London Suffocating Smog – England – December 5, 1952

London’s nine million residents were almost totally immobilized for four days as a thick smog smothered the city and killed 4,000 people.

From the fifth to the ninth of December 1952, a mass of dry, cold air settled over London, strong enough to prevent any upward movement of the air on the ground. Above this strong layer of very cold air there was a layer of warm air, the opposite of what one would expect. This is often referred to as a temperature inversion. In this situation pollutants get trapped at ground level and, since there was no wind on this occasion, pollutants stayed within the areas of highest population densities.

The air became a blinding, suffocating cloud of gas, creating the worst fog in living memory. Breathing passages were clogged and eyes hurt. Within a few hours people were breathing foul and very dangerous gases. Before cleaner air returned a few days later, 4,000 people had died and many thousands more were seriously ill.

London’s history of fogs is well known. Novelists often refer to it and many of them conjure up pictures of a dark, damp, foggy atmosphere to enrich their stories, especially if they are murder mystery ones. The tons of sulfur dioxide and other pollutants that come from coal-burning fires and furnaces are the causes of this unhealthy atmosphere. Smog might be a better word than fog to describe what actually occurs. Locally, the preferred word is pea soup. From the earliest days of the industrial revolution coal was the choice of almost everyone for heating and cooking so, over the past two centuries, huge population centers like London had a growing problem that came from coal fumes.

Long before 1952 there were complaints that the outsides of heritage buildings were decaying from coal smoke. By the middle of the nineteenth century the problem was acute. Novelists made reference to London’s half million coal fires mingling with the surrounding air, being modified by inadequate drainage, and causing a black unhealthy atmosphere.

It is hard to imagine a metropolitan area of nine million people coming to a complete standstill, but that is exactly what happened. Every aspect of city life was crippled and, perhaps for the first time, most of its residents discovered how interconnected and interdependent all the parts really were. Fortunately, the paralysis lasted no more than four days yet in that time some 4,000 people lost their lives and as many more died later as a result of what they had breathed.

Many thousands of others were seriously ill. Of those who died, 90 percent were over forty-five years of age. Try to imagine what life would be like in London during those days of December 1952 and compare your list with the reality that is recorded in the next few paragraphs.

All transportation except the underground railway system was stopped. Even the underground trains had trouble when they emerged above ground for part of the way. In streets everywhere visibility dropped to a point where nothing could be seen beyond a couple of feet. Drivers who tried to move were confronted with barricades of abandoned cars. One ambulance attendant walked twenty-five miles holding an open-flame torch to guide his driver.

Heathrow airport was closed and planes told to use Bournemouth, a seaside town 150 miles southwest of London. Ships unloading food and other essentials had to stop their work because of fears that people as well as goods might fall into the water and no one would know.

Polluted air poured through windows and under doorways. The city became a place of lost and troubled people. Fleets of ambulances were called in from surrounding communities to help with the masses of people of all ages who just could not cope with the attacks on their lungs. They were of little use because visibility made it almost impossible for them to get to where they were needed.

Doctors were unable to reach hospitals or individuals at home and resorted to telephone calling to diagnose as well as recommend treatment. Fires broke out but nothing could be done. In one location the fire station was only four hundred yards away from a building that caught fire yet could not get to it. The building was totally destroyed.

Pregnant women were unable to reach their hospitals and had to deliver babies in all kinds of places. Weddings had to be cancelled or else rushed through, if the parties managed to reach the church or registry office, in order to give place to the next latecomer. Electric power was cut off for large sections of the city when staff failed to turn up for duty at the control stations.

The story was similar at the main studios of the British Broadcasting Corporation. Both radio and television programs were curtailed. At a cattle auction animals were dying as they inhaled the poisonous fumes. Some were saved by an enterprising worker who covered the animals’ noses with cloths that were moistened with whisky.

For the fearless that decided to attend theaters the usual tactic was to form a crocodile that is a line of people with each holding on to the next ahead as they tried to find their destination. If they succeeded they had to sit near the front. The movie was barely visible from the back seats. On one of the four evenings of the disaster, the opera La Traviata was cancelled after the first act because of the intensity of the fog. Birds crashed into buildings or plummeted on to streets.

Two of the very few positive outcomes were the increases in business by dry cleaners and beauty shops. If a person went outside for an hour, clothing and hair were soon covered with a black unpleasant coating. Saddest aspect of all, though predictable, was the crime rate. It rose very high because police were powerless to do anything about it.

