Addressing Air Pollution

Palmer, Alfred T. “Smokestacks from a Wartime Production Plant, World War II.” US Library of Congress. Wikimedia Commons.

The issue of air pollution, and by extension the Great Smog of 1952, is reminiscent of the Great Stink of 1858, the unfortunate result of the polluted Thames River. Occurring almost a century later, the effects of air pollution were found to be much more severe, leading to the deaths of at least 4000 people within the first few days of the smog making its presence known. However, more recent research suggests that the death toll could have been triple that number (Bell, 2004). Given the horrific events of the smog and the lives it claimed, the scientific community was quick to search for a way to ensure such an event was avoided in the future.

There were two important laws that were eventually passed that were vital in curbing the pollution being released into the atmosphere: the first was the Clean Air Act of 1956, and the second was somewhat of an addition to the first, but the latter was not passed until 1968. These two laws set the precedent for changes to pollution control throughout the rest of the 20th century, eventually leading to the Control of Air Pollution Act in 1974, and then the Environment Act in 1995 (BBC News, 2005).

Immediately following the Great Smog of 1952, medical health officials began to search for various methods to prevent a similar disaster from occurring again. The connection between fuel combustion, air pollution, and its detrimental effects on health was becoming common knowledge, and in the aftermath of the Great Smog, and increasing public health concern. Medical Officer of Health reports reflect this, as the medical officer of health for the Twickenham borough was among the first to suggest switching from coal burning heaters to be used in the home to more environmentally friendly methods, such as electricity or smokeless fuels (Maddison, 1952). Unfortunately, the most prominent issue with this suggestion was the cost. This issue was resolved with the passing of the Clean Air Act of 1952, which gave the government the authority to provide funds to households so that the residents could more easily change from coal-based heaters to fuels that were not so damaging to the environment; these included oil, smokeless coal, electricity, and more (De Angelo, 2008). Additionally, the Clean Air Act also called for a restriction on the emission of “dark smoke” from both households as well as machinery, and introduced “smokeless zones”(Greenwood, 1956).

The second Clean Air Act came in 1968, just 14 years after the first had passed. This act was directed more towards industrial sources of air pollution, and simply called for taller chimneys so that the smoke being emitted was more easily and efficiently dispersed as it was created and released into the atmosphere. However, authorities at the time also believed that aiming for the complete removal of sulfur dioxide, one of the primary causes of the numerous deaths from the smog, was almost impossible. Both of the Clean Air Acts of 1952 and 1968 were instrumental in dramatically reducing the air pollution in urban areas thanks to the introduction of smokeless zones, alternative sources of fuel, and taller chimneys for industrial buildings.

The Clean Air Acts of 1952 and 1968 were the first of many more measures and laws that were passed over the course of the 20th century. Two of the more important laws passed during this time were the Control of Pollution Act of 1974, and the Environment Act of 1995. The Control of Pollution Act was a change involving the fuels being used: the composition of motor fuels began to be regulated, and the act also called for less sulfur to be used in fuel oil. The Environment Act of 1995 introduced more regulations on the emission of particularly important air pollutants, and led to improvements such as introducing air quality management areas or requiring strategies to deal with waste.

Fortunately, the laws passed over the latter half of the 20th century were able to dramatically improve on the pollution that was running rampant and unchecked. Although prior to the Great Smog there was little that was being done to curb the extensive amount of pollution being released, the smog and the Great Stink probably served as wake up calls for improvement.



Bell, Michelle L., Devra L. Davis, and Tony Fletcher. “A Retrospective Assessment of Mortality from the London Smog Episode of 1952: The Role of Influenza and Pollution.” Environmental Health Perspectives 112, no. 1 (January 2004). 

“20th Century London.” Environment.

“BBC ON THIS DAY | 9 | 1952: London Fog Clears after Days of Chaos.” BBC News.

Maddison, John. “Good Health in Twickenham.” Wellcomelibrary.

De Angelo, Laura. “London Smog Disaster, England.” The Encyclopedia of Earth. February 8, 2008.

“London Smog Disaster, England.” London Smog Disaster, England.

Greenwood, John. “Report of the Medical Officer of Health for London, City of.”

“Changing Air Quality | Clean Air Acts | Great London Smog.” Changing Air Quality | Clean Air Acts | Great London Smog.