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The Elements of Risk in the Great Smog of London 1952

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Environment
Wordcount: 1965 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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 In the winter 1952 of London England, it experienced a disaster that severely impacted the city due to a dense combination of fog and smoke, otherwise known as smog, where it reduced the visibility to virtually zero as the people of London were only able to see less than 10 meters (Laskin, 2006). The smog lasted for 4 days between the fifth and the ninth of December in 1952 where the initial death toll of the disaster was at least 4,000 people and more than 150,000 people were hospitalized from health issues due to the polluted air of the smog (Ellington-Brown, 2009; Deamer, 2016). However, ten weeks after the disaster had occurred, an additional 8,000 had died caused by the level of pollution the smog had carried (Black, 2003). In the analysis of the disaster that is now known as “The Great Smog of London”, the unique combination of natural hazards and human error had contributed to the creation of the dense smog as the cold winter led to the mass amount of coal to be burnt, thus creating the dense smoke (Davis, Bell, & Fletcher, 2002).  During the main discussion of the literature review, it will focus on the risk elements of “The Great Smog of London” and how the disaster affected the city and the aftermath that came from the smog disaster.


 During the winter of 1952, the citizens of London, England experienced foggy and cold weather within the month of December, in which, led to people burning mass quantities of coal to produce heat for households, businesses, and other infrastructures (Laskin, 2006). The burning of coal and other products of combustion from factories and industries release toxic fumes into the air that include sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, Carbon Dioxide, sulfuric acid mist and tar (Wilkins, 1954). Although many people expected the smoke from the burning cold to dissipate into the air, the combination of the previously existing fog and the smoke produced by the coal was enclosed in an anticyclone that trapped the polluted air and settled within the city of London (Donaldson, 2003). An anticyclone appears in high-pressure areas where it causes the winds to circulate in a clockwise direction in the Northern Hemisphere and vise versa within the Southern Hemisphere; usually forming when air masses cool the area quickly making the air denser, thus adding weight to the atmosphere above the area and increases the air pressure (“What is an anticyclone?”, 2011). Because of the increased air pressure and cooling, it results in the anticyclone to form “through the loss of infrared radiation over land” in seasons where sunlight is scarce to warm the air masses (“What is an anticyclone?”, 2011). With the combination of weather complications from the anticyclone and the extensive smoke created from burning coal, the air visibility was reduced to the point where citizens of London were unable to use any transport vehicles and flights at Heathrow Airport cancelled due to the visibility issue (Laskin, 2006). Surprisingly, the issue of London’s fog has become frequent where it has been noted famously by Charles Dickens to Claude Monet, where the appearance of fog has averaged of 63 foggy days per year (Leser, 2015). However, during the time period of 1941 to 1946, the foggy weather tended to frequently appear in London in the months of December, January, and November where the fog visibility that was less than 550 yards occurred 23% on occasions and dense fog with the visibility of less than 30 yards occurred 0.8% (Wilkins, 1954).     


 Although the tragic events from the disaster led to the deaths and many to have long-term health issues due to the inhalation of the toxic fumes of the smog, it could have been prevented in the analysis of human vulnerability. A major issue that has to be noted was that the London residents had adapted to the foggy weather. Throughout the 19th and 20th century, London was well-known for the foggy weather, thus making the frequent appearance of the smog was not an unusual sight for London citizens where the British journal of The Medical Officer noted that, “It was simply the occurrence of a well-known meteorological phenomena in an area where the toxic products of combustion are vomited in excess into the air” (Laskin, 2006). With the average of 63 appearances of the smog per year (Leser, 2015), the citizens adaption to the foggy weather is inevitable but the long-term affects of breathing the toxic fumes of the smog is lethal. Contents of the smog included sulphuric dioxide and other gases that are emitted into the air by the burning of coal, oil, and other combustion products from industrial plants (Wilkins, 1954). Although the pollutants within the smog had lethal affects, citizens of London were casual when the foggy weather fell upon them as they saw no harm being done to them until the disaster occurred in December of 1952.    

