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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Almanac/London Smog

Air Date: Week of

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This week, we have facts about London’s Great Smog. The worst “pea souper” in modern times occurred fifty years ago.


KNOY: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy.

[MUSIC: Yehudi Menuhin & Stephane Grapelli, “Foggy Day in London Town” YEHUDI MENUHIN & STEPHANE GRAPELLI PLAY GERSHWIN (EMI, 1988)]

KNOY: England's climate has never been anything to crow about. But 50 years ago this week, the weather in London turned downright fatal. The city has always been known for its thick fogs, and the Industrial Revolution added air pollution to the mix, creating smog. The worst pea soup in modern times took place in 1952. November that year was nine degrees colder than average, and to keep warm, Londoners resorted to burning more coal than usual. The fires produced a thick smoke heavy with sulfur dioxide.

In early December, a high-pressure system settled over London and trapped the noxious fumes beneath low-lying clouds. The water vapor reacted with the smoke, turning the fog brown and creating toxic sulfuric acid. The air was so acidic that it burned skin, eyes, lungs and even iron work. With no wind, the city choked for five straight days. Visibility dropped to a few feet and emergency workers had to guide ambulances with flares. Health officials blamed the putrid air for thousands of deaths due to bronchitis, pneumonia, and heart attacks.

Thanks to the great smog of 1952, Parliament passed several acts that reduced domestic coal use and mandated taller chimneys on factories. The laws worked. But instead of choking on coal smoke, Londoners now gag on auto exhaust. Last year, London had only one air quality warning for sulfur dioxide, but 14 bad air days due to ozone pollution. For this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.




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