December 5, 1952: The Great Smog begins. Severe air pollution combined with weather conditions to blanket London, England in a thick smog which lasted for days. In post-World War II London, people used a low-grade coal to burn for heat and the days before had been very cold. The better quality or “hard” coal was exported for economic reasons and the lesser grade increased the amount of sulfur dioxide in the smoke. There were a number of coal fired power stations in the Greater London area and these added their pollutants to the air, too. The smoggy conditions lasted from this day, a Friday, until the next Tuesday when a shift in weather patterns blew the smog away just as quickly as it had settled in.
During each day of the foggy period, 1 ,000 tons of smoke particles, 2,000 tons of carbon dioxide, 140 tons of hydrochloric acid, 14 tons of flourine compounds, and 370 tons of sulfur dioxide were released into the air above the London streets. A pollution prevention system installed at Battersea may have exacerbated the problem as it was designed to reduce soot, but at the cost of increased sulfur dioxide. Also adding to the effluvium was the smoke and exhaust from vehicles; particularly troublesome was the number of steam locomotives and diesel fuelled buses which had recently replaced electric trams.
On this day, an anticyclone settled over London with its windless center causing a temperature inversion. Cold air was trapped and stagnated under a layer or “lid” of warm air. The fog mixed with the chimney smoke and industrial pollutants, increased by the vehicle emissions and blanketed the city in a thick motionless smog. To add to the problems, the presence of tarry particles in soot gave the smog its yellow-black coloring which gave rise to the term “peasouper”. Without a breeze to move the air along, it lingered and choked London for days. London is famous for its fog, but this was far more intense than the usual weather and visibility was cut to just a few yards. Transportation was halted, except for the London Underground. Even the ambulances refused to run which meant people needed to find their own way to the hospitals.
The smog seeped indoors and even indoor events were cancelled. Inner London, without any traffic to help move the air, saw even worse smog conditions. Even walking outside became a problem and people shuffled along even in the daytime with night movement almost impossible. There was no panic because Londoners were used to fog. But this was different and records examined over the next few weeks found that 4,000 people had died – most were very young or old. By February, the fog was thought to have caused 6,000 deaths and more than 25,000 people had claimed sickness benefits during this period. Recent examination of records attribute about 12,000 deaths to the smog. Environmentalist causes received a boost in the aftermath and new regulations concerning dirty fuels were implemented.
The smog curled between the streetlamps and the spokes of the wrought iron framework. It seemed through your body and into your bones. – Sara Sheridan
When you looked out my window you could see the whole city crouched under a blanket of car smog. – Markus Zusak
The environment will continue to deteriorate until pollution practices are abandoned. – B. F. Skinner
The health effects of air pollution imperil human lives. This fact is well-documented. – Eddie Bernice Johnson
Also on this day: Off Into the Wild Blue Yonder – In 1945, five US Air Force planes were lost and a rescue plane also went missing.
Twenty-One – In 1933, Prohibition was repealed.
Going, Going, Gone – In 1766, Christie’s Auction House was formed.
Yelling “Fire” in a Crowded Theater – In 1876, a fire at the Brooklyn Theater killed over 300.
Ghost Ship – In 1872, the Mary Celeste was found adrift.
* “Nelson’s Column during the Great Smog of 1952” by N T Stobbs. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nelson%27s_Column_during_the_Great_Smog_of_1952.jpg#/media/File:Nelson%27s_Column_during_the_Great_Smog_of_1952.jpg