Ways to Die: The Great Smog of London

Just Another Pea-Souper
When it happened, it seemed almost normal - after all, dense, pea-soup fog often descended over London, and since the Industrial Revolution, that fog had often been riddled with coal dust and particulate matter from the factories. Charles Dickens was so familiar with it that “Pea Soupers” was even in his dictionary of city life. People had seen it all before. London was famous for its fog.

On December 5, 1952, an anticyclone descended upon Southern England, and the often-blustery city became almost windless. Combined with the atmospheric “cap” of warm air that the anticyclone provided, the chilly air of the city’s fog was trapped in one place. It wasn’t blown away, and it couldn’t rise into the upper atmosphere. By that evening, visibility was down to five yards.

For four more days, conditions deteriorated, until you could not see your hand in front of your face. The buses that had been guided by police with torches came to a standstill by the evening of December 8. The wall of haze was penetrated only by the huge, snowflake-like chimney soot crystals. Apart from the London Underground, there was no transportation within the city. Even ambulances no longer went out, after a record number of collisions during the first night of blindness.

But there was no panic. Those who could stay inside, did. If you could make it to the chemists, you would buy a smog mask and remember not to wear your good clothing while you shuffled slowly and carefully down the street. By the morning of December 9, 1952, the atmospheric inversion lifted, and the smog began to rise. By the next day, the winds were back, sweeping away the rest of the pea-soup haze.

Unseen Deaths
The toll that the smog took on the city was not realized until nearly three weeks after it occurred. Four thousand had died during those five days. Tens of thousands sought health care shortly after, for ongoing respiratory distress. The death toll in the city remained significantly elevated through Christmas, and people with ongoing health effects continued to die in the coming months and years, as a direct or indirect result of their exposure to The Great Smog. The final death toll is estimated at twelve thousand dead, and 25-40,000 with significant chronic health effects.

Though it was not realized until long after the smog had passed, and the Clean Air Act of 1956 had gone into effect, there were more killers in the smog than were understood back then. The hidden killer was not the coal soot that fell like dark snowflakes, or the staining, acid-forming smoke from household chimneys. While those caused significant expenses and damages to buildings, and some deaths from outright hypoxia (lack of oxygen - in this case, from asthma or obstructive coughing fits) they were not the deadly, bronchiole-irritating, pus-causing killers that so many succumbed to.

The real culprits in many deaths, especially those caused by the strangling pus of bronchopneumonia, or acute purulent bronchitis, were the ultrafine particulate matter floating within the smoke. Sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, heavy metal molecules, and more, were known to be components of smog, but prior to the 1960s, it was not realized how truly deadly these invisible particles were. While the body has many defenses against larger particulate, ultrafine particles can reach the deepest recesses of the lungs, and cause irritation of the bronchioles and alveolar sacs. These fill with fluid or pus, often allowing infection to take hold, and the victim is strangled from the inside.

A Slow Reform
Despite the thousands of deaths that were brought to the attention of Parliament by the Ministry of Health, the government of England did not truly accept that there had been an environmental disaster right on their doorsteps, fearing the economic ramifications of any meaningful reform. They invented an “influenza epidemic" and claimed it spread during that time. Historical data and autopsy reports prove that no increase in deaths from influenza was concurrent with the Great Smog.

Despite reforms passed by the Clean Air Act of 1956, there was another deadly pea-souper, exactly one decade later, in early December 1962. Continued reform throughout the 1960s meant that no standout disasters were visible for all to see, but pollution in the city continued to kill hundreds every year, well into the 1970s.

The Continuing Fight for Clean Air
While we may not have smoky coal or sooty buildings to contend with in the Americas or most of Europe, ultrafine particulate pollution (in the United States, caused primarily by automobiles) is still a major threat to health, and its invisible nature means that no major disasters like The Great Smog will come around to slap us in the face about its importance. But every year, thousands still die from the effects of living in areas where they cant escape the constant exhaust from vehicles. Millions more have chronic health effects due to the same toxins.

It might not seem like one person doing one thing can help much, but this Earth Day, take a walk instead of a drive. If you’re going down the street, ride your bike, not your car. Not every trip has to be by foot, andsometimes a vehicle might be necessary, but why put more toxins and deadly fumes into the air (that you have to breathe, too!) than you absolutely have to?

We may not have the coal and diesel exhaust of 1950s London, but doesn’t that make getting out of the car that much nicer? It’s a beautiful world out there. Take it in, and help keep it that way.

More on The Great Smog:

50 years after the great smog, a new killer arises

Day of Toxic Darkness

Case Study: Smog

Why the Great Smog of London was anything but great

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