoline, and other fossil fuels is definitely linked to acid rain and the death of trees, fish, and lake ecosystems in both the United States and Canada.||United States, Canada|
|1987 (August 26)||Air pollution||Treaty||The Montreal Protocol is signed as a global agreement to protect the stratospheric ozone layer by phasing out the production and consumption of ozone-depleting substances (ODS). It would become effective on August 26, 1989.||Canada|
|1988||Air pollution||Crisis||A second hole in the ozone layer is discovered over the Arctic.||Arctic|
|1989 (March 22)||General||Treaty||The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal is adopted in response to a public outcry following the discovery, in the decade, in Africa and other parts of the developing world of deposits of toxic wastes imported from abroad. The Convention provides for the establishment of regional or sub-regional centers for training and technology transfers regarding the management of hazardous wastes and other wastes and the minimization of their generation to cater to the specific needs of different regions and subregions. It would become effective on May 5, 1992.||Switzerland|
|1990||Open defecation||Statistics||More than half the population in 16 countries practice open defecation, and more than ten percent in 62 countries.|
|~1990||Air pollution||Crisis||Sulfur dioxide emissions peak in South America.||South America|
|1991||Water pollution||Research||The United Nations Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Pollution estimates that up to 80% of the pollution is land-based, with the remaining 20% originating from catastrophic events or maritime sources.|
|1991||General||Research||The environmental Kuznets curve (a hypothesized relationship between environmental quality and economic development) starts becoming a standard feature in the technical literature of environmental policy.|
|1992||Design for the Environment|
|1992 (January)||Flotsam||Incident||Friendly Floatees||Pacific Ocean|
|1992 (June 4)||General||Treaty||The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is signed as an intergovernmental treaty developed to address the problem of climate change.|
|1992 (September 22)||Water pollution||Treaty||The Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic opens for signature at the Ministerial Meeting of the Oslo and Paris Commissions in Paris.|
|1993 (October 30)||General||Organization||The European Environment Agency is formed. Its goal is to help those involved in developing, implementing and evaluating environmental policy, and to inform the general public.|
|1994||Plastic pollution, water pollution||Research||Study of the seabed using trawl nets in the North-Western Mediterranean around the coasts of Spain, France, and Italy reports mean concentrations of debris of 1,935 items per square kilometer. Plastic debris accounted for 77%, of which 93% was plastic bags.|
|1994 (February 20)||Water pollution, radioactive waste||Policy||Total prohibition of ocean disposal of radioactive waste comes into force by international treaties.|
|1995||General||Organization||The British Environment Agency is formed.|
|1997||General||Treaty||The Kyoto Protocol is signed as an international agreement linked to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which commits its Parties by setting internationally binding emission reduction targets.||Japan|
|1997||General||Organization||Basel Action Network is founded. It focuses on confronting the global environmental justice and economic inefficiency of toxic trade and its devastating impacts.||United States|
|1998||Air pollution||Treaty||The Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution is adopted by most of the European Union, the United States, and Canada. Its primary objective is to cut emissions of heavy metals. The convention is the largest international agreement on mercury established to date.|
|1998 (September 10)||General||Treaty||The Rotterdam Convention is signed as a multilateral treaty to promote shared responsibilities in relation to importation of hazardous chemicals. It would become effective on 24 February 2004.||Netherlands|
|1999||Plastic pollution, water pollution||Research||In samples taken from the North Pacific Gyre by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, the mass of plastic is found to exceed that of zooplankton by a factor of six.|
|2001 (May 22)||General||Treaty||The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants is signed as an international environmental treaty with the purpose to eliminate or restrict the production and use of persistent organic pollutants. It would become effective on 17 May 2004.||Sweden|
|2002||Air pollution||Policy||Fairchild v Glenhaven Funeral Services Ltd is introduced as a leading case on causation in English tort law. It concerns malignant mesothelioma, a deadly disease caused by breathing asbestos fibres.||United Kingdom|
|2004||Plastic pollution, water pollution||Research||A study by Richard Thompson from the University of Plymouth finds a great amount of microdebris on the beaches and waters in Europe, the Americas, Australia, Africa, and Antarctica.|
|2004||Plastic pollution, water pollution||Research||It is estimated that gulls in the North Sea have an average of thirty pieces of plastic in their stomachs.|
|2005||General||Treaty||The Kyoto Protocol enters into force.|
|2006||Visual pollution||Policy||São Paulo passes the Cidade Limpa (Clean City Law), outlawing the use of all outdoor advertisements, including on billboards, transit, and in front of stores.||Brazil|
|2006||Electronic waste||Research||The United Nations estimates the amount of worldwide electronic waste discarded each year to be 50 million metric tons.|
|2007||Water pollution||Research||CNN reports that “up to 500 million tons of heavy metals, solvents and toxic sludge slip into the global water supply every year.|
|2007||Air pollution||Statistics||China overtakes the United States as the world's biggest producer of CO2.||China|
|2008||Water pollution||Kingston Fossil Plant coal fly ash slurry spill||United States|
|2009||Water pollution, soil contamination||Organization||The Plastic Pollution Coalition is founded as an organization working against the growing plastic pollution.|
|2010||Air pollution||Research||A Study estimates that 1.2 million people die prematurely each year in China because of air pollution.||China|
|2010||Plastic pollution, water pollution||Statistics||It is calculated that 275 million tons of plastic waste was generated in 192 coastal countries in the year, with 4.8 to 12.7 million entering the ocean - a percentage of only up to 5%.|
|2010||Plastic pollution, water pollution||Program||The Ocean Recovery Alliance launches the Plastic Disclosure Project, a global enterprise to encourage greater disclosure by companies and institutions regarding their plastic use and waste management strategies.|
