The Great Smog of 1952 – SJ Environmental Justice

On December 5, 1952, the world’s romance with London’s fog ended in disaster. The real extent of wich was never being acknowledged. Air pollutants from the use of coal, combined with an anticyclone, windless condition and cold weather, formed a thin layer of smog over the city of London.

Cold weather for London’s residents meant the increasing need to burn more coal then usual to keep warm in houses. The coal people were using was an inferior quality as the government focused on exporting the good quality coal to pay off his depth. The low-grade coal increased the sulphur dioxide in the smoke that added to the coal-fired power station in London increased the level of pollution.

The anticyclone settled over London one day before the disaster and caused a temperature inversion, the cold air being trapped under a layer of warm air.This has resulted in a dense fog wich mixed with the chimney smoke, vehicle exhausts and other pollutants filled with sulphur, formed a persistent smog. Also, the absence of the wind prevented the smog to be dispersed.

At the time of the event, it wasn’t considered a significant event, even if it caused major disruption due to the effect of visibility.

“Nelson’s Column during the Great Smog of 1952” by N T Stobbs.

The public transportation has ceased because the visibility was reduced drastically making difficult, even impossible to drive. Roads were filled with abandoned cars and concerts were cancelled due to total darkness. The only public transport remained alive was in Underground. The ambulance service stopped functioning. The gasping people were walking to the public hospitals. The lips of the dying people were blue. Most of them died suffocated.

The smog related fatalities were mainly from pneumonia, tuberculosis, bronchitis, and heart failure. Some died from cardiac distress and asphyxiation. Non-fatal smog effects included: chest pain, lung inflammation and diminished breathing ability, permanent lung damage and asthma attacks. The smoge was so toxic that there were reports of choked to death cows in the fields.

By December 8th, 4 703 people died and thousands become ill because the effect of smog on the human respiratory system

Most of the victims were very young or elderly or with preexisting respiratory problems. The officials were blaming the weather at that time. That was the official release of the fact of 1952, but recent research and new documents found reveal how one of the world’s peace time catastrophes claimed as much as 12000 lives in the center of London.

London has had smoke events in the past but the one from December 5th, 1952 is considered the worst air pollution event in the United Kingdom’s history.  It was the most significant regarding its effect on environmental research, government regulation and public awareness.

Due to the events of 1952 new regulations were implemented restricting of use of dirty fuels in industry and banning black smoke.

New environmental legislations such the Clean Air Act from 1956 and the Clean Air Act of 1968 led to the reduction in air pollution.

These acts banned emission of black smoke and forced residents of the urban area and factories to convert to smokeless fuels.

Thanks to these pollution legislation and the widespread use of central heating in houses and offices the black smog in Britain became a thing of the past, but efforts will need to continue to counter air pollution and protect the environment for future generations.