Air pollution is a major global problem. An Indonesian smog cloud of 1997 was not as destructive as the London one but its effects were similar. Many of the causes of global warming stem from similar climatic conditions and human behaviors as appeared in London. In 1997 Indonesia recorded the destruction of more than seventeen thousand square miles of forest land on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. Emissions from these fires caused air pollution problems through all the countries of Southeast Asia, especially Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

A glance at a map will show why these countries were the worst affected. They are the closest to the sources of pollution. Tiny pieces of the carbon remnants from the fires proved to be the most damaging pollutants. They caused acute respiratory diseases such as bronchitis and asthma and often caused death. Secondary effects of this kind of solid matter in the air were poor visibility and disruption of transportation systems. Flights were delayed and transportation on land and sea was slowed down. Construction work was stopped for fear of damaging the health of workers. Tourists stayed away.

The fires were the result of bush clearances. These were carried out by companies that wanted to make way for the development of new palm oil plantations. The first of these practices, often known as slash and burn, is widely condemned by environmentalists all over the world. It is an ancient mode of agriculture, once acceptable in remote areas of jungle among small groups of people, but too destructive when conducted on a large scale.

Plantation planning is on a much bigger scale and affects greater areas of land. About a tenth of the world’s supply of tropical rainforests is in Indonesia and these are the forests that are exceptionally rich in biodiversity. For this reason alone, these forests of Indonesia are a valuable area that needs to be preserved for the sake of humanity as a whole. One problem in trying to take action is that our knowledge of the resources of this country is not accurate. It is not known for instance how much of forest is being cut down each year. Some estimates go as high as two million acres.

Satellite imagery from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) identified a smoke haze extending over more than a million square miles from Indonesia to Thailand in 1997. NASA also noted that the level of pollution was far above normal air quality standards for that region and was, in fact, thirty times higher in places close to the fires. Visibility in the islands where burning was taking place dropped to half a mile and at times to less than three hundred feet.

The urban centers of Southeast Asia are already overcrowded and their services are inadequate to cope with the steady influx from rural areas. Air quality is always poor so any sudden increase like the 1997 one raises pollution to dangerous levels. In Singapore, all though the latter part of 1997, there was a 30 percent increase in hospital attendance regarding illnesses related to the haze. Estimated damages for the smog cloud of 1997 were one billion dollars in Indonesia alone. For Malaysia and Singapore combined it was half a billion dollars and for the whole of the ASEAN Region about four and a half billion dollars.

Air pollution is the source of environmental damage to forests, soils, air, and acid-sensitive aquatic organisms. All these impacts add significant economic costs. As this becomes widely known, pollution abatement policies are given higher priority. Direct regulation, the one used in Britain in the wake of the 1952 disaster, is one way of responding. Taxation and private litigation are other approaches. Contamination of the atmosphere is a long-standing side effect of industrialization.

The severity of the problem and the public awareness of it, however, are relatively new. As industry expanded rapidly throughout the world after World War II, pollution followed. London’s deadly fog, while rare even in England, has served to highlight the global challenge. In the capitals of the two biggest countries of the world in terms of population, Delhi in India and Beijing in China, conditions approximating those of London are common. Sources of the problem in these cities are the same as London’s, burning of fossil fuels.

From time to time across the United States, there are problems of air pollution that endanger health. In Donora, Pennsylvania, in 1948, a temperature inversion occurred, very similar to London’s. Donora was the site of a steel mill and other industrial plants and normally the smoke and fumes from them posed little danger to health. This time, because of a mass of cold air, pollutants were concentrated in one area for three days. Twenty people died and thousands became ill.

In the summer of 1955, Los Angeles experienced a week of temperatures that stayed above one hundred degrees and led to a smog emergency. A deadly dark haze filled the air as the sun’s rays interacted with the exhaust fumes of cars. Large numbers of people complained of painful eyes and difficulty with breathing. Los Angeles has been aware for a long time of this kind of eventuality because of its climate and its extensive use of cars. Years ago it mandated low emissions for all cars and this has helped reduce the frequency of serious smog emergencies.

The end of London’s tragedy arrived three days after it began. Stagnant air gave way to winds and the smog began to lift. An investigation was launched into the cause of the disaster. Within the millions of tons of sulphur were huge volumes of sulphuric acid and it is this that caused the greatest damage. It combined with metal, stones, and clothing to weaken and destroy them. As a result of this disaster, the Clean Air Act of 1956 was introduced. Stricter regulations were placed on coal-burning furnaces and anti-pollution laws were strongly enforced, but it took time for change to occur. Six years after the passing of the act a smog attack killed sixty people within three days.

A newspaper reported that, on that day, smoke levels were 10 percent above normal and sulfur dioxide fourteen times higher. Gradually the switch to low-sulfur fuels like natural gas changed the city’s air. London’s pea soups now belong to history. Coal is no longer in widespread use. Where it is still used in electricity-generating stations there are scrubbers in place to minimize the amounts of pollutants released into the atmosphere.

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