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Smog had become a frequent part of London life, but nothing quite compared to the smokeladen fog that

shrouded the capital from Friday 5 December to Tuesday 9 December 1952. While it heavily affected the population of London, causing a huge death toll and inconveniencing millions of people, the people it affected were also partly to blame for the smog. During the day on 5 December, the fog was not especially dense and generally possessed a dry, smoky character. When nightfall came, however, the fog thickened. Visibility dropped to a few metres. The following day, the sun was too low in the sky to burn the fog away. That night and on the Sunday and Monday nights, the fog again thickened. In many parts of London, it was impossible at night for pedestrians to find their way, even in familiar districts. In The Isle of Dogs area, the fog there was so thick people could not see their feet.

In pictures

1950s car driving in thick smog.

Aerial photos of a street of chimneys.


A history of smog
Britain has long been affected by mists and fogs, but these became much more severe after the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s. Factories belched gases and huge numbers of particles into the atmosphere, which in themselves could be poisonous. The pollutants in the air, however, could also act as catalysts for fog, as water clings to the tiny particles to create polluted fog, or smog. When some of the chemicals mix with water and air, they can turn into acid which can cause skin irritations, breathing problems, and even corrode buildings. Smog can be identified easily by its

thick, foul-smelling, dirty-yellow or brown characteristics, totally different to the clean white fog in country areas. There are reports of thick smog, smelling of coal tar, which blanketed London in December 1813. Lasting for several days, people claimed you could not see from one side of the street to the other. A similar fog in December 1873 saw the death rate across London rise 40% above normal. Marked increases in death rate occurred, too, after the notable fogs of January 1880, February 1882, December 1891, December 1892 and November 1948. The worst affected area of London was usually the East End, where the density of factories and homes was greater than almost anywhere else in the capital. The area was also low-lying, making it hard for fog to disperse.

How the smog of 1952 formed

The weather in November and early December 1952 had been very cold, with heavy snowfalls across the region. To keep warm, the people of London were burning large quantities of coal in their homes. Smoke was pouring from the chimneys of their houses. Under normal conditions, smoke would rise into the atmosphere and disperse, but an anticyclone was hanging over the region. This pushes air downwards, warming it as it descends. This creates an inversion, where air close to the ground is cooler than the air higher above it. So when the warm smoke comes out of the chimney, it is trapped. The inversion of 1952 also trapped particles and gases emitted from factory chimneys in the London area, along with pollution which the winds from the east had brought from industrial areas on the continent. Early on 5 December, in the London area, the sky was clear, winds were light and the air near the ground was moist. Accordingly, conditions were ideal for the formation of radiation fog. The sky was clear, so a net loss of long-wave radiation occurred and the ground cooled. When the moist air came into contact with the ground it cooled to its dew-point temperature and condensation occurred. Beneath the inversion of the anticyclone, the very light wind stirred the saturated air upwards to form a layer of fog 100-200 metres deep. Along with the water droplets of the fog, the atmosphere beneath the inversion contained the smoke from innumerable chimneys in the London area. During the period of the fog, huge amounts of impurities were released into the atmosphere. On each day during the foggy period, the following pollutants were emitted: 1,000 tonnes of smoke particles, 2,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, 140 tonnes of hydrochloric acid and 14 tonnes of fluorine compounds. In addition, and perhaps most dangerously, 370 tonnes of sulphur dioxide were converted into 800 tonnes of sulphuric acid.

Impacts of the smog

The fog finally cleared on December 9, but it had already taken a heavy toll.

About 4,000 people were known to have died as a result of the fog, but it could be many more. Many people suffered from breathing problems Press reports claimed cattle at Smithfield had been asphyxiated by the smog. Travel was disrupted for days

Response to the smog

A series of laws were brought in to avoid a repeat of the situation. This included the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968. These acts banned emissions of black smoke and decreed residents of urban areas and operators of factories must convert to smokeless fuels. People were given time to adapt to the new rules, however, and fogs continued to be smoky for some time after the Act of 1956 was passed. In 1962, for example, 750 Londoners died as a result of a fog, but nothing on the scale of the 1952 Great Smog has ever occurred again. This kind of smog has now become a thing of the past, thanks partly to pollution legislation and also to modern developments, such as the widespread use of central heating.