Intervening Conditions

 An interference that may have led to the causation of the built up smog was the economic distress of the country. In the aftermath of World War II, Britain still was suffering financials as the war effectively bankrupt the national treasury (Laskin, 2006). As a result of the country in financial distress, it had led to the increase of production from industrial plants and to 8,000 diesel buses, that replaced the city trams, being ran to transport citizens to their desired location (Laskin, 2006). In combination of the increased production system to recover Britain’s economy and smoke from burning coal to combat the frigid weather, this led to “1,000 tons of smoke particles, 2,000 tons of carbon dioxide, and 370 tons of sulfur dioxide” to be released into the air within a 24 hour period (Laskin, 2006, p. 44). Although the affects from burning and producing coal released many toxins into the air, it provided Britain some source of income and circulate it back into the country’s economy that was still recovering from the cost damages from the war. In addition to improving Britain’s economy from the war, businesses were still functioning while in midst of the smog. As it was previously stated, transportation vehicles such as diesel buses continue to operate during the disaster to commute to their place of business, but transportation seized immediately when the fog visibility determined that it was unsafe for vehicles to be on the road and many were abandoned in the street (Laskin, 2006; Ellington-Brown, 2009). 

Coping and Adjustment

 On the ninth of December 1952, the smog had officially cleared as a low-pressure system slowly dropped and brought in light rain to London on the morning of December 9th (Laskin, 2006). Businesses and the Port of London, which was closed for 10 hours due to the smog reducing the visibility levels, had reopened to the public enabling them to grow Britain’s economy (Laskin, 2006). Although the death toll was initially 4,000 people, the numbers grew and an additional 8,000 were added in the weeks after the disaster (Black, 2003). It was founded that the deaths were due to chronic bronchitis and emphysema caused by the inhalation of the mixture of chemicals that were contained in the smog (Black, 2003). The severity of the disaster that led to over 12,000 deaths gave the government the final push to implement an act in 1956 called the Clean Air Act where its initial purpose is to reduce the production of smoke pollution by creating smokeless zones around Britain (Ellington-Brown, 2009). Although the act was revised in 1968 to include fuel-intensive industries where it was ordered that the use taller chimneys, the creation of the act led to a modern environmental movement (Ellington-Brown, 2009). For example, China has had an air pollution issue since 1962 and has been increasing due to heavily polluted industries such as increasing the production of coal for energy and the usage of cars (Zhang, Liu, & Li, 2014). With China displaying similar attributes as the Great Smog of London, the adoption of the Clean Air Act could prevent the event from London from occurring again within our history.


 In the overall analysis of “The Great Smog of London”, the disaster had a major impact on the citizens of Britain as their adaption to the foggy weather led to their assumption that it was another usual foggy day. However, with the mixture of pollutants, such as sulphuric dioxide, contained in the smoke from factories and other industries it created a lethal smog that had killed at least 4,000 people initially and additional 8,000 in the aftermath of the disaster due to respiratory issues (Laskin, 2006; Black, 2003). Although with the Clean Air Act is still in effect in Britain to prevent an incident from happening again, countries that have major issues with air pollution, such as China, need to sincerely consider the effects polluted air could potentially have on their population as many are experiencing the effect from inhaling polluted air. Within the rural regions of India, Africa, and China, women are developing respiratory illnesses, such as lung cancer, at rates usually found in those who smoke cigarettes as they have been exposed to smoky fumes produced by industries that let fossil fuels and chemicals into the air from their production (Davis, Bell, & Fletcher, 2002). Even though there are small quantity of cases, global leaders should involve in finding a resolution to air pollution before another smog incident occurs as it did in London.

Work Cited

  • Black, J. (2003). Intussusception and the great smog of London, December 1952. Archives of Disease in Childhood, 88(12), 1040-102.
  • Davis, D., Bell, M., & Fletcher, T. (2002). A look back at the London smog of 1952 and the half century since. (Guest Editorials). Environmental Health Perspectives,110(12), A734-A735.
  • Deamer, K. (2016). Scientists determine cause of London’s 1952 “killer fog”. Retrieved from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/londons-1952-killer-fog-cause-revealed/
  • Donaldson, K. (2003). The biological effects of coarse and fine particulate matter. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 60(5), 313-314.
  • Ellington-Brown, L. (2009). The great smog of London leads to the first clean air act.(FT MAGAZINE). The Financial Times, p. 46.
  • Laskin, D. (2006). The Great London Smog. Weatherwise, 59(6), 42-45.
  • Leser, S. (2015). The reason London is renowned for being foggy. Retrieved from https://theculturetrip.com/europe/united-kingdom/england/london/articles/london-fog-the-biography/
  • What Is an Anticyclone? 2011, www.weatherquestions.com/What_is_an_anticyclone.htm.
  • Wilkins, E. (1954). Air pollution and the London fog of December, 1952. Journal of the Royal Sanitary Institute,74(1), 1-2
  • Zhang, D., Liu, J., & Li, B. (2014). Tackling Air Pollution in China—What do We Learn from the Great Smog of 1950s in LONDON. Sustainability, 6(8), 5322-5338.


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