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The Great Smog of London – It Killed 12,000 People!

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Nature can give us tough time and if Nature decides to take our misdoings and turn against us, the end result is always disastrous. The Great Smog of London is just the perfect example of that.

‘Nature plus pollution equating to about 12,000 dead in a single city’ – can you call it anything short of a disaster? No, definitely not!

So, what really was the Great Smog? How did it start and what caused it? When did it end? What happened during the smog? How bad were the conditions? Read through to find the answer to all your questions.

When did the Great Smog happen?

The Great Smog of London is also known by two other names – ‘Great Smog of 1952’ and Big Smoke.

As the name suggests, the Big Smoke happened in 1952. It started on December 5 that year and ended on December 9 the same year. When the weather changed, the smog dispersed quickly.

Weather back then was cold. However, other conditions were present. The conditions were windless, and it was an anticyclone weather condition.

The conditions led to formation of a thick smog over the city of London. The condition was worsened by airborne pollutants in the city. The pollutants came from coal usage.

The weather was so cold that the people of London started burning more coal than they usually did to keep themselves warm.

The problem was that it was a time after the war (World War II). Britain’s economy was totally shattered, and it was one of many reasons why Britain’s colonial era came to an end.

What caused the Great Smog?

Because of the economic hardships, Britain had to export high quality coal known as ‘hard coal’. For domestic use, Britain used the low-quality coal which had high sulfur content.

Burning high amounts of the low-quality coal only increased the amount of Sulfur Dioxide in air. To top that, London had several power stations in the Greater London area which were powered by coal. Some of the power stations were in Battersea, Greenwich, Bankside, Fulham, Kingston upon Thames etc.

These power stations also used the same low-grade coal of sulfurous variety for generating power. As a result, they too added to the Sulfur Dioxide content in the air.

Research during the later periods suggested that during the smoggy period in London, every day the local people and the power stations collectively released:

  • Smoke particles: 1,000 tonnes.
  • Hydrochloric acid: 140 tonnes.
  • Fluorine compounds: 14 tonnes.
  • Sulfur Dioxide: 370 tonnes.

It is said that the Sulfur Dioxide released during those days eventually converted into 800 tons of Sulfuric acid.

On December 4, the conditions in London were windless. That is when the anticyclone settled over the city. This resulted in what is known as temperature inversion.

Because of the temperature inversion, a layer of stagnant chilly air got trapped under a warm air layer. As that happened, the cold temperature persisted, and people started burning more coal.

As more coal was burned than usual, a fog mixed with pollutants was created by December 5. The conditions worsened because of the power stations, pollutants from vehicle exhausts etc.

The fog thus created was persistent and lasted for a few days. The smog contained tarry particles of soot. These particles gave the smog a characteristic yellow-black color. It is because of this color; the smog was also known as ‘pea-souper’.

The problem became grave because of absence of wind. The smog could not disperse, and pollutants kept on accumulating.

Nelson's Column during the Great Smog
Nelson’s Column during the Great Smog | Public Domain

Great Smog killed visibility and many activities

This was the worst smog of all. London had previous experience of heavy fogs, but this was different, way denser and lasted longer than previous counterparts. So dense was the smog that the visibility was reduced only to a few meters.

Extremely low visibility made it impossible to drive. All forms of public transports came to a standstill. Not only that, but ambulance services were also stopped too. People who had to go to hospitals had to go on their own.

Even worse, the density of the smog was so high that it even managed to seep indoors. Concerts and film screenings were all canceled because of low visibility as people could not see screens or stages from their seats.

Not just that, all outdoor sport events were forced to be canceled because of the smog.

The suburbs during the Great Smog

Suburb areas of inner London were also hit hard. Absence of moving vehicles meant no disturbance in the stagnant air and hence, no thinning out of the dense fog. So dense was the fog in suburb areas that during daytime visibility was merely a meter.

People who walked outside had to shuffle feet to feel for possible obstacles. This happened during day! At night, people could not even see their feet because the incandescent light bulbs of the streetlamps could not penetrate the smog.

Many people died

The smog took a heavy toll on life but weirdly enough, people were not really panicked because they were accustomed to heavy fog and did not think that the smog was killing them. By December 8 – just 3rd day of the smog – 4,000 people had already died as per government records.

Most of the dead were elderly or very young or the victims had some preexisting respiratory problems. The preliminary report (that was never really finalized) stated that influenza was the cause of the deaths. Later it was found that it was smog that killed and only a few people died of influenza.

The smog led to infections of respiratory tract, pus-induced mechanical obstruction of respiratory tract leading to hypoxia etc. Pus was a result of the lung infections caused by the smog. The primary types of the lung infections that affected people then were acute purulent bronchitis and bronchopneumonia.

Though official records state that only 4,000 died, later research concluded that some 12,000 died during the fog and over 100,000 more were ill because of respiratory tract infection.

Sources: 1, 2, 3

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