December 9, 1952 Gasping for Air

When such a weather system occurs over areas with high levels of atmospheric contaminants, the resulting ground fog can be catastrophic. 63 people perished during a similar episode in 1930, in the Meuse River Valley area of Belgium. In 1950, 22 people were killed in Poza Rica, Mexico. In 1952, the infamous “Great Smog of London” claimed the lives of thousands, over a course of five days.

schwarzenegger-ap-18337474166966
“Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger delivers a speech during the opening of COP24 UN Climate Change Conference 2018 in Katowice, Poland, Monday, Dec. 3, 2018.
Czarek Sokolowski / AP” H/T CBS News, Inc.

Last week, climate activists and world leaders gathered in Poland to discuss carbon pollution resulting from the use of fossil fuels, and ways to combat what they see as a future of anthropogenic global warming.

Adherents to current climate change theories hold onto such ideas with a fervor bordering on the religious while skeptics raise any number of questions but, one thing is certain. There was a time when the air and water around us was tainted with impunity, with sometimes deadly results.

In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland Ohio caught fire, resulting in property damage worth $100,000, equivalent to nearly $700,000, today. The fire resulted in important strategies to clean up the river, but this wasn’t the first such fire. The Cuyahoga wasn’t even the first river to catch fire. There were at least thirteen such incidents on the Cuyahoga, the first occurring in 1868. The Rouge River in Michigan caught fire in the area around Detroit in 1969, and a welder’s torch lit up the Buffalo River in New York, the year before. The Schuylkill River in Philadelphia caught fire from a match tossed into the water, in 1892.

Fire on the Cuyahoga River
Cuyahoga River burning, in 1952. H/T Getty Images

Today, the coal silts, oil and chemical contaminants at the heart of these episodes are largely under control in the developed world, but not the world over. One section of Meiyu River in Wenzhou, Zhejiang China burst into flame in the early morning of March 5, 2014. Toxic chemical pollution and other garbage dumped into Bellandur Lake in Bangalore India resulted in part of the lake catching fire the following year, the fire spreading to the nearby Sun City apartments.

If you happen to visit the “Iron City”, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, photographs may be found of streetlights turned on in the middle of the day. In November 1939, St. Louis brought a new meaning to the term “Black Tuesday”, when photographs of the Federal building at Twelfth Boulevard and Market Street show the sun little more than a “pale lemon disk” and streetlights on at 9:00 in the morning.

Federal Building, St. Louis
Federal Building, St. Louis

Air pollution turned deadly in the early morning hours of October 26, 1948 when an atmospheric inversion trapped flourine gases over Donora Pennsylvania, home of US Steel Corporation’s Donora Zinc Works and American Steel and Wire. By the 29th, the inversion had trapped so much grime that spectators gathered to watch a high school football game, couldn’t see the kids on the field. The “Death Fog” hung over Donora for four days, killing 22 and putting half the town, in the hospital.

mid-day
Donora Smog at Midday with streetlights on. H/T Donora Historical Society

The Donora episode was caused by an “anticyclone”, a weather event in which a large high pressure front draws air down through the system and out in a clockwise motion.

When such a weather system occurs over areas with high levels of atmospheric contaminants, the resulting ground fog can be catastrophic. 63 people perished during a similar episode in 1930, in the Meuse River Valley area of Belgium. In 1950, 22 people were killed in Poza Rica, Mexico. In 1952, the infamous “Great Smog of London” claimed the lives of thousands, over a course of five days.

Nelson's_Column_during_the_Great_Smog_of_1952
Nelson’s Column during the Great Smog of 1952

On December 5, a body of cold, stagnant air descended over a near-windless London, trapped under a “lid” of warm air. London had suffered poor air quality since the 13th century and airborne pollutants had combined to create “pea soupers” in the past, but this was unlike anything in living memory. The smoke from home and industrial chimneys and other pollutants such as sulphur dioxide combined with automobile exhaust, with nowhere to go.

Yellow-black particles of the stuff built and accumulated at an unprecedented rate. Visibility was down to a meter and driving all but impossible. Public transportation shut down, requiring those rendered sick by the fog, to transport themselves to the hospital.  Outdoor sporting events were canceled and even indoor air quality, was affected.  Weather conditions held until December 9, when the fog dispersed.

hith-london-fog-2660357-ABThere was no panic, Londoners are quite accustomed to the fog, but this one was different. Over the weeks that followed, public health authorities estimated that 4,000 people had died as a direct result of the smog by December 8, and another 100,000 made permanently ill. Research pointed to another 6,000 losing their lives in the following months, as a result of the event.

More recently, research puts the death toll of the Great Smog at 12,000.

A similar event took place about ten years later in December 1962, but without the same lethal impact. A spate of environmental legislation in the wake of the 1952 disaster began to remove black smoke from chimneys.  Financial incentives moved homeowners away from open coal fires toward less polluting alternatives such as gas or oil, or less polluting coke.

Today, the wealthier, developed nations have made great strides toward improvement in air and water quality, though problems persist in the developing world.  In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that:

“[B]etween 1980 and 2017, gross domestic product increased 165 percent, vehicle miles traveled increased 110 percent, energy consumption increased 25 percent, and U.S. population grew by 44 percent. During the same time period, total emissions of the six principal air pollutants dropped by 67 percent”.

The same report shows that, during the same period, CO2 emissions have increased by 12 percent.  Policy makers continue to wrangle with the long-term effects of carbon.  Now, it’s hard to separate the politics from the science.

While politicians and climate activists jet around the planet to devise trillion dollar “solutions”, let us hope that cooler heads than that of Arnold Schwarzenegger, prevail.  There is scarcely a man, woman or child among us who do not want clean air and clean water, and a beautiful, natural environment around us, for ourselves and our posterity.  It’s only a matter of how we get there.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.
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Author: Cape Cod Curmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a husband, a father, a son and a grandfather. A history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. I began writing "Today in History" nearly six years ago, as sort of a self-guided history course.  I told myself I’d write 365, the leap year changed that to 366. As I write this, I believe there are over 600. I make every effort to get my facts straight, but I'm as good at being wrong as the next guy. I offer these "Today in History" stories in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Rick Long

2 thoughts on “December 9, 1952 Gasping for Air”

  1. As a child they told me we’d be in am ice age and living under ground by now

    As a young adult I was told the polar ice caps would be gone by now and our coastal cities flooded. Kind of disappointed that one didn’t come true.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Geologists think the world may be frozen up again“. – New York Times Feb 24, 1895
      “Fifth ice age is on the way. Human race will have to fight for its existence against cold.” – L.A. Times, 1912

      “America in Longest Warm Spell Since 1776; Temperature Line Records a 25-Year Rise” – New York Times March 27, 1933
      “Gaffers who claim that winters were harder when they were boys are quite right…weather men have no doubt that the world at least for the time being is growing warmer.” – Time magazine, Jan.2, 1939
      “A warmer earth evident at poles – Arctic findings in particular support theory of rising global temperatures“. – NY Times, February 15, 1959
      “Expert says arctic ocean will soon be an open sea“. – NY Times, February 20, 1969

      “The threat of a new ice age must now stand alongside nuclear war as a likely source of wholesale death and misery for mankind,” Nigel Calder, former editor of “New Scientist.”, 1975
      “The cooling has already killed hundreds of thousands of people in poor nations,” – Lowell Ponte “The Cooling”, 1976
      “The advent of a new ice age, scientists say, appears to be guaranteed. The devastation will be astonishing.” -Gregg Easterbrook in Newsweek, Nov. 23, 1992

      Like

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