London in smog

The Great Smog 1952: Anniversary of an Urban Environmental Disaster

How a disaster became the starting point for clean air legislation

The beginning of December marked the 70th anniversary of unprecedented air pollution in London. It led to 10,000 deaths and 200,000 serious illnesses. The ”Great Smog” was a severe air pollution event that hit the British capital from 5 to 9 December 1952: a cold spell combined with unfavourable high-pressure weather and calm winds led to a build-up of air pollutants that formed a thick layer of smog over the city. Visibility in London dropped to below 2 metres.

The excessive burning of coal caused this heavy pollution. The impacts of the smog on the human respiratory system killed 4,000 people in the days of the smog and another 6,000 in the months that followed. Every day for five days, according to the British Meteorological Service, 1000 tonnes of smoke particles, 2000 tonnes of carbon dioxide and significant amounts of other gases were released.

The Great Smog is the period with the worst air pollution in British history. At the same time, it was also a significant event in terms of its impact on environmental research, government regulation and public awareness of the link between air quality and health. In 1956, the Clean Air Act was passed in the UK. Corresponding laws and regulations followed throughout Europe.