London Killer Fog: 60 Years Ago Today, Thousands Died

Categories: Environment
N T Stobbs
This isn't a grainy photo of Nelson's Column. It's killer smog.
The latest news that participants in CleanPowerSF will be paying more than initially tabulated is, sadly, not at all surprising. The ongoing saga of this long-germinating green energy program seems to epitomize the ethos of San Francisco: Take on serious problems like global warming and an undesirable, monopolistic company like PG&E by coming up with a costly and ill-run solution that may not improve the situation for anyone but those enriched by the project itself.

In San Francisco, it's the thought that counts.

And while the notion of our mid-sized city attempting to counter the global problem of climate change seems a bit triumphalist and ridiculous, on this of all days local environmental measures should be taken seriously.

Sixty years ago today, a belt of cold air settled over London, keeping the ever-present smoke belched out by both residential and factory chimneys from escaping into the upper atmosphere. The cold weather induced Londoners to toss even more coal on their fires, resulting in haze so severe that sporting matches and even theater performances were canceled due to poor visibility. By the time the fog lifted several days later, perhaps as many as 12,000 people were dead.

Had a meteor smacked into a city and wiped out 12,000 souls, that day would be marked. (Thankfully, this has not occurred -- but those wishing to celebrate the anniversary of the Tunguska Event can do so every June 30.)

As the death toll -- which, depending on what gauge you believe, ranged between 4,000 and 12,000 -- became apparent, policies were changed. On the 50th anniversary of the disaster, London Mayor Ken Livingstone wrote the following:

In response to the 1952 smog, the Government passed legislation to phase out coal fires, which meant initially many people transferred to paraffin heaters, until central heating became more widespread.

There was a good deal of discontent and people were resistant to change. I have to say that I was quite pleased because it was my job to go out and clean the fire out in the morning raking out all the bits of unburned coal to save them for the next fire.

Looking back 50 years I can'’t imagine there are many people now who don'’t recognise that this was the right policy.

The slings and arrows of CleanPowerSF deserve scrutiny. But it warrants consideration that the notion of local environmentalism need not be superficial or smug -- no matter how aptly those terms describe San Francisco's efforts.

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mblaircheney topcommenter

Why care what happened in London 60 years ago?

The disaster of the 1952 London Smog, a fairly recent event, was an example of how human actions can adversely effect the environment they live in. It showed, under unique conditions, the toxics we are dispersing, when concentrated, can be fatal. That is not to say, that long term exposure to less concentrated toxics are any less dangerous, they just won't show up in such a fast and dramatic display.

Remember, authorities in London did not know what hit them, till the mortality rates went off the charts in the days following. Present day air pollution is mostly invisible to the naked eye, but not undetectable.

England’s ‘The Telegraph’ author Geoffrey Lean, in his article on Ocean pollution (link below) brings to bare, that most all man made carbon dioxide compounds are entering the Earths sea water and are having terrible consequences on it’s inhabitants. Many people are unaware that over 50% of the Earths oxygen is produced by living plankton, not from plants on land. The end result, it will effect oxygen production levels over time. The question is, how much time?

Will the Earth itself have a 1952 type of event?

London's horrific 1952 Smog story, shows consequences from unchecked and reckless waste. Under the right conditions (or wrong depending on point of view), effects can come swiftly. 

But not without prior warning signs.In order to be aware of the peril and to take proper action, you need to know just what it is to be concerned about. Hence, remembering what 'has' happened' in the past is vital to our judgement in how to move forward.

mblaircheney topcommenter

Thanks to SF Weekly and Mr. Eskenazi for acknowledging that today marks 60 years since the one of the worst environmental disasters of the 20th Century. It is a sad commentary that virtually no other news source in America did the same, instead you were told more stories of the pending royal baby. What it says about our media, ourselves or both is not a good harbinger of where we may be heading as a society.

Google - 1952 London Smog - the BBC has a radio spot and a Video and story, that describe well with many first person accounts, the events of those fatal 5 days in December of 1952. Projections are that the existing air pollution in todays London will take the lives of 4,000... almost the same amount that died in the initial smog. God help us if we don't pay more attention to our past and our future... we will need it.

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