The Invisible Killer: The Rising Global Threat of Air Pollution and How We Can Fight Back

the invisible killer

Gary Fuller
Melville House UK, £20.00

If air pollution was a disease, distant acquaintances would send links to their JustGiving pages, telling you about the marathon they were running to raise money for research. Breast cancer kills around 630,000 people around the world each year, diabetes closer to a million and a half; the quality of the air we breathe, on the other hand, contributes directly to 4.2 million premature deaths. But, as Gary Fuller powerfully states at the beginning of The Invisible Killer, these people have ‘no memorial’.

In this readable and engaging history of air pollution, Fuller takes us from 17th century London (coal-smogged for the first time) through to mid-20th century London (still coal-smogged) and into a 21st century grappling with the same fundamental problems: how to heat our homes and cook our food, how to make our goods and move them around, how to power the production required to meet humanity’s endless need.

Whilst he occasionally focuses on individual stories of gentleman-scientists conducting back garden experiments, or lone researchers standing up to corporate avarice, his main thrust is the complicity of systems in generating air pollution. For example, he details how ‘just-in-time’ attitudes towards stock and the exponential increase in online orders, coupled with a diversified and competitive delivery market, mean that our cities are constantly criss-crossed by half empty vans, often ferrying goods to the same address.

Overall, Fuller does a good job of demonstrating how something so utterly contingent on human activity becomes so nebulous when the time arrives to allot responsibility. Because, although on occasion there is a clear agent of blame — the petrol industry does not come out well — the truth is that a series of interconnected systems of production, distribution and consumption, propelled by fuel of varying damage and checked by an ineffectual mesh of regulations, post-hoc solutions and buck-passing, are at fault.

Intractable this may be, but the result means nine out of ten people on this planet breathe air containing high levels of pollutants, with those at the bottom end of the economic scale most at risk and little end in sight.

D. Cornish