By Philip R. Devlin
(June 8, 2023) — Imagine walking down a city street and the air pollution is so bad that you cannot even see your own feet. That happened in December of 1952 in London during an event that has come to be known as the “Great London Smog Event of 1952.”
Coal was the principal source of heat in England in 1952. During a cold spell when Londoners were burning tons of coal to stay warm, an air inversion occurred, preventing smoke from rising up into the atmosphere and dissipating; instead, the smoke lingered and got thicker as it combined with exhaust from motor vehicles. This toxic mix took a deadly toll. Initially, the British government estimated the toxic air conditions killed about 4,000 London residents between December 5 and December 9, 1952. More recent revised estimates have placed that number of fatalities nearer to 12,000 deaths!
Our current bout with polluted air may be rare for New Englanders, but it is nothing new to certain parts of the United States, such as Los Angeles, California. Los Angeles was built in a basin and is surrounded on three sides by mountains and by the ocean on its fourth side. This geographic anomaly creates a perfect condition for air inversions. Polluted air from millions of motor vehicles can easily get trapped by mountain ranges and linger for a long time. On July 26, 1943, during World War II, smog appeared in Los Angeles that was so sudden and severe that LA residents thought that the Japanese were attacking the city with chemical weapons!
Donora, Pennsylvania was the hometown of Hall of Famer Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals. Donora was principally a coal-mining community. An air inversion occurred in that small town on October 30-31 of 1948. Twenty residents died and more 600 were hospitalized. New York City also experienced record-setting air pollution on November 24, 1966, killing 169 people.
The astonishing number of fatalities in London in 1952 led to a number of legal measures and incentives to reduce air pollution from both coal and motor vehicles. Despite these measures, London still can experience air pollution. For example, more than a hundred people died during a 1962 London air inversion.
Stricter United States air emission standards, begun with the Clean Air Act of 1970, have reportedly reduced air concentrations of volatile compounds by a factor of 50 between 1962-2012; additionally, concentrations of pollutants such as nitrous oxide and ozone have declined by more than 70% during that same time period. The latest version of widespread air pollution, however, has little to do with motor vehicles and coal and more to do with widespread wildfires in parched forests. Solutions for that problem remain elusive.
Photo above from Wikipedia. Public Domain photo of an indoor meeting in Los Angeles in 1954 during a particularly bad air inversion.