Published on 18 February 2019

Researcher at the Centre for Cultural History of Contemporary Societies (Université de Versailles - Saint-Quentin en Yvelines), Diana Cooper-Richet traces the history of industrial pollution in France and Europe.

The ravages of industrial pollution and its harmful effects on the environment have been debated for several decades as if they were new phenomena.

In the second half of the 19th century, however, at a time when France was strengthening its industrialization, the French in cities and industrial regions discovered the harmful effects of factories and mines - which kept them alive and, at the same time, killed them slowly.

The serial writers, whose stories populate the ground floor of a rapidly developing press, devote pages to it long before Zola. They describe "black" cities bathed in deafening noise, and campaigns that have gone from the green of nature to the colour of asphalt and soot in a few decades.

Almost no one can ignore the disastrous consequences of economic modernization on the environment, even if the notion of pollution is not yet at the heart of the population's concerns. Nor will it be in London in the first half of the 20th century, when the famous "smog" raged; or in the Eastern European countries in the 1970s, where entire regions, particularly in Romania, were contaminated by discharges from the chemical industry.

Trees covered with coal

Scene from the film inspired by Emile Zola's Germinal, which describes the lives of workers in the coal mines of Nord-Pas-de-Calais. Germinal, Claude Berry

While Germinal revealed in 1884-1885 the tragedies at play in the mining world, other famous writers had already staged industrial France in all its darkness a few years earlier.

George Sand in La Ville noire (1880), does not hesitate to evoke a "hell" of "wooden roofs blackened by smoke", "black and hideous hole" and "water that fell as a black blanket" in this city in the centre of France - probably Thiers -, entirely dedicated to metallurgy, where noise and smoke prevail as masters.

In Sans famille (1878), the village of Varses, designed by Malot, is covered with a "two-tone" industrial dust. Red comes from iron ore; black from coal.

Elijah Berthet, one of the great popes of the soap opera during the Second Empire, goes further in his description of coal pollution. In Les Houillères de Polignies (1866), he wrote that "the foliage of trees remains covered with fine, shiny coal dust".

These evocations can also be found in Jules Verne's Les Indes noires (1878), and in other writers who are now forgotten, such as Victor Cherbuliez of the Académie française with Olivier Maugant (1885) or George Maisonneuve with Plébéienne (1884).

And for Louis Simonin, author of an essential book on La vie souterraine. In The mine and the miners (1867), pollution infiltrate everywhere, including inside houses where clothes are quickly spun to the jet, as are the faces of the men, women and children who live there and who, when it raines, spill in a black mud, thick according to some, liquid according to others. On windy days, a large cloud of soot swirls over these villages.

These novels, which are widely circulated among the French, convey to their readers the image of pollution hitherto unknown, without ever naming it or mentioning its possible consequences on the health of the inhabitants of these regions, or on the countryside around them.

Hammer drills that shake the ground

Steam extraction machine in a mine.

Nuisances are not limited to this form of contamination, which is particularly aggressive. The city's darkness is compounded by a deafening noise pollution, which would nowadays be measured in decibels.

In the metallurgical industry, we can hear the hammer drills shaking the ground with their deaf blows. In mines, it is the back and forth movement of headframes, structures that move miners and their production down and up, or the constant noise of powerful steam extraction engines that move to supply the galleries with clean air.

Hector Malot refers to the "loud snoring" of fans that travellers hear at an hour's walk away from the city. Not to mention the running of the wagons on the rails.

All these regions have long been "rocked" by the invasive music of the industry. Paradoxically, respite only came in the event of a general strike!

A smog of pollution invaded London's sky on April 10, 2015. David Holt, CC BY-NC-ND

A rusty black smog

Smog" - a neologism that dates back to the early 20th century, formed from the words "smoke" and "fog" - is very present in Dickens' novels, which specifically refer to "pollution".

In Bleak House (1853), this industrial fog is described with almost scientific precision in terms of its colouring. Rather yellow near the capital, due to the sulphuric fumes emitted by domestic coal heating, it takes on an increasingly brown colour in the suburbs.

Arriving in the heart of the city, Dickens calls it "rusty black". Smog is also a cause of death, promoting the staging of the most horrific crimes, such as those of Jack the Ripper, who caused panic among Londoners in the late 1880s.

During the First World War, many Londoners returned home, in broad daylight and in single file, clinging to each other. They walked the streets of the city, surrounded by a "smog" so thick that they could no longer distinguish anything, guided by people who knew the route with their eyes closed and escorted them to their homes in turn.

The last episode of "smog" occurred at the end of 1952. Between December 5 and 9, the British capital was completely drowned in a fog that had to be cut with a knife. By the third day, visibility was almost zero and the air became unbreathable. Between 4,000 and 12,000 people, according to sources, lost their lives as a result of this dramatic event.

The most polluted village in Europe

In Copsa Mica (5,000 inhabitants) in the Tarnava Valley in Transylvania, a region of Romania - a highly contaminated country - the chemical industry was very active under Nicolas Ceausescu during the communist period. Nicknamed, at the time, the "black village", it was considered one of the most polluted places in Europe.

Abandoned factories still dominate the small town today, whose subsoil is full of heavy metals such as cadmium and sulphur dioxide.

Copsa Mica Plant. Julian Nitzsche/Wikimedia, CC BY-NC-ND

In the German villages of this part of Transylvania, placed since the 12th century under the protection of their imposing fortified churches, not far from Copsa Mica, an attempt is being made to turn the page on unlimited pollution. Since the fall of the communist regime, the objective has been to go back "green" in order to attract tourists and allow the population to live on a healthy land.

But even today, thirty years after the closure of polluting companies, the agricultural production of these places, like the water in the surrounding area, remains unfit for consumption.

Wherever the place, whatever the period and regime, forced industrialization first settled in the outskirts of cities or in the countryside. At first, green and black coexist, before pollution devours green and ends up devastating cities and countryside by permanently poisoning their soils.

Although awareness of industrial pollution was relatively late, it is still as old as industry itself.

The original version of this article was published in French on The Conversation.