The Great Smog of 1952

 

fog
Nelson’s Column during the Great Smog of 1952  Wikimedia Commons.

Air pollution was a growing problem in the city of London in the 20th century.  It fluctuated in degrees of severity. However, one episode of this terrible polluted air was worse than any London had seen or experienced before. This was the fog of 1952, also called the Great Smog, which lasted from December 5 to December 9 (Bell & Davis 2001). Although the amount of time the dense fog was present seems rather short, it continued to affect people’s health for many months after it dispersed. This was also a major point in history that lead to research into fog and air pollution and what solutions could be implemented to alleviate the health risk it caused.

London fogs were an increasing problem in the first half on the 20th century. During this time period, huge amounts of impurities were released into the environment, causing the fogs to be dangerous and even 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,” according to one source (“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 proximity to one another, the city’s residents suffered an enormous health toll.

The deadly fog known as the “Great Smog” began around the 4th of December and lightened somewhat on the 7th; but it got worse again on the 8th (Southwark 1952). The temperatures at the time were very low so people were using large amount of coal to try and keep themselves warm (Laskin 2006). In doing so, this thick black smoke rose and mixed with the cold temperatures to form the terrible smog (Laskin 2006). The fog contained large amounts of sulfur, which resulted from all the coal that was being burned. David Bates, a professor from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, says that at that point in time, Londoners were short on money. This led to them using a lower quality coal that was high in sulfur for warmth in order to save the higher quality coal, that had lower sulfur content, for export (David et al. 2002). Chimney smoke, cars, industrial fumes and many other things played a role as well. The resulting smog was so dense that medical staff could not even see to drive ambulances to those in need. Traffic was not moving and people’s lives in general slowed down too. Those who did attempt to drive had to be lead by someone who would walk in front of their car with a flashlight in an attempt to help them see where they were going (Laskin 2006). It was obvious to coroners and florists that something was wrong because they sold out of caskets and flowers in a short time (Davis et al. 2002).

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 occurred in the city.

V0010880 A man covering his mouth with a handkerchief, walking throug
A man covering his mouth with a handkerchief, walking through a smoggy London street. Wellcome Library, London.

According to the Medical Officer of Health’s records, there were about 4,000 people who lost their lives due to this severe episode of smog (Wembley 1954). These people died within a week of the fog. During that same week of the previous year, far fewer people, 1,852, died (Davis 2002). Some people were more susceptible to the detrimental affects of the fog than others. For example, ninety percent of the deaths that occurred were people over the age of forty five and sixty percent of those were over the age of sixty five (“THE 1952 FOG”). A lot of the deaths were not slow coming and happened rather suddenly or while someone was sleeping. Another factor that made some people more susceptible was if they were already suffering from another illness, especially those affecting the heart and lungs (“THE 1952 FOG”).  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.

On December 9th, the fog finally broke and the people of London could finally take a breath of cleaner air. The dispersal of the smog was the result of a mix of a low-pressure system coming from the north and a wind from the west. Although the citizens were probably overjoyed with the end of the terrible smog, the health of many of them continued to suffer for a while after. 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. According to David Laskin, author Devra Davis wrote in her book, When Smoke Ran Like Water, that in the first three months of 1953 around 13,000 people died. The government chose to attribute these deaths to an outbreak of the flu, but she believes that the deaths were an ongoing result of the recent smog and that the government officials used the flu as an excuse. They did not want to believe that people could die simply by breathing polluted air (Laskin 2006).

Even though this fog led to many deaths, it is what got the attention of government officials and made them realize how the pollution in the air was affecting people. Although some suppose that the government did not believe so many people could die from the fog, the government did see that the fog was a problem. David Bates thinks that the laws and labors from the last 50 years that have been put towards making the air cleaner, and avoiding unnecessary pollution, can be attributed to this great smog of 1952 (Davis et al. 2002). In London, this fog led the Committee of Air Pollution to look into the causes and effects of this air pollution. They also looked into the current steps being taken to prevent this kind of pollution, what steps could be added to further decrease the pollution, and made note of any recommendations they or others had (Ealing 1965). “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.

Written by Angela Thoman and Sydney Shea

Sources

Angelo, L. “London Smog Disaster, England

Bell, M L, and D L Davis. “Reassessment of the Lethal London Fog of 1952: Novel Indicators of Acute and Chronic Consequences of Acute Exposure to Air Pollution.Environmental Health Perspectives 109.Suppl 3 (2001): 389–394, accessed April 6, 2016.

Davis, Devra. “The Great Smog” History Today. December 2002. Accessed April 12, 2016.

Davis, D L, Bell, M L, Fletcher, T, Bates, D V. “A Look Back at the London Smog of 1952 and the Half Century Since.Environmental Health Perspectives 110.12 (2002): A734–A735, accessed April 6, 2016.

Laskin, David. 2006. “The Great London Smog.” Weatherwise 59, no. 6: 42-45. Academic Search Elite, EBSCOhost (accessed April 8, 2016).

MOH Ealing 1965 – “Clean Air”

MOH Southwark 1952

MOH Wembley 1954

“The 1952 Fog.” The Lancet 264, no. 6834 (August 21, 1954): 373.

The Great Smog of 1952” Met Office. April 20, 2015. Accessed April 12, 2016.

Tripe, John W. “View Report Page” Wellcome Library. Accessed April 12, 2016.