What was the Great Smog of London? 70th anniversary of historic pollution

London’s smog was caused by a mix of pollution and fog (Nicholas T Ansell/PA)

Seventy years ago, thick smog covered London.

The city is no stranger to its bouts of fog, but nothing compared to the Great Smog that swept across London on December 5, 1952.

The smoke-like pollution became so toxic that it left thousands dead and sick. Even cows have been reported to have suffocated in the fields due to the smoke-laden weather phenomena.

London is still facing a toxic air problem today, but the new laws aim to significantly reduce the capital’s level of air toxicity.

A brief history of London’s smog problem

Smog had been a problem in London since the 1700s, during the industrial revolution.

During this period, Britain has seen a dramatic increase in air pollutant emissions associated with coal burning.

Factories at the time were known to emit gases and particles into the atmosphere resulting in high levels of pollutants.

Since water tends to cling to tiny particles of pollutants in the air, the result is polluted fog.

The type of fog that occurred in 1952 was a foul-smelling, dirty yellow smog with some areas so affected that people were unable to see their feet.

What was the Great Smog of London?

On December 5, 1952, London awoke to thick smog that had descended on the capital.

Known as the Great Smog, the deadly weather event caused five days of destruction. Transport was limited, including ambulances, and people were forced to abandon their cars on the streets. Street crime has also increased due to poor visibility.

About 10,000 people died and about 200,000 people were left with health problems.

The deadly fog that engulfed the capital was a type of air pollution created by natural weather conditions and industrial production, a mixture of smoke and fog.

Even as smog descended on the city, Winston Churchill, the then Prime Minister, insisted on continuing to burn coal to give the illusion of a robust economy. He claimed the smog was actually fog that would eventually lift.

It was only when his secretary, Venetia Scott, suffered an accident caused by toxic air that Churchill intervened, enacting tougher air pollution laws.

These laws included the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968, which banned black smoke emissions and mandated that urban area residents and factory operators convert to smokeless fuels.

The Clean Air Act also empowered local authorities to control emissions of smoke, sand, dust and fumes from industrial premises and furnaces and to establish smoke control zones.

Why did the Great Smog occur?

In 1952, the city ran on cheap coal to generate power to heat homes. This, together with diesel buses, has contributed to the smog.

London is contained in a large river valley, which limits air circulation. On Dec. 4, cold air darkened the region, trapping warmer air below.

Toxins from homes, cars and factories then polluted the warmer air. Then, when the cold air was also trapped, the sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide and smoke particles combined into a deadly mixture.

How toxic is London’s air today?

There are two main air pollutants in London which include nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

Reports reveal that tens of thousands of Londoners breathe polluted air and 99% of Londoners live in areas that exceed the guidelines recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).

“Toxic air pollution is the biggest environmental risk to Londoners’ health and traffic emissions are the main source of toxic air in London,” says Transport for London.

He adds: “Toxic air pollution increases the risk of heart and lung disease, worsens chronic diseases such as asthma, and puts children’s health at risk.

“The aim of the expanded ULEZ is to help reduce harmful nitrogen dioxide by around 30% across London.”

Check if your vehicle meets the standards at https://tfl.gov.uk/modes/driving/check-your-vehicle/

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