The Great Smog

Devra Davis looks at the London Smog disaster of 1952-53.

London during the Great SmogWhile the Golden Jubilee of Elizabeth II has been in full swing since the summer, another anniversary of unhappier events that occurred in the year of her accession remains largely unsung. From December 1952 to March 1953 in Greater London 12,000 residents more than usual perished in what was modern London’s most massive civilian disaster. Smoke from a million chimneys ran like water and pumped clotted, coal-fumes into cooler stilled air. Unable to disperse upwards through the heavier chillier air, hot, smoky fumes fell to the ground and did not visibly diminish for a solid week.

During the unprecedented 1952 smog, the sun remained unseen. Dark days became murky shadowed nights. Because more people lived closer together in London at that time than in any other modern city, the city’s residents suffered a colossal health toll.

The historian Peter Brimblecombe reports that for centuries, the city had the world’s greatest concentration of coal stoves, most inhospitable airs and regularly foggy weather. In the Middle Ages, mountains of coal piled up in London as a result of sea trade. From its large port, London regularly sent out vessels laden with animal hides, whale oil, tallow, dried fish and meats, fertiliser and wools. Ships often returned from the less-populated northern British Isles empty, except for the crew. To weather the rough seas around the coast, mariners filled their holds with what became known as sea-coale, carbonem marus.    

By the thirteenth century, mounds of dusty black rock clogged city streets, docks and alleys. In an effort to rid themselves of the black heaps that filled the city, Londoners began to char coal, which lasted longer and burned hotter than wood. Not all were enthralled with its smoke. Queen Eleanor, fleeing the fumes created by heavy use of sea-coale in Nottingham Castle in 1257, issued one of many fruitless royal bans on coal burning. By the fifteenth century, London’s skies were regularly blackened with coal smoke. Many residents blamed the region’s foggy weather for the persistent greyed airs.

The debate about whether coal smoke affected human health ended the winter of 1952-53 in London. On December 8th, cool air from across the English Channel settled over the Thames Valley and did not move. Within a week more than 3,000 deaths than usual had occurred. The medical essayist David Bates, then a young physician experienced in wartime medicine, recalls that officials could not imagine that the environment could produce more civilian casualties in London than any single incident of the war. In sheer scale this disaster could not be ignored. In one week alone 4,703 people died, compared with 1,852 during the same week the previous year. 

Bates recounts the reluctance of officials to accept that so many people had suddenly dropped dead merely from breathing dirty air. He adds: ‘The public realised this earlier than the government of the day.’

One Member of Parliament put this episode into context when he asked Harold Macmillan, then Minister of Housing: ‘Does the Minister not appreciate that last month, in Greater London alone, there were literally more people choked to death by air pollution than were killed on the roads in the whole country in 1952?’ 

Eager to put off demands that measures be taken to reduce use of dirtier coal, and focus on the nation’s grim economic realities, the British Government sprang into inaction. But Macmillan understood the need for officials to look like they were doing something in the face of this massive civilian catastrophe. In a cynical move, he authorised the issuance of smog masks, known to be useless. And in a respected government tradition, he found it easier to set up a committee to study the problem, rather than come up with ways to keep lethal smogs from recurring. By 1954, the committee report noted that deaths and illnesses remained higher than usual until the end of February 1953. By 1956 major legislation to require reductions in coal burning became the law of the land.

Fears that England could not afford the extra expense of burning cleaner coal may well explain why the official version attributed these persisting deaths to a widespread outbreak of flu, not to any lingering effects of the pea-souper. In post-war London, sweets were still being rationed, and horse meat was being sold for food. But, as to the notion that London was rife with flu, my colleague Michelle Bell and I have shown conclusively that there was no such epidemic.

Today the public faces newer challenges. While air pollution from coal no longer plagues urban areas, that from diesel vehicles and other aspects of modern life, including precursor chemicals, which give rise to photochemical oxidants, exact a major avoidable price on our health. Just as the impact of the London smog did not end in a single week but extended over several months, regular exposure to much lower levels of soiled air today produces a broad array of human health problems, including earlier deaths in the aged, the ill and the young, fewer births, more birth defects, and more health problems in children.

In truth, environmental contamination never appears on anyone’s death certificate, and is seldom thought of as a contribution to chronic illness. Major types of death and sickness, like heart and lung diseases, all are well known to have different causes. Smoking cigarettes and excessive alcohol consumption are among the most important and widely acknowledged avoidable health risks today. But these bad habits cannot account for the persisting excess of lung cancer and other ailments in urban areas.

Those who conduct studies on the impact on health of polluted air today owe a major debt to those who died in 1952-53, and those who succumbed in other less well known episodes later. For instance, in 1962, during another heavy smog, 750 more deaths than usual occurred.

No fitting memorial has yet been devised to commemorate these deaths. As a city full of monuments and other mementoes from its colourful history, and as the site of a disaster that set the stage for modern environmental laws, London can now afford to create a monument to honour the 12,000 whose lives ended in the greatest officially recognised urban air pollution disaster in modern history.

Devra Davis is Honorary Professor, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Senior Advisor to the World Health Organisation, and the author of When Smoke Ran Like Water: Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution (The Perseus Press, £14.99).

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