10 January 2015

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1952 - The Great London Smog

Smog is a problem that plagues cities across the world today. There are many contributing factors to smog including vehicular emissions, or high levels of smoke and sulfur dioxide caused by large amounts of burning coal. This dingy cloud that hangs over many cities can be the cause of many health concerns. Smog can trigger asthma attacks and cause respiratory irritation. On a few occasions smog has been deadly.

If you talk to people who were living in London England during December of 1952, they may refer to the “great smog” or “big smoke” the rolled in over the area during this time. The weather was very cold and the air was very still from Friday December 5th to Tuesday December 9th. The streets of London were covered with thick black and yellow smog. With no wind to help the particulates dissipate they just continued to collect over the city forming a poisonous cloud. These conditions caused what is considered the worst air pollution event in the United Kingdom’s history.

There were several contamination sources blamed for the great smog tragedy of 1952. Local factories and industrial complexes caused high levels of pollution to be released into the air from their diesel and coal powered machines. In addition low standards of regulation for consumer coal and freezing temperatures meant that Londoners were burning large amounts of a low grade variety of coal that released dangerous amounts of sulfur dioxide into the air.

In 1952 smog was not new to London, many times before the city had been engulfed in smog drifting from nearby factories but this time was different. Visibility through out the city was reduced to only a few yards causing all street transportation to cease. Even ambulance service was suspended. Usually smog refrained from making its way indoors but during those 5 days in December the smog found its way into every corner of London. Many theater owners were forced to cancel movie screenings and concerts due to a lack of visibility inside the auditoriums.

After the fog cleared the people of London were shocked by the illness and loss of life the smog had caused. A city that was used to a cloud hanging over head had not panicked during the 5 days of extremely low visibility. Early reports after the event showed that 4,000 people had died as a result of the fog and another 100,000 had taken ill due to its effects. More recent studies have shown that the death toll may have been closer to 12,000 people. The most common cause of death was respiratory tract infections. People’s air passages were becoming blocked by pus from the infections.

This tragedy impacted nearly everyone living in London and had an indirect effect on people across the world. This historic event caused governments and businesses to asses the risks associated with pollution. Governments began to pass legislation to hold corporations accountable for the pollution produced by their industry and also impose regulations to help monitor and control corporate impact. The events that occurred in London in 1952 lead to legislation that has been cited in many legal cases against corporations whose businesses have a negative impact on the environment.

 Submitted by: Lawrence Reaves


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