The Great Smog of 1952 was a catastrophic event that plunged London into a suffocating haze of toxic fumes and despair. For five long days, the city was shrouded in a thick blanket of soot, sulphur dioxide, and other pollutants, turning the streets into a grim and eerie shadow of their former selves.
As the Met Office described the event:
A fog so thick and polluted it left thousands dead wreaked havoc on London in 1952. The smoke-like pollution was so toxic it was even reported to have choked cows to death in the fields (Met Office 2023).
The air was thick with the stench of burning coal and the acrid smell of industrial emissions, causing tears to well up in the eyes and throats to burn with each breath. The sun was nowhere to be seen, and the sky was a sickly shade of yellow, giving the city an apocalyptic feel.
The impact of the Great Smog was devastating, with thousands of people suffering from respiratory illnesses, chest infections, and other health problems. Hospitals were overwhelmed, and the mortality rate soared as vulnerable people succumbed to the deadly fumes.
But perhaps the most heart-wrenching aspect of the Great Smog was the human cost. About 4000 people were known to have died due to the smog, but it could be many more (Met Office 2023). Parents had to watch helplessly as their children gasped for breath, and families mourned as loved ones died from respiratory failure. It was a time of tragedy and heartbreak, and it's something that we should never forget.
But is history about to be repeated? Because like the period before the Great Smog, it was thought that, given sufficient vigilance on the part of the public and authorities, London’s air would become clean. Engineers and technologists have already constructed many devices to lower the smoke emissions from chimneys. Many felt that the smoke control technology was adequate and merely a question of getting people to comply (Brimblecome 1987: 108).
Current emissions and levels of most pollutants are substantially lower than during the period of the Great Smog, and the source contributions have also changed. What has not changed is the combustion fuels which continue to release toxic fumes into the atmosphere.
Today, one of the significant contributors to London's air pollution problems is waste incineration plants. These plants burn waste to generate electricity but release pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, and particulate matter into the air, adversely affecting nearby communities. Although incineration is often considered a more environmentally friendly method of waste disposal than landfilling, the emissions from these facilities still significantly impact air quality.