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The Great Smog of London: When Pollution Killed 12,000 over a Weekend

More than a half century ago, nearly 12,000 Londoners were killed over a single weekend. 

Not from Nazi V2 rockets, a virulent strain of influenza, or a massive earthquake emanating from some distant North Sea trench. 

Instead, droves of residents succumbed to the ravages of a toxic smog bank of epic proportions that enveloped much of the city on the morning of December 5, 1952.

Though it’s one of the world’s great cities, England’s capital has never been known for air quality.  

In fact, it’s unlikely that any doctor ever said to a patient with chronic respiratory issues – 

“Go spend a winter in London!” 

At least in America we think of London as perpetually damp, chilly and overcast, but on that fateful morning as the sun rose the sky was relatively clear.

But Londoners had been experiencing a cold snap for weeks, which meant that more of them were burning coal to keep warm. 

Though it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, a kind of perfect storm was brewing – one that would lead to one of contemporary England’s largest non-war losses of life.

With a large river running through its heart, and surrounded by low hills, marshes, and the English Channel to the east, London has always been prone to natural winter fog.

But as the city’s population and industries grew, these fogs became more dense and frequent, and they hung around longer than usual too. 

Even as far back as the 13th century historical records show that London was frequently shrouded in expansive hazes that were later named “pea soupers” for their greenish-yellow hues and thick consistencies. 

The Great Smog of London
The Great Smog of London by George Tsiagalakis is licensed under CC-BY-SA

These hybrid “smogs” were the result of natural fog and manmade pollutants – primarily smoke and soot from burning coal, but they were exacerbated later by gasoline, diesel and jet engines in cars, boats, buses, trucks and airliners, and all manner of toxic particulate-filled emissions from factories that’d been city mainstays since the outset of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-18th century.  

In other words, by the time the ‘50s rolled around, poor air quality wasn’t exactly front page news in the city of 8.6 million, but that would change just a few weeks before Christmas in 1952, when the conditions responsible for creating the Great Fog were exceedingly rare. 

In those days, electric and natural gas heating systems were far from common. 

Coal was a primary source of warmth, cooking, and industrial power, and unlike much of what’s used in developed countries around the world today, it was high in sulfur which made it particularly dirty. 

But there were other factors too, like radiation fog, which typically occurs at night in the fall and winter when ground cooling causes fog to form as the air becomes saturated with condensation.  

And on that night the city was experiencing another weather phenomena called temperature inversion. 

During temperature inversion, atmospheric temperature doesn’t decrease regularly with altitude as is usually the case.

Instead, a layer of warm air suspends between cooler air above and below, causing a bottling effect, especially during windless conditions. 

Inversions are usually reversed in the morning when the sun’s warmth heats the ground and burns off moisture, but on that particular morning the reversal never happened.

What did happen was like something out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. 

A mass of still air the color of pancreatic fluid that reeked of rotten eggs and was chock-full of lung-choking coal particles began forming over the sleeping city. 

One that would eventually grow to more than 30 miles wide in some areas, all but obscuring historic landmarks like Big Ben, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the Tower of London. 

In fact, measurements showed that particulate matter in the air was more than 50 times higher than it should have been. 

Yet surprisingly, many went about their routines much like they did every other day. 

In the beginning restaurants and movie theaters remained open, though even indoors it was tough to read menus and movie screens were little more than amorphous blobs of distant light. 

In some parts of the city the smog was already so overwhelming that pedestrians couldn’t see their own feet. 

Most sporting events were cancelled, though a cross-country running competition between Cambridge and Oxford went full-speed ahead at Wimbledon Common, where harried track marshalls repeatedly shouted “This way!” as runners emerged from the miasma.  

Those brave enough to venture out in cars turned on their headlights, wrapped scarves over their noses and mouths and hung their heads out the window as they inched along through the murky gloom. 

Some found the going so tedious and dangerous that they abandoned their vehicles altogether. 

Flashlight yielding policeman guided bewildered bus drivers to safe parking areas where they too were left, and wheezing walkers stumbled toward home or the market being extra careful not to slip on the primordial ooze that had cast a slippery sheen on everything from streets and sidewalks to handrails and stairs. 

People who’d been out for just a few minutes looked like 18th century coal miners after all-night shifts.  

Airports were shuttered and commerce on the Thames ground to a halt.

All that remained open was the Underground. 

Apparently even Winston Churchill’s beautiful secretary Venetia Scott was killed when she stepped from the curb into the path of a speeding bus obscured by the haze. 

How dramatic! 

Only Venetia Scott never actually existed, and therefore it didn’t happen, but it probably did to at least a few of the 12,000 who lost their lives. 

Urban legends aside, people did die in the streets in appalling conditions, especially the young, elderly, homeless and malnourished. 

And the effects weren’t limited to humans.

Suffocated birds fell from the sky, while others crashed into buildings breaking their necks. 

Livestock and housepets keeled over in droves, and championship stock breeders took to dousing grain sacks in whisky and placing them over their heads to filter out the deadly particles in the air.  

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom.

