Timeline of pollution

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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.

Big picture

Time period Development summary
17th century Conversion of coal to coke for iron smelting develops, causing considerable air pollution.[1]
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.[2]
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.[2] 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.[3]

Full timeline

Year Category Event type Details Location
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.[4]
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.[4] Indian subcontinent
1000 CE Air pollution Crisis The use of coal for fuel causes considerable air pollution in cities.[1]
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.[2] United Kingdom
1377 – 1399 Air pollution Policy Richard II of England restricts and regulates the use of coal.[5] United Kingdom
1525–1569 Water pollution Dutch artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder paints scenes of raw sewage and other pollution emptying into rivers.[4] Netherlands
1609 General Literature Dutch lawyer Hugo Grotius writes Mare Liberum ("The Freedom of the Seas"), claiming that pollution and war violate natural law.[4] 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[5]
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”.[4] 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.[4] 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.[6] France
1850s Air pollution Crisis Acid rain is first discovered. By the time it is another problem resulting from coal-powered plants.[2]
1858 Air pollution Crisis Sewers emptied into the River Thames cause the Great Stink, a powerful stench that terrorizes London for two months.[7] 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.[6] Ireland
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.[8] United States
1895 Air pollution Research Swedish Chemist Svante Arrhenius observes the infrared-absorbing properties of carbon dioxide and water molecules.[6] Sweden
1940s Air pollution Crisis Los Angeles, becomes one of the first cities to experience severe air pollution problems then called “gas attacks.”[5] United States
1946 Water pollution, radioactive waste Crisis Ocean disposal of radioactive waste: First dumping operation takes splace at Northeast Pacific Ocean (about 80 km off the coast of California).[9] 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.[10][2] 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.[2] 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.[11]
1960s Air pollution Research Jet planes are used to investigate dangers to the ozone layer.[11]
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.[1] 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.[2] United States
1967 General Organization The Environmental Defense Fund is formed as an environmental advocacy group.[12] 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.[4] Canada
1969 General Organization Pollution Probe is founded as an environmental organization.[13][14] Canada
~1970 Air pollution Crisis Sulfur dioxide emissions peak in North America.[15] North America
1971 General Organization Earthjustice is founded in the United States. It is dedicated to litigating environmental issues.[16] 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.[5] 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.[9] 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.[17][18]
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.[19]
1974 (September 22) General Organization The Central Pollution Control Board is formed in India.[20] 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.[21]
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.[22] Russia
~1980 Air pollution Crisis Sulfur dioxide emissions peak in Europe.[15] 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.[23] India
1982 Air pollution Crisis British geophysicist Joe Farman discovers a hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica.[11] 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.[24]
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.[25]
1984 Air pollution Crisis The Bhopal Disaster happens as the world's worst short-term civilian pollution crisis.[26] 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.[5] 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.[27] Canada
1988 Air pollution Crisis A second hole in the ozone layer is discovered over the Arctic.[11] 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.[28] Switzerland
1990 Open defecation Statistics More than half the population in 16 countries practice open defecation, and more than ten percent in 62 countries.[29]
~1990 Air pollution Crisis Sulfur dioxide emissions peak in South America.[15] 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,[30] with the remaining 20% originating from catastrophic events or maritime sources.[31]
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.[32]
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.[33]
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.[34][35]
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.[36]
1994 (February 20) Water pollution, radioactive waste Policy Total prohibition of ocean disposal of radioactive waste comes into force by international treaties.[9]
1995 General Organization The British Environment Agency is formed.[37]
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.[38] 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.[39] 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.[40]
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.[41] 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.[42][43]
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.[44] Sweden
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.[45]
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.[46]
2005 General Treaty The Kyoto Protocol enters into force.[38]
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.[47] Brazil
2006 Electronic waste Research The United Nations estimates the amount of worldwide electronic waste discarded each year to be 50 million metric tons.[48]
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.[2]
2007 Air pollution Statistics China overtakes the United States as the world's biggest producer of CO2.[49] China
2009 Water pollution, soil contamination Organization The Plastic Pollution Coalition is founded as an organization working against the growing plastic pollution.[50]
2010 Air pollution Research A Study estimates that 1.2 million people die prematurely each year in China because of air pollution.[51] 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%.[52]
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.[53]
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.[54] An additional study likewise notes evidence of possible associations between air pollution and other forms of cancer, including cervical cancer and brain cancer.[55]
2012 Plastic pollution, water pollution Research Approximately 165 million tons of plastic pollution are estimated in the world's oceans.[56]
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.[57]
2013 Light pollution Research Light pollution in Hong Kong is declared the 'worst on the planet'.[58] 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.[59]
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".[60] 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.[61] 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.[62] Japan
2013 (December) Air pollution Statistics Air pollution is estimated to kill 500,000 people in China each year.[63] 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.[64]
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.[65]
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[66] and expects them to rise 50 to 250 percent by 2050 if no action is taken.[67]
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.[68][69][70]
2014 Air pollution Research The World Health Organization estimates that every year air pollution causes the premature death of some 7 million people worldwide.[71]
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.[52]
2015 (December) General Research Medical scientists report that cancer is overwhelmingly a result of environmental factors, and not largely down to bad luck.[72]
2015 General Statistics Pollution is estimated to have killed 9 million people in the world in the year.[73][74]
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.[75][76]
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.[77]
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.[78][79]
2017 Plastic pollution, water pollution Research Study finds that 83% of tap water samples taken around the world contain plastic pollutants.[80][81]
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.[82]
2018 (July) Plastic pollution Policy Albania becomes the first country in Europe to ban lightweight plastic bags.[83][84][85] 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).[84]
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.[86]

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References

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