Disease and Death


The fog took a heavy toll on London in 1952. During this time period, huge amounts of impurities were released into the environment, causing the fog to be exceedingly deadly. Smoke from millions of domestic and factory chimneys pumped coal fumes into the air causing it to become heavily polluted. “1,000 tonnes of smoke particles, 2,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, 140 tonnes of hydrochloric acid and 14 tonnes of fluorine compounds were emitted into the air” (“The Great Smog of 1952.”). Unable to diffuse upwards through the denser air, hot and murky fumes fell to the ground and did not visibly lessen for at least a week. The sun remained hidden during this time causing the days to be dark and the gloomy. Because the people lived in such close vicinity of one another, the city’s residence suffered an enormous health toll. Many people blamed the city’s foggy weather for the tenacious darker areas. At first, there was no panic because London was infamous for its consistent fog. However, the dispute about whether the coal smoke was affecting the citizens health came to an end when a drastic amount of deaths took over the city. In the weeks that proceeded, statistics accumulated by medical facilities found that the fog was responsible for killing 4,000 people within only a couple weeks. Majority of the victims affected were the young or elderly who previously suffered from respiratory issues. It was later determined that two-thirds of the 4,000 deaths were over the age of 65 years old. Others who survived the fog with non-fatal effects experienced short-term chest pains, lung inflammation, diminishing breathing ability, damaged respiratory cells, lung damage, and increase incidence of asthma attacks. The ones who weren’t so lucky faced pneumonia, bronchitis, tuberculosis, heart failure, and death.

Pneumonia is an infection that inflames the air sacs in one or both lungs. The air sacs may fill with fluid or pus causing coughing with phlegm, fevers, chills, and extreme difficulty breathing. Bronchitis is an inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes, which carry air to and from the lungs. People who have bronchitis often cough up thickened mucus, causing the disease to range from acute to chronic. Tuberculosis was a lot more common during this time period than present day. Tuberculosis is an infectious disease that can attack the entire body, but is notorious for infecting the lungs. The bacterium that causes tuberculosis is easily spread from one person to another through tiny droplets released into the air via coughs and sneezes. Once one is infected, severe symptom such as coughing up mucus and blood, extreme fatigue, fever and night sweats began to take play. Tuberculosis is air born, making it easily spread through the over-populated streets of London. It is easily treatable, but can be fatal if ignored. Heart failure develops gradually over time, as the heart’s pumping grows weaker and weaker. Depending on the side of the heart that is affected, if not both, one could experience fluid build up in the lower body causing it to severely swell, shortness of breath, fatigue, and chest pain. Most people did not survive these extreme illnesses and added to the drastic number of deaths that resulted from this time period.

Once the peak of the fog and fatalities began to decrease, the rate of deaths still remained above average for weeks to follow. Over the span of the 1952 winter, there were approximately 12,000 deaths that were reported in London. Most of which were caused from the lasting affects on the population’s health from the intense fog. It was also a belief that the smog could have been a leading cause of people’s risk of cancer, creating long-term illness for some who had survived the toxic winter, yet made it out with a lasting sickness. “By 1956, major legislation to require reductions in coal burning became the law of the land” (Davis,2002). After the loss of 12,000 lives, this disaster was recognized as the greatest urban air pollution disaster in modern history.

Angelo, L. “London Smog Disaster, England.” London Smog Disaster, England. 2012. Accessed April 12, 2016. http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/154281/.

Davis, Devra. “The Great Smog.” History Today. December 2002. Accessed April 12, 2016. http://www.historytoday.com/devra-davis/great-smog.

“The Great Smog of 1952.” Met Office. April 20, 2015. Accessed April 12, 2016. http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/learning/learn-about-the-weather/weather-phenomena/case-studies/great-smog.

Tripe, John W. “View Report Page.” Wellcome Library. Accessed April 12, 2016. http://wellcomelibrary.org/moh/report/b18039832/28#?c=0.