12.2 Public health
Despite the scale and speed of industrialisation, it took time to move from local responses to national legislation in terms of public health. In the UK, it was not until the Public Health Act 1848 that corporate boroughs were given responsibility for (amongst other things) drainage, water supplies and removal of ‘nuisances’.
Environmental management was mostly conceived as managing environmental resources and wastes for public health. Key milestones were the cholera epidemic of 1847, which led to water supply improvements, and the ‘Great Stink’ in London of 1858, which led to an enabling Act that raised funding for the construction of sewers to manage inflows into the Thames. Much later, London’s ‘Great Smog’ of 1952 lead to the Clean Air Act 1956 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] and the creation of smokeless zones.
London is still suffering ongoing public health issues concerning invisible traffic pollution, as discussed in this BBC News article, which also provides some video of the Great Smog of 1952.
In these cases, ‘public health’ rather than ‘environmental protection’ (still an unknown concept) was the focus. The environment was principally regarded as a pathway – the medium through which harmful substances and ‘waste’ could be removed – rather than an element that required protection in and of itself.