About a week ago I finished Netflix’s “The Crown”, the series on Queen Elizabeth II, in just a few days. Partly because it was only ten episodes, but also because it was pretty good, though John Lithgow was the steal of the show as Winston Churchill. Of course some episodes were a bit more interesting than others as well, personal favourites being “Hyde Park Corner”, “Act of God”, “Pride and Joy” and “Assasssins”. It’s “Act of God” that made me want to write about this particular topic.
London has a history of being heavily industrialized. Just think about anything that Charles Dickens wrote, adaptations based on his works or maybe just when you played Assassins Creed: Syndicate. High chimneys everywhere, soot rising out of them as steadily as swear words from the workers fueling the things. Buildings in the boroughs got covered in ash and turned the facades almost completely black. There’s plenty of pictorial evidence to be found on the internet of houses being powercleaned, uncovering their true colour which hadn’t seen daylight in ages. This got better the more we got into the 20th century, but it didn’t mean there wasn’t a problem anymore either. London has had several instances of “pea-soupers”: smog events which are unusually thick and had yellowish, greenish or blackish tints. These odd colours came from the chemicals that caused the smog, including sulfur dioxide, which themselves came from the burning of soft coal for both industry and domestic purposes, as well as steam locomotives, diesel-fuelled buses and car exhausts when they started to appear (the fog came from the Thames, of course). This phenomenon wasn’t exclusive to London, or even the time period, air pollution being on the rise the 1200s, but the English capitol is the most famous example of it. The worst smog event London ever had to endure was the titular “Great Smog of London” in 1952, not even a year into Queen Elizabeth II’s reign.
It was a combination of factors that made this instance of smog particularly foul. Cold weather, an anticyclone and very little to no wind. These circumstances collected all the pollution together to form that dreaded smog, with little to no way to disperse until the weather changed a few days later, the smog disappearing in the blink of an eye, but leaving destruction in its wake. The smog lasted only about five days, starting on Friday, 5 December and ending on Tuesday the 9th. Contemporary numbers put the casualties (and I do mean deaths) around 4,000 with a 100,000 more people being affected with health issues, mainly children, the elderly and those who already had ongoing respiratory problems. More recent estimates put it closer to 12,000 actual deaths.
Visibility was reduced to just a few meters, meaning people could not see oncoming cars until it was too late. Driving itself became near impossible. “The Crown” showed people walking in front of cars with a torch, though the torches (and the street lamps) could hardly penetrate the smog either. All public transport except the Underground was down. Concerts, film screenings, stage plays, all were cancelled as the smog creeped even into the buildings so people couldn’t even see the actors or screens on stage. This extremely reduced visibility probably claimed their fair few deaths through car accidents, people wandering onto train tracks or just falling into a deep hole, but the bulk of casualties came from respiratory tract infections, hypoxia and the pus of lung infections like bronchitis completely blocking air passage.
These health effects came, just like “regular” pea-soupers, from the chemicals inside the smog. According to the Met Office (the UK’s weather institution) “1,000 tonnes of smoke particles, 140 tonnes of hydrochloric acid, 14 tonnes of fluorine compounds, and 370 tonnes of sulphur dioxide which may have been converted to 800 tonnes of sulphuric acid” were pumped into the air during each DAY of the Great Smog. These mostly came from coal-fueled power stations in the Greater London area. The coal used was of relatively poor quality as the U.K. was still in a post-war depression and the higher-grade coal was usually exported. It was this lesser coal that emitted more sulphur dioxide. The colder weather also meant that people burned more coal to keep the household warm.
Despite all the fatalities in just a few days, there was no panic among the Londoners, after all, London was famous for its fog, it was just a particularly thick one. “The Crown” showed Churchill (who then was prime minister) extremely reluctant to act even in face of all the reports on huge amounts of casualties, claiming nothing could be done as it was an “Act of God” (the episode’s name). There were more important matters to discuss, the weather would clear up when it did and that was that. It was only when he personally got affected (*spoilers* his favourite secretary got hit by a bus in the smog) that he moved into action, giving more resources to hospital who were grossly understaffed and overworked from nurses and doctors being sick themselves or not able to get through the fog. Note that “The Crown” is still a dramatization and that not every detail depicted is historically accurate. In any case, the smog did clear up, and there was plenty of movement to make sure it would never happen again.
The event evidently had its effect on progressing modern environmentalism. Maybe air pollution wasn’t that innocent after all. Laws were put forth to restrict the worst fuels used and completely banning black smoke. More importantly, the Clean Air Act of 1956 (and 1968) was put in effect, which led to a reduction in air pollution. People got incentivized to replace their coal stoves with gas fires, or to use coke (no, they didn’t burn drugs) instead of coal as coke produces significantly less smoke.
You can of course try to draw parallels with situations found today, for example in Beijing. Plenty of research is conducted on this, but there are a few differences. In China, it’s the combination of nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide, again produced from the burning of coal. When looked at in the lab, this combination, in addition to a humid atmosphere creates sulfates and builds up acidic conditions. This acid environment itself slows the production of sulfate, but add in a little ammonia from agricultural activities, and this is sped up again. It is possible that was also the exact cause of the Great Smog, with the nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide combining with the fog.
But I think we can all agree that smog’s back, right?
This blog was brought to you by: Deep Purple – Smoke on the Water