Causes of the Smog

The weather in Greater London had been unusually cold for several weeks leading up to the event. Because of the cold weather, households were burning more coal than usual to keep warm. The smoke from approximately one million coal-fired stoves, in addition to the emissions from local industry, was released into the atmosphere. Increases in smoke and sulfur emissions from the combustion of coal had been occurring since the Industrial Revolution and the British were familiar with these types of smog events. At times, the smoke and emissions were so heavy that residents referred to the events as pea soupers because the fog was as dense as pea soup. However, while the area had experienced heavy smog in the past, no event had caused such problems as the weather event in December, 1952.

Formation of the Deadly Smog

Thousands of tons of black soot, tar particles, and sulfur dioxide had accumulated in the air from the heavy coalcombustion. Estimates of PM10 concentrations during December, 1952, range between 3,000 and 14,000 ?g/m with the high range being approximately 50 times higher than normal levels at the time. PM10 is particulate matter less than 10 micrometers in diameter. Conditions for Londoners today are much better with PM 10 concentrations around 30 ?g/m. Estimates also suggest that sulfur dioxide levels during December of 1952 were 7 times greater than normal at 700 parts per billion (ppb). A light fog had lingered in the city throughout the day of December 5, although it was nothing unusual. However, as night came, light winds, cool air, and high humidity at groundlevel were ideal conditions for the formation of thick, smoky fog, or smog. The smoke and fumes from the heavy coal combustion settled close to the ground and due to a temperature inversion, remained motionless and created dense smog.

A temperature inversion occurs when the air closer to the ground is cooler than the air above it. This cool air is denser than the warmer air above it and does not rise, as warmer air relative to that above it would, but remains trapped under the inversion, close to the ground. Temperature inversions are uncommon but occur more frequently on cold winter nights because the ground cools and water vapor precipitates on low-level dust particles, forming a mist. This caused the thick, smoke-polluted air to be trapped under the inversion. After nightfall, the fog thickened and reduced visibility to only a few meters. The following 114 hours in London experienced visibility less than 500 meters with 48 hours below 50 meters visibility. Heathrow Airport had visibility levels below 10 meters for nearly 48 hours following the morning of December 6. The city was brought to a practical standstill with road, rail, and air transport unable to operate because of the impaired visibility. Temperature inversions are often reversed in the morning when radiation from the sun warms the ground below the mist. However, on the morning of December 6 the concentrations of smoke were still extremely high, and water vapor continued to condense around the black soot and tar particles. The suns radiation was unable to break through the dense smog. This caused the static layer of cooler, polluted air to remain trapped in the loweratmosphere. The fog lasted for 5 days, from December 5 through 10, until winds dispersed the dense air mass and transported the pollution through the Thames Estuary and into the North Sea. During the week of December 5, the fog, dense with soot and tar particles, reacted with the atmospheric sulfur dioxide and formed a solute sulfuric acid. The heavy fog was inescapable it was not only on the streets, but also entered into homes.

Causes of Death
The smog-related deaths were primarily attributed to pneumonia, bronchitis, tuberculosis, and heart failure. Many with preexisting conditions, including asthma, died of respiratory distress. Many others died of cardiac distress and asphyxiation. Non-fatal health effects from the smog included short-term chest pains, lung inflammation and diminished breathing ability, damaged respiratory cells, permanent lung damage, and increased incidence of asthma attacks. It is also thought that the smog could have increased the populations risk of cancer. The implications of the fog were not immediately clear. It was not until the deaths peaked on the 8th and 9th of December at 900 per day that the people knew something was wrong. During the smog and for two weeks following, approximately 4,000 people were killed. Some reports indicate that death rates remained above-normal for the entire winter and it is now thought that approximately 12,000 deaths can be tied to the great smog in the winter of 1952. The death toll could be thousands higher if it were known how many died from complications of smog-related illnesses in the following months and years. At the time, officials reported that the smog had caused the deaths of mainly the old and those already suffering from chronic cardiovascular and respiratory illness. It was later determined that only two-thirds of the original 4,000 dead were over 65 years of age. Deaths in the middle-age range of 45 to 64 years experienced death rates three times greater than normal during the event. Infants were also highly-susceptible to the pollution-laden smog and infant mortality doubled during the week of December 5, 1952.

