Monday, January 17

Five days lost in white darkness: London’s “great fog” that killed 12,000 people

“Are thick, almost solid fogs that eat the buses preceded by a man on foot with a bundle of resin in his hand; that turn off the sound; that force the “cinemas” to announce to the public that “the visibility of the screen does not go beyond the fourth row”; which suspends, as happened last December 8, a performance of La Traviata due to sudden laryngitis of the tenor and the two sopranos and because the choirs could not make out the master’s baton;

that also enters the houses and the lungs; that soils furniture and blackens clothes and saliva, that sticks to glass, curtains and picturesIt is the scourge of heart patients, asthmatics and those whose bronchial tubes are in misery and die. They die without assistance, sometimes, because the doctor cannot reach in time through “the blanket” that reduces the horizon to two yards ».

Those words are from ABC London correspondent in 1952 And even today they still give you goosebumps. On December 5 of that year the city on the Thames woke up in thick and impenetrable smoke. Nobody was alarmed; “another day in the fog, “they thought. But it wasn’t.

The realms of the great mist

Texas A&M University

Era the worst air pollution phenomenon in the history of Western Europe. Just on the 4th, a powerful anticyclone had taken over the skies over Britain. That caused a total absence of wind, yes; but, in addition, it collapsed the temperatures of the island causing the metropolitan area of ​​London to start burning coal as if there were no tomorrow.

The new London: the map of how smog is conquering the urban landscape

London has had “smog” for many decades, that particular mix of snow and smoke, like almost a differential fact. However, what happened between the early hours of December 4 and the 9th is unprecedented. Factories, vehicles and homes spewed soot and carbon dioxide non-stop to the point that, mixed with the humidity became a dense fog that completely paralyzed the city. An extract from the ABC report gives a good account of it.

Nelson S Column During The Great Smog Of 1952

At first, the authorities only recognized 5,000 deaths, but over the years, the figure has been increasing until reaching 12,000. More than 100,000 people were affected at a health level by “the great fog” and thousands of animals were found dead in the streets. The British Parliament passed the ‘Clean Air Act‘in 56; However, no one was very clear about what had happened. Until a few years ago when Renyi Zhang, Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at Texas A&M University, coordinated a team of researchers to understand what mechanisms had caused that death trap.

Poor quality coal was blamed for years. The problem is that we did not know how sulfur dioxide could be transformed into sulfuric acid in atmospheric processes of this type. For Zhang’s teamThe key was in the nitrogen dioxide; another product of coal combustion, but which, thanks to the extremely abundant natural fog, produced acidic particles. Some particles that, in principle, were isolated by the fog and that with the passing of the days ended up covering the entire city inside and out.

Suspended sulfuric acid is, needless to say, quite a problem. And the consequences of this remained in the public memory for decades favoring not only the appearance of legislation on air quality (something that had affected London since the 13th century), but other measures such as the Thames renaturation. Today, it is still interesting because of what it tells us about phenomena that only a couple of years ago affected millions of people in mainland China. Understanding tragedies like the one of 52 is the best way to prevent them from happening again.

Imagen | Lea Fabienne