When the catastrophe loomed on December 5, 1952, nobody panicked. After all, London was used to foggy weather. So the Brits went about their business as usual that Friday. Even as the fog turned yellowish-brown within hours as it mixed with thousands of tons of soot thrown into the air from factory chimneys, chimneys, and cars. Coal was a domestic fuel at the time and Londoners burned heavily to heat their homes during the particularly cold winter of 1952.
With World War II having ended less than a decade ago, resources were still somewhat scarce and most people had to make do with inferior heating oil that didn't burn very cleanly. In addition, the city's electric streetcar system had only recently been replaced by smoky, diesel-powered buses. What happened in the following days would go down in London history as "The Great Smog".
The term smog refers to a large accumulation of pollutants within the lowest air layers of the atmosphere and is made up of the English terms smoke and fog. Responsible for the phenomenon known to experts as "London smog" is a layer of warm air that lies above a layer of cold air near the ground. The pollutants emitted by industrial plants, power plants and heating systems as a result of combustion are distributed neither horizontally nor vertically, so that foggy-cloudy weather (London fog) occurs in connection with high humidity levels. In those days an area of high pressure weather had settled over southern England and caused this phenomenon. In addition, there was no wind that could have driven away the soot-laden smog.
According to the British weather service Metoffice, 1,000 tons of smoke particles, 2,000 tons of carbon dioxide and significant amounts of other gases were released every day. The most serious consequence was probably the daily production of 800 tons of sulfuric acid, which got into the air we breathe. The toxic air mass, almost 50 kilometers wide, teeming with acrid sulfur particles, stank like rotten eggs - and it was getting worse every day. The thick, toxic blanket quickly enveloped even the largest buildings. Many people wore masks or held handkerchiefs in front of their noses as soon as they left the house.
The air pollution was one thing, but above all the visibility made everyday life difficult. The smog was so thick that residents in some parts of the city could not see their shoes when walking. For five days, the "Great Smog" paralyzed the city and all traffic. Planes could neither take off nor land. Train and ship traffic also collapsed. Motorists had to stick their heads out of windows to find their way. There were numerous accidents. Even in cinemas, the screens were no longer visible. Football games had to be canceled and schools were closed.
Conductors ran in front of the iconic double-decker buses with flashlights and torches to guide the drivers through the streets. Since the London underground system was the only reliable means of transport, people literally piled up in front of the ticket offices. Panting pedestrians groped their way through neighborhoods, trying not to slip on the greasy black mud that covered the sidewalks. When they returned home, their faces and nostrils resembled those of miners.
The darkness also offered criminals a welcome platform. Looting, burglaries and purse snatching increased because it was easy to disappear in the dark.
It was only when the undertakers ran out of coffins and the florists ran out of bouquets that they realized just how great the health hazard posed by the Great Smog was. It was deadly, especially for the elderly, young children and people with respiratory problems. Heavy smokers were particularly at risk because of their already damaged lungs, and smoking was widespread at the time, especially among men. Many animals also suffocated. At Smithfield Market, cattle were killed and discarded before they could be slaughtered and sold because their lungs were black. Birds got lost in the fog and swooped on buildings.
The number of deaths from bronchitis and pneumonia increased more than sevenfold. More and more people with severe respiratory problems found themselves in the emergency rooms of the clinics, which were overloaded. According to reports, about 4000 people died prematurely immediately after the smog. However, the harmful effects continued, and the death rate was well above normal well into the summer of 1953. Many experts now assume that the Great Smog claimed at least 8,000, maybe even 12,000 lives.
After five days - on December 9th - the Great Smog finally dissipated as a brisk westerly wind swept the toxic cloud away from London and out to the North Sea. Politicians initially worried about the problems for air traffic, until the above-average number of deaths came into focus. Only after a government investigation into the incident did Parliament pass the Clean Air Act of 1956, which restricted coal burning in urban areas and authorized local councils to establish smoke-free zones. Homeowners received grants to convert from coal to alternative heating systems. However, it took years to transition from coal as the city's primary heating source to gas, oil and electricity. Deadly fogs recurred throughout this period, as in 1962, which killed about 750 people. However, none of them reached the extent of the Great Smog of 1952.
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Sources: History Channel, German Weather Service, documentary The Great Smog, DPA