Posts tagged disaster

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

PS General Slocum- June 15, 1904
1,021 of 1,342 passengers killed
The PS General Slocum was a sidewheel steam passenger ship owned by the Knickerbocker Steamship Company in New York City. It was a tour ship, and took regular trips around New York with tourists, as well as chartered trips with groups from the city. 
On June 15, 1904, a group of mostly women and children from St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Little Germany, Manhattan chartered the General Slocum for $350 to take them on a scenic ride from Long Island Sound to Locust Grove for a church picnic. At 10 am, 30 minutes after the ship departed, a small fire of unknown origin (probably a cigarette) broke out in the Lamp Room, and was fueled by oily straw, rags, and lamp oil strewn around the room. A 12-year-old boy ran up to Captain Von Schaick to tell him about the fire, but the captain thought that he was kidding. The crew didn’t notify the captain about the fire until 10 minutes after they first noted it.
After that, the events became one big mess. The firehoses on the ship had been ignored and allowed to rot for over thirteen years, and fell apart when the crew tried to use them to put out the fire. There had never been a fire drill run on the ship, and the survivors reported that the lifeboats on the ship were unusable. They were inaccessible, tied up, or painted in place, depending on who you ask; no matter what, they never made it to the water, and probably would have fallen apart had they been moved. The life jackets were useless and fell apart when they were put on. When mothers would put them on their children and throw their children into the river, they would watch in horror as the kids would flail and sink straight to the bottom. The company that produced the life jackets was suspected of putting low-quality cork in them, adding small iron bars in the bottom to meet weight requirements, and they dragged those who put them on to their deaths Not that it would have mattered if they were well-made; as with everything else, they were left out in the elements for over 13 years and would have fallen apart no matter what.
The captain of the ship opted not to ground the ship when he was noted of the fire, instead steering it into a headwind so as to “not catch ablaze the docked ships” (there were reportedly very few ships near where he would have run aground). The headwind fanned the flames, and killed hundreds on board. It was rare that one knew how to swim during this time, and most that jumped overboard drowned. Even if they could swim, heavy wool clothing and women’s clothing of the day would have become waterlogged and too heavy to swim in. 
By the time the ship grounded itself on North Brother Island off of the Bronx, it had burned down to the water line. 1,021 people were killed in the fire or drowned. Only 321 survived, including the captain and 28/30 crew members. 
The captain was eventually tried and convicted of three counts of criminal negligence, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He spent 3.5 years in Sing-Sing before being paroled. The disaster was a significant factor in the passing of new laws and regulations regarding emergency equipment on board ships. 

PS General Slocum- June 15, 1904

1,021 of 1,342 passengers killed

The PS General Slocum was a sidewheel steam passenger ship owned by the Knickerbocker Steamship Company in New York City. It was a tour ship, and took regular trips around New York with tourists, as well as chartered trips with groups from the city. 

On June 15, 1904, a group of mostly women and children from St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Little Germany, Manhattan chartered the General Slocum for $350 to take them on a scenic ride from Long Island Sound to Locust Grove for a church picnic. At 10 am, 30 minutes after the ship departed, a small fire of unknown origin (probably a cigarette) broke out in the Lamp Room, and was fueled by oily straw, rags, and lamp oil strewn around the room. A 12-year-old boy ran up to Captain Von Schaick to tell him about the fire, but the captain thought that he was kidding. The crew didn’t notify the captain about the fire until 10 minutes after they first noted it.

After that, the events became one big mess. The firehoses on the ship had been ignored and allowed to rot for over thirteen years, and fell apart when the crew tried to use them to put out the fire. There had never been a fire drill run on the ship, and the survivors reported that the lifeboats on the ship were unusable. They were inaccessible, tied up, or painted in place, depending on who you ask; no matter what, they never made it to the water, and probably would have fallen apart had they been moved. 
The life jackets were useless and fell apart when they were put on. When mothers would put them on their children and throw their children into the river, they would watch in horror as the kids would flail and sink straight to the bottom. The company that produced the life jackets was suspected of putting low-quality cork in them, adding small iron bars in the bottom to meet weight requirements, and they dragged those who put them on to their deaths Not that it would have mattered if they were well-made; as with everything else, they were left out in the elements for over 13 years and would have fallen apart no matter what.

The captain of the ship opted not to ground the ship when he was noted of the fire, instead steering it into a headwind so as to “not catch ablaze the docked ships” (there were reportedly very few ships near where he would have run aground). The headwind fanned the flames, and killed hundreds on board. It was rare that one knew how to swim during this time, and most that jumped overboard drowned. Even if they could swim, heavy wool clothing and women’s clothing of the day would have become waterlogged and too heavy to swim in. 

By the time the ship grounded itself on North Brother Island off of the Bronx, it had burned down to the water line. 1,021 people were killed in the fire or drowned. Only 321 survived, including the captain and 28/30 crew members. 

The captain was eventually tried and convicted of three counts of criminal negligence, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He spent 3.5 years in Sing-Sing before being paroled. The disaster was a significant factor in the passing of new laws and regulations regarding emergency equipment on board ships.