Remembering “The Great Smog”

Sixty years ago, on December 5th, 1952, a thick shroud of fog and pollution settled over London and the surrounding towns.  It would endure until December 9th . . . by which time thousands of people would have died from its effects.  The Telegraph reports:

The capital was famous for its filthy air long before the Great Smog of 1952 but it took the deaths of 4,000 people to prompt a clean-up. And even now the city lives under a deadly cloud of invisible pollutants

. . .

That weekend was bitterly cold and Londoners stoked up their coal fires to keep warm, pushing pollution up a million chimneys to join the already foggy, stagnant air. This hung like a pall over the city because it was trapped in a temperature inversion, with the cold caught beneath a warmer layer higher up. On the Friday the pea-souper was already thicker than anyone could remember, and it went on getting worse. Visibility quickly dropped to five yards all over London, and on Sunday night it was officially described as “nil”. On the Monday, Sadler’s Wells had to abandon a performance of La Traviata because the audience could not see the stage, and nurses at the Royal London Hospital reported not being able to see from one end of their wards to the other.

People who had set off in their cars in what should have been daylight had to abandon them and walk, while buses gave up and crawled back to their depots in nose-to-tail convoys. Two trains collided near London Bridge. And sacking soaked in whisky was wrapped around the nostrils of cattle at the Smithfield Show to act as improvised gas masks.

. . .

It was only after an inquiry had established that air pollution cost the country hundreds of millions of pounds a year – and that cleaning it up was very cheap by comparison – that ministers seriously contemplated action. And even then it was only provoked into legislation when a flamboyant backbencher, the luxuriantly moustachioed Gerald Nabarro, put down a private member’s Bill.

The 1956 Clean Air Act finally did the job – and increased December sunshine by 70 per cent. But, while London’s air now looks far cleaner, it has become deadly again as pollution from car exhausts has replaced coal. Today it contains higher levels of nitrogen dioxide than the air of any other European capital, and is well over the danger limit for even more harmful particulates. More than 4,000 people die as a result each year, even though, back in 1985, the government promised that by 2000 air quality would be “improved to a point at which recognised air pollutants do not pose a threat to public health”.

Britain is breaking European law over both pollutants. But, even more supine than Supermac, the Government does not expect to be back within legal limits before 2025. As James Thornton, chief executive of the green legal practice Client Earth, says: “History is repeating itself.”

There’s more at the link.  A gallery of pictures of the Great Smog may be found here.

More recent research suggests that the figure of 4,000 deaths originally attributed to the Great Smog was a gross underestimation.  A 2004 report (link is to an Adobe Acrobat document in .PDF format) suggested that the true figure might be three times that number.

If the excess deaths in the months after the 1952 London smog are related to air pollution, the mortality count would be approximately 12,000 rather than the 3,000–4,000 generally reported for the episode. Additionally, there could be interaction between influenza and air pollution, in that people who survived the extreme episode could have been more susceptible to influenza.

Again, more at the link.

It’s strange to think that air pollution was a real killer not so very long ago . . . and that today, in countries like China which have undergone rapid and unchecked industrialization, it’s just as severe a problem.  Remember the fuss over reducing Beijing’s air pollution prior to the Olympic Games in 2008?



  1. The problem remains so many deaths, so many "causes" (used in several ways) I doubt of anyone can give a specific cause of death or than accident, violence and execution.
    Who is old gray and cynical.

  2. "back in 1985, the government promised that by 2000 air quality would be “improved to a point at which recognised air pollutants do not pose a threat to public health”

    But then they started worrying about carbon dioxide…

    What I hate most about going to London is the black snot in my nose. There has been a wholesale push both in Taxi regs and road tax incentives for switch to diesel, but without the limits on particulate emissions NO2 that you have in the USA.

  3. Yeah… the environuts who either can't or refuse to see second order effects drive me up the wall.

    First the ones like Douglas mentioned above, who pushed this CO2 nonsense, which distracted from reducing things which are actually poisonous.

    And second the ones who pushed for such stringent controls on industrial pollution that eventually it wasn't worth it for American manufacturers to try and comply anymore. Which led to them shutting down their (say) steel plants, and selling the whole works to Chinese companies, who generally didn't even bother to ship the enviro control hardware back to China.

    So not only did the American steelworkers lose their jobs, because it was no longer economically possible to compete in the market, but in pushing for a 97% pollutant scrub rate to be bumped up to a 99% scrub rate, they ended up reducing it to a 0% scrub rate, but 7,000 miles away.

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