Opinion: 70 years since the Great Smog fight for clean air continues

The Great Smog of London has had lasting implications for Britain’s environmental policy, but more still needs to be done to ensure citizens can breathe easily.

On December 5 1952, 70 years ago today, one of the worst environmental disasters in the UK took place, as thick, smoky fog covered the streets of London.

Severe air pollution took over the city for around four days, reducing visibility and choking people’s lungs. The smog resulted in the deaths of an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 people, while 100,000 are believed to have fallen ill from the toxic air.

The city had long suffered from poor air quality, with periods of smog events, called ‘pea soupers’, creating a thick green, yellow or black fog being a common occurrence. But nothing compared to the Great Smog which is believed to be the worst air pollution event in Britain’s history.

Particularly cold weather meant city dwellers were burning more coal to keep warm, while a lack of wind meant the smog lay over the area for longer.

This led to public transport and even ambulance services being stopped, as the smog was so dense people couldn’t see more than a few metres in front of them. Concerts and events were also cancelled, and the public was encouraged to wear smog masks.

On each day over the period of fog, the city emitted 1,000 tonnes of smoke particles and 2,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, according to the Meteorological Office.

Most worryingly, 370 tonnes of sulphur dioxide were converted into 800 tonnes of the corrosive and irritating sulphuric acid over the period. This can result in intense coughing and chest tightness.

The tragic event prompted the government to be the first country to pass a national air pollution law in 1956 to prevent more deaths, which created smoke control areas and shifted the UK towards smokeless fuels. The law was strengthened in 1968.

However, the fight for clean air is still ongoing, with an estimated 4,000 deaths in London caused by air pollution each year, according to City Hall. The first person in UK history to have air pollution listed as a cause of death is nine-year-old Ella Adoo Kissi-Debrah, who died in 2013 after an asthma attack.

It is her that a proposed piece of legislation is named after. Ella’s Law aims to enshrine the human right to clean air and to drastically improve air quality within five years of its passing.

burning fire in black background

Also known as the Clean Air Bill, the legislation passed through the House of Lords just three days prior to the anniversary of the Great Smog of London, highlighting how far we’ve come since 1952 and how much more we have to accomplish.

Research has shown time and time again the devastating health effects of air pollution, which can even reach babies in the womb and affect their size when born. Other studies reveal links between dirty air and mental health, while toxic ash from coal is thought to be impacting the food chain.  

Ella’s Law is now heading to the House of Commons where it will be considered by MP’s, with the chance of a pioneering approach to air quality coming into force.

However, the cost-of-living crisis has put air quality at risk, as it could reduce spending on environmental policies. Additionally, households are already turning to cheaper methods of heating their homes to combat expensive energy bills – sales of logs for woodburners are reported to have jumped by 60% in September.

It’s vital air quality is not permitted to slip out of hand, when clearing up our air could not only vastly improve health, it could also help to solve the climate crisis at the same time.

70 years on from the Great Smog of London, when the effects of poor air quality were already becoming clear, we should be able to ensure people are no longer dying from toxic air.

Photos by R Spegel and Marcos Assis


Notify of
1 Comment
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
1 year ago

Thank you, all very well said.

Help us break the news – share your information, opinion or analysis
Back to top