The Smoke clears

We've come a long way since the smog days of 1952.

Austin Williams

Topics Politics

In a recent Greater London Authority (GLA) publication, Ken Livingstone remembers the London fog of 1952. ‘Its main impact’, he says, ‘was that we didn’t have to go to school for a few days’ (1).

For an event that reputedly killed thousands of London residents, this might not seem the most empathetic response of the Mayor of London, but smogs were often treated as no more than an inconvenience in those days. The prevalence of pea-soupers, as they were known, was one of the reasons that London came to be known as The Smoke; with the name ‘smog’ being derived from the thick, acrid mix of smoke and fog.

In December 1952, a particularly cold spell meant that most people kept their coal fires burning more than usual. The resultant smoke discharge, together with the palls of sulphurous emissions from the smokestacks of city industry, the lack of wind and the freezing air, resulted in a choking layer of acrid smog which blanketed London. At Sadler’s Wells, a performance of La Traviata had to be cancelled as smog filtered on to the stage. On the Isle of Dogs, visibility was officially nil (2).

It has always been accepted that around 4000 people died as a result. Coroners’ records show that deaths peaked at 900 per day a week later and remained around this figure until Christmas. But new research on the 1952 London smog indicates that some 12,000 people were killed – far more than was previously admitted. The report, by US researchers Devra Davis and Michelle Bell, argues that health officials did not recognise the magnitude of the problem, and the extra deaths were subsequently blamed on a flu epidemic (3). Whether the government of the day knowingly suppressed the evidence is open to debate.

While it is important to set the records straight, we shouldn’t be too cynical. After all, the end result was the introduction of the Clean Air Act four years later, which effectively has meant that, even though air pollution caused by the burning of coal has been known about in the UK since the thirteenth century, smogs no longer blight these shores.

Currently, PM10 levels (particulate matter of 10 micrometers (mm) or less) are around 30 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3). With no domestic coal fires left to speak of, before we leap on the bandwagon to condemn diesel-fuelled cars for the problem, bear in mind that today’s levels compare to 300µg/m3 fifty years ago – and a staggering 3000µg/m3 in the 1952 smog. We should take a deep breath and relax a little.

Friends of the Earth (FoE) however, complains about the fact that the government target for London’s PM10 levels is 23µg/m3 by 2010, as opposed to 20µg/m3 nationally, and says that London should have more stringent targets (the mayor aims to achieve the national target by 2015). Tony Bosworth of FoE says that ‘pollution may not be visible, but it is still deadly’ (4).

Virginia Berridge from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine points out that the development of pollution health scares has been engineered, over the years, to emphasise personal responsibility for environmental problems (5).

In 1909, when 1000 Glaswegians died in smog, a campaigner from the National Smoke Abatement Society said that it was ‘a civic crime: the deaths are the result of the actions of the citizens themselves’ (6) – referring to their burning of coal to heat their homes giving rise to the very air pollution that killed them. In the late 1950s, the Medical Research Council played up the role of smoking over atmospheric pollution as a cause of ill-health.

The UK Committee on Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP) and the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) suggests that for every 1µg/m3 drop in air pollutants, we gain an extra 1.5 to 3.5 days of life per person pro rata across the population (7). Some people – those with severe respiratory diseases – will obviously benefit more from cleaner air than the remaining 98 percent, who may perceive no increased longevity benefits at all.

The starting point in any assessment, however, must surely be to recognise that we are at a greatly improved position than ever before, rather than worrying ourselves, unnecessarily, into a fog of despair.

Austin Williams is director of the Transport Research Group, technical editor of the Architects’ Journal, and motoring correspondent at the Daily Telegraph. He is a contributor to Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age, Wiley-Academy, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and Carchitecture: When the Car and the City Collide, August/Birkhauser, 2001 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

(1) 50 Years On: The Struggle for Air Quality in London Since the Great Smog of December 1952 (.pdf 2.45 MB), Greater London Authority, December 2002

(2) Great smog of 1952 section of the Met Office website

(3) ‘Reassessment of the lethal London fog of 1952: novel indicators of acute and chronic consequences of acute exposure to air pollution’, Michelle L Bell and Devra Lee Davis, Environmental Health Perspectives, Volume 109, Supplement 3, June 2001. See the abstract of this paper

(4) London smog – problems still exist 50 years on, Friends of the Earth, 5 December 2002

(5) Professor Virginia Berridge (LSHTM), speaking at ‘Lifestyle versus Environment: The rise of a new public health agenda after the 1950s’, in ‘The Big Smoke: Fifty Years After the 1952 London Smog’, commemorative conference, Brunei Gallery, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. London 9th December 2002. Also see Anti-smoking agenda ’caused air pollution problem to be obscured’, Sarah Boseley, Guardian, 9 December 2002

(6) Quoted by Dr Stephen Moseley, University of Brighton, speaking at ‘The Big Smoke: Fifty Years After the 1952 London Smog’, commemorative conference, Brunei Gallery, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. London 9th December 2002

(7) Cutting air pollution – tough new targets, Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, 5 August 2002

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Topics Politics


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