60th Anniversary of the Great Smog of 1952

Those who remember the dramatic Great London Smog of 1952 could be forgiven for looking around and thinking that the problem must have gone away. Unfortunately nothing could be further from the truth.

The 5th December 2012 marks 60 years since a thick yellow smog brought the capital to a standstill for four days. The Ministry of Health estimated that 4,075 more people died than would have been expected under normal circumstances. Doctors, politicians and the public came together to demand action. The result was the Clean Air Act 1956: a groundbreaking piece of legislation which cleaned up London’s air and was copied around the world.

London’s air today may appear much cleaner, but the reality is that it is still dangerously polluted. The pollution caused by coal which caused London’s infamous “pea soupers” has been replaced by invisible pollution mainly caused by traffic fumes and particularly from diesel vehicles. This is estimated to be responsible for 4,300 premature deaths each year in London.

The well known historical context to London pollution can actually serve to undermine the severity of the current problem. Against the backdrop of the dramatic smogs of 1952, today’s invisible pollution pales in comparison. Many people I speak to are surprised to learn of the significant modern day health impacts of air pollution, because it is so consistently presented as a problem of the past – an environmental success story, long since dead and buried. But this ghost has come back to haunt us in a new form and London is thought to have the highest levels of nitrogen dioxide of any capital city in the EU, with levels on some of London’s busiest roads, such as Brixton Road and Putney High Street, currently more than triple legal limits.

Back in the 50s, London fogs were accepted as part of everyday life, but the extreme event of early December 1952 made people demand action. With 2013 being designated the EU Year of Air, I’d like this anniversary to mark the turning point whereby people feel empowered to question the assumption that living in a city should mean breathing toxic air, which impacts disproportionately on children, older people and poorer communities. In my work talking to communities across London I’m starting to see this change, and the number of organisations are working towards this goal is growing rapidly.

There are things that can be done, such as banning the most polluting diesel vehicles from city centres, and people need to understand this before they feel they can demand action. The Healthy Air Campaign is working at EU, national and (perhaps most importantly) community level to achieve this change.

I’d like politicians to learn from history and stop dragging their feet.


Photo by: jurvetson


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