The smog-related deaths spurred the British government to take action and clean up the nations air. Society was becoming aware of the connection between fuel combustion, atmospheric pollution, and damages to public health. The 1956 Clean Air Act gave local governments the authority to provide funds to households to convert their coal-fired heaters for use of cleaner sources of energy such as gas, oil, smokeless coal, or electricity. The 1968 Clean Air Act was aimed at industry and introduced the use of taller chimneys which allowed the pollution from coal combustion to be released higher into the atmosphere. While this may have alleviated the immediate pollution impacts of coal combustion, we are now aware that taller chimney stacks have led to long-range transport of sulfur dioxide, or transboundary pollution. Transboundary pollution has been discovered as the cause of acid rain in regions without significant local emissions of sulfur dioxide.

Under normal conditions, air moves in a convectional pattern. The air is warm at ground level because the earth absorbs sunlight. This warm air rises upwards and meets cooler air. Once the warm air cools down, it falls to the ground again. In turn, it will heat up and rise again. A weather phenomenon occurs whereby a layer of warm air collects over cool air and stops the convectional flow of the air. The cold air cannot move and it becomes stagnant at ground level. This is called an atmospheric inversion. Cause of the 1952 Great Smog in London The temperatures in London were hovering near freezing so people were burning additional quantities of coal in their fireplaces because many homes did not have central heating. On a daily basis, factories and trains burned coal for steam power. Cars and buses emitted pollutants from their exhaust pipes. In addition, the winds had shifted and pollutants from cities in Europe were being blown into London. The convectional flow of air did not happen on December 5th, 1952. The day started out with clear skies but by the afternoon, fog rolled into London and thickened overnight. The next day, the dense fog prevented the sun from warming the ground air and making it rise. As a result, there was an air inversion whereby the dense fog was trapped in the cold

and stagnant air under a layer of warm air. The entrapment of air pollutants turned the fog into murky yellow smog. Effects of the 1952 Great Smog On December 6th, 1952, the thick smog caused all traffic to halt in London. This included automobiles, railways, boats, and airplanes. Only the London Underground was in operation. Ambulances were not able to attend emergencies. The crime rate increased because perpetrators could escape without being seen. Schools were closed due to the risk of children not seeing their way on the sidewalks. Outdoor activities, such as rugby matches, were cancelled. The dense smog also made its way inside of buildings and settled in movie theaters, concert houses and hospitals. Not only did the smog reduce visibility, it also posed a health risk due to the production of sulfuric acid when sulfur trioxide combined with the moisture droplets in the fog. This toxic mixture impaired the functions of the lungs and heart. Most deaths were caused by the inhalation of acid aerosols, which inflamed and irritated bronchial tubes. The acid in the air caused a stinging sensation when inhaled so people who had to go outside had to cover their noses and mouths with a cloth. In a report by David Gavins posted at MSN News: The smog episode killed almost 12,000 people, mainly children, elderly people and people with chronic respiratory diseases. The number of deaths was three to four times more than on a normal day. Deaths were attributed to lung disease, tuberculosis and heart failure. Mortality from bronchitis and pneumonia increased more than sevenfold. The rise in deaths was not immediatly apparent but there were indicators such as the record sales in coffins and flower arrangements. There was a dramatic increase in deaths caused by heart failure, bronchitis, tuberculosis and pneumonia. Over a one year period, the statistical data proved there was an abnormal increase in the death rate.

By December 9th, 1952, the smog lifted and life in London returned to normal but public outrage caused legislators in England to take action on reducing air pollution. Impact of the 1952 Great Smog Four years later, the 1956 Clean Air Act was passed. The prime initiative was the introduction of smokeless zones, which banned the burning of fuel. The Act provided grants to homeowners in order to encourage them to switch from coal to other less-polluting heating methods such as electric fireplaces or central heating. A cleaner coal was also introduced which reduced the emission of sulphur dioxide. Over the years, further legislation has been enacted in England to reduce the pollution from factories and cars. Stations have been set up in London to monitor the air pollution levels.