|2011||Air pollution||Research||Large Danish epidemiological study finds an increased risk of lung cancer for patients who live in areas with high nitrogen oxide concentrations. In this study, the association was higher for non-smokers than smokers. An additional study likewise notes evidence of possible associations between air pollution and other forms of cancer, including cervical cancer and brain cancer.|
|2011||Policy||The Industrial Emissions Directive comes into force.|
|2012||Plastic pollution, water pollution||Research||Approximately 165 million tons of plastic pollution are estimated in the world's oceans.|
|2012||Air pollution||Research||The World Health Organisation attributes 3.7 million premature deaths worldwide in the year to outdoor air pollution and even more, 4.3 million deaths to indoor air pollution.|
|2013||Light pollution||Research||Light pollution in Hong Kong is declared the 'worst on the planet'.||Hong Kong|
|2013||Plastic pollution, water pollution||Organization||The Ocean Cleanup is founded as a non-profit organization aimed at developing advanced technologies to rid the oceans of plastic.|
|2013||Water pollution||Research||Debris from six beaches in Korea is collected and analyzed: 56% is found to be "ocean-based" and 44% "land-based".||Korea|
|2013||Water pollution||Research||It is calculated that over ten million people in India fell ill with waterborne illnesses in the year, and 1,535 people died, most of them children.||India|
|2013 (October 10)||Mercury poisoning||Organization||The Minamata Convention on Mercury is signed in order to prevent global environmental pollution and health damage caused by mercury.||Japan|
|2013 (December)||Air pollution||Statistics||Air pollution is estimated to kill 500,000 people in China each year.||China|
|2014||Open defecation||Research||The World Health Organization finds open defecation to be a leading cause of diarrheal death. An average of 2,000 children under the age of five die every day from diarrhea.|
|2014||Plastic pollution, water pollution||Research||In a study using computer models, scientists estimate 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic weighing 269,000 tons are dispersed in oceans in similar amount in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, and one-hundredth of them are particles the scale of a sand.|
|2014||Air pollution||Research||Environmental impact of shipping: The International Maritime Organization (IMO) estimates that carbon dioxide emissions from shipping were equal to 2.2% of the global human-made emissions in the year and expects them to rise 50 to 250 percent by 2050 if no action is taken.|
|2014 (June)||Air pollution||Research||Study discovers that early exposure to air pollution causes the same damaging changes in the brain as autism and schizophrenia. The study also shows that air pollution also affects short-term memory, learning ability, and impulsivity. Air pollution has a more significant negative effect on males than on females.|
|2014||Air pollution||Research||The World Health Organization estimates that every year air pollution causes the premature death of some 7 million people worldwide.|
|2015||Plastic pollution, water pollution||Research||In a study published by Science, Jambeck et al (2015) estimates that the 10 largest emitters of oceanic plastic pollution worldwide are, from the most to the least, China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Egypt, Malaysia, Nigeria, and Bangladesh.|
|2015 (December)||General||Research||Medical scientists report that cancer is overwhelmingly a result of environmental factors, and not largely down to bad luck.|
|2015||General||Statistics||Pollution is estimated to have killed 9 million people in the world in the year.|
|2016||Light pollution||Research||It is estimated that one third of the world's population can no longer see the Milky Way, including 80% of Americans and 60% of Europeans. Singapore is found to be the most light-polluted country in the world.|
|2017||General||Research||Study by the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health finds that global pollution, specifically toxic air, water, soils and workplaces, kill nine million people annually, which is triple the number of deaths caused by AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined, and 15 times higher than deaths caused by wars and other forms of human violence.|
|2017||Plastic pollution, water pollution||Research||A study published by Environmental Science & Technology calculates that the Yangtze, Indus, Yellow River, Hai River, Nile, Ganges, Pearl River, Amur River, Niger River, and the Mekong River transport 88–95% of the global plastics load into the sea.|
|2017||Plastic pollution, water pollution||Research||Study finds that 83% of tap water samples taken around the world contain plastic pollutants.|
|2018||Plastic pollution||Statistics||As of date, about 380 million tons of plastic is produced worldwide each year. From the 1950s up to 2018, an estimated 6.3 billion tons of plastic was produced worldwide, of which an estimated 9% has been recycled and another 12% has been incinerated.|
|2018 (July)||Plastic pollution||Policy||Albania becomes the first country in Europe to ban lightweight plastic bags. Albania’s environment minister Blendi Klosi said that businesses importing, producing or trading plastic bags less than 35 microns in thickness risk facing fines between 1 million to 1.5 million lek (€7,900 to €11,800).|
|2050||Plastic pollution, water pollution||Research||Some researchers suggest that by the time there could be more plastic than fish in the oceans by weight.|
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What the timeline is still missing
- Industrial Emissions Directive
- Design for the Environment
- Illegal dumping
- Ghost net
- Environmental impact of shipping
- Plastic resin pellet pollution
- Ballast water discharge and the environment
- Marine pollution
- Marine debris
- Thematic Strategy on Sustainable Use of Natural Resources (2005)
- Integrated Product Policy (EU)
- Sustainable Consumption and Production Action Plan (2008 EU)
- Environmental dumping
- World Cleanup Day
- Project Kaisei
- Vehicle emission standard
- European emission standards
- Greenhouse gas
- Pollution haven hypothesis
- Climate Justice Now!
- OSPAR Convention
- Barcelona Convention
- London Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter
Timeline update strategy
- Timeline of pollution in India
- Timeline of pollution in China
- Timeline of pollution in Beijing
- Timeline of pollution in Delhi
- Timeline of waste management
- Timeline of nuclear waste management
- Timeline of recycling
- Timeline of the environmentalist movement
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