Enterprising burglars, pickpockets and purse snatchers had a field day, secure in the knowledge that their identities would remain hidden and that they could retreat into the darkness at will after committing their crimes.

Thankfully after five days of hell, on December 9th, the noxious cloud known as the Great Smog finally began dissipating and drifting east and north out over the English Channel and eventually the North Sea. 

Cleaning up London

london smog cleaning up
Cleaning Up London

Though there’s no way to calculate just how much industrial filth hung in the air, it’s been estimated that up to 10,000 tons of smog choked London, including nearly 1,000 tons of sulfuric acid and 200 tons of hydrochloric acid. 

The indiscriminate smog spared no one regardless of age, gender or social status, but it was particularly tough on the young and the old, and those with preexisting respiratory problems like smokers and asthmatics.

Deaths from bronchitis and pneumonia related complications increased nearly eightfold.

The death rate in London’s East End – an area notorious for its institutional poverty, overcrowding and poor sanitation – increased by almost a factor of ten. 

Initial reports estimated that about 4,000 Londoners died as a result, but rumors circulated that the actual number was much higher, and that the government was intentionally downplaying the incident to deflect liability and save face. 

All told, final numbers came in about three times as high, a fact largely driven home by data from mortuaries and florists who ran out of coffins and flowers due to the glut of funerals. 

And the effects were far from short-lived, because for years after death rates among more susceptible segments of society remained drastically elevated. 

Though it happened in typical lethargic fashion, the government did investigate the incident and eventually bowed to pressure and passed the Clean Air Act of 1956, which finally put into place meaningful and enforceable regulations in regard to both domestic and industrial pollution. 

The act was widely regarded as a turning point in the country’s budding environmental movement, and among a number of notable provisions, one included subsidies to households to convert from coal to cleaner energy sources like electricity and natural gas. 

It also mandated stricter standards for industrial emissions, and the creation of smoke-free zones throughout the city. 

The letter of the law was clear, but implementation was slowed by special interest groups and politicians concerned about the act’s social and economic ramifications.

But although things were moving in the right direction, another event similar to the Great Smog occurred in 1962. 

It “only” resulted in the death of 750 Londers, and though nothing on the scale of the Great Smog ever happened again, it was obvious to many that the city’s air quality and pollution problems were far from solved. 

Another even more strict act was passed in 1968, but in the birthplace of the First Industrial Revolution it wasn’t until the ‘80s that the skies over London became largely free from manmade pollutants, and the health and quality of life of its residents improved significantly. 

Thankfully, smog of such monumental proportions is a thing of the past, but environmental activists still claim that the UK’s air isn’t as clean as it should be, and they point to studies which conclude that dirty air is still responsible for the deaths of more than 30,000 of their countrymen each year, not only London, but in large urban and industrial cities in the north like Birmingham, Sheffield and Newcastle. 

Though there are numerous ways to define and measure air quality, these days you won’t find London on any list purporting to rank the cities with the dirtiest air. 

Instead, the top spots are populated by developing nations like India, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Vietnam.  

And some of China’s industrial centers rank pretty highly as well. 

In total, it’s thought that China emits about ⅓ of the pollution pumped into the world’s atmosphere every year.  

But less developed countries where pollution is high and regulation spotty don’t have a monopoly on dirty air. 

In September of 2020, Los Angeles recorded its worst air quality in decades, when over Labor Day weekend unprecedented heat, pollution and ozone levels prompted municipal governments across southern and central California to suggest that residents stay indoors, as the air outside was characterized as “very unhealthy” by the federal Air Quality Index. 

According to Global Citizen, the top three cities for poor air quality in the United States – LA, Riverside and Bakersfield – are all in California, and combined about 2,000 of their residents die prematurely every year as a result.  

But compared to what the Global Burden of Disease Study found, it’s barely a drop in the bucket, because according to them more than 1 million Chinese die from poor air quality each year. 

In fact, many of China’s northern industrial cities regularly experience events similar to the Great Smog of ‘52, especially during the winter when industrial, household and vehicular emissions are high, and similar weather conditions exist.  

And in addition to suspended coal particles, China’s air is often chock full of toxins and contaminants, which doctors say may reduce the average lifespan of residents by as many as 5 years.  

But where there’s profit to be made from the suffering of others, entrepreneurs like Canadians Moses Lam and Troy Paquette will always fill the void. 

Their now lucrative business venture to bottle air from the Canadian Rockies and sell it to the Chinese started as a joke more than 5 years ago, but to their surprise, their first plastic baggie of crisp, clean air from Banff National Park sold for well over $100 on ebay. . 

The pair then conducted market research to target residents of the most polluted cities, and designed an aluminum can with a patented inhalation valve that allowed them to officially launch Vitality Air in 2015. 

And their motto?

“Enhance vitality one breath at a time.”

The company’s biggest seller is an 8-liter can of Banff air that retails for more than $30 and gives users more than 150 one-second hits – or less than a quarter per lungfull. 

Though the medical verdict is still out on whether it’s worth buying fresh air from halfway around the world, perhaps if given the chance Londers in 1952 would’ve scoffed their product up too, like people all over the world are doing today. 

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