China’s already staggering pollution problems got worse this week as a shroud of smog engulfed northern industrial cities.

In Harbin, which has a population of 11 million, the PM2.5 index -- a measure of the concentration of microscopic particulate matter in the air -- broke 1,000. The World Health Organization considers any reading of more than 20 to be a cause for concern, and levels above 300 to be hazardous.

Like so much having to do with China’s economy, this environmental degradation seems unprecedented. It isn’t. The disasters in China today are simply the latest in a series of public-health catastrophes that have accompanied industrialization elsewhere. In fact, China’s contemporary pollution problems probably fall short of records first established in the U.K. and the U.S.

One of the defining features of industrial revolutions past and present is the shift to fossil fuels such as coal, particularly in urban centers. Much like contemporary China, England became an economic powerhouse by relying on cheap coal to power its factories as well as to heat and illuminate the cities that would become crucibles of industrial capitalism: Manchester, Birmingham and above all, London.

Cheap Coal

These cities became synonymous with coal smoke. In London, pollution had become a serious problem by the 17th century, as a burgeoning population and a growing number of workshops and homes dependent on cheap coal turned the air black. John Evelyn, a confidant of King Charles II, correctly identified the problem in a pamphlet, “Fumifugium: Or, the Inconvenience of the Aer, and Smoake of London Dissipated,” published in 1661.

Coal, he averred, was a “subterrany fuel” that had “a kind of virulent or arsenical vapour arising from it” and killed many. Evelyn proposed moving industry out of the city as well as planting massive gardens with “odiferous flowers” that would “tinge the air” and thereby mask the pollution.

Evelyn’s proposal changed nothing. London and other industrial cities became increasingly polluted with coal smoke, which on occasion combined with heavy fog to create a blinding, “pestilential atmosphere.” While Parliament and local governments passed laws seeking to regulate smoke emissions, such efforts faltered in the face of lack enforcement and the explosive growth of the cities. Every year more coal fires burned in London and other industrial cities, and the air darkened.

In 1873, the first of several “black fogs” descended on London. In December, the gas lights illuminating the capital’s streets vanished in a smoky haze; horse-drawn cabs had to be led by men carrying torches who proceeded a foot at a time. Visibility was a few feet at most, and many Londoners drowned after they mistakenly walked off the docks into the river Thames.

But the real body count was caused by the air itself. Tabulating the deaths in the wake of the disaster, the Lancet realized that the city’s death rate had spiked, with more than 700 people perishing from respiratory ailments attributed to the smoky fog. Sadly, this was just the beginning: thousands more died in blinding clouds in 1879 and 1880. A British correspondent writing to the New York Times in 1880 reported that London had been plunged into a “week of night,” and that the fog had “poisoned some our citizens to death… it has set pedestrians crying aloud in the streets lest they should be run over, and they have not always cried successfully.”

Jeopardizing Growth

In the wake of these disasters, reformers came together to form the Smoke Abatement Committee, which labored in vain for decades to combat air pollution. Factory owners, never mind members of Parliament, were reluctant to jeopardize economic growth by curbing pollution, even if that meant sending innumerable citizens to an early grave.

Worse, statutes on the books meant to curtail pollutants proved ineffectual, thanks to some curious loopholes. London’s Public Health Act of 1891, for example, declared that “any chimney sending forth black smoke might be deemed a nuisance,” and subject to elimination. But when the government sued polluters under the terms of the act, the defendants demonstrated to the satisfaction of the court that their emissions weren’t really black -- they were more of a dark brown color. The smoke continued.

London was hardly alone: The second-largest city, Manchester, was the heart of a much larger industrial conurbation that included Birmingham, Liverpool and Sheffield. Much of the region remained cloaked in sulfurous smoke year-round. In 1888, the Manchester Guardian, hardly a bastion of radicalism at this time, said the city’s “appalling death rate” was caused by “the smoke demon and noxious vapours,” which were “killing downright our boys and girls.”

Attempts to improve life by planting parks and gardens yielded little: By century’s end, reports the historian Stephen Mosely, “Manchester was virtually barren.”

Some creatures even adapted to the changed environment. The peppered moth, for example, which was white with gray flecks -- presumably to help conceal it from predators when it rested on tree trunks -- evolved via a process that scientists dubbed “industrial melanism.” In the space of a few decades in the late 19th century, moths in the industrial Midlands turned almost entirely black. A genetic mutation responsible for the change in color conferred an evolutionary advantage on a select group of moths, enabling them to blend into the smoke-stained background more readily than their mottled peers. By the 1890s, almost 98 percent of the moths had switched colors.

Human beings had a tougher time adapting. And by the late 19th century, England was hardly alone in grappling with killer clouds. In the U.S., industrial cities such as Pittsburgh (which one early visitor described as “hell with the lid taken off”) rivaled the big industrial centers of England. Like their British counterparts -- and China’s industrial cities today -- Cincinnati, St. Louis, Chicago and Cleveland increasingly depended heavily on soft, smoky coal to heat homes and power factories.

Chicago Morgue

By the first decade of the 20th century, this dependence had taken a dangerous turn, with more coal burned from 1898 to 1908 than during the preceding century. In cities such as Chicago, breathing the air left an indelible mark. In 1900, the Cook County Medical Examiner reported that he could readily tell via an autopsy whether the deceased had lived in Chicago: When he cut open the lungs of city dwellers “to lay the hand across the new-cut surface…would blacken the palm almost as black as to put it wet into a pan of soot.”

Such revelations appalled many. But change came slowly. In fact, when it came to killer smog, the worst was yet to come.

(Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter. This article is the first of two on the history of smog.)