When Pollution Blocked Out the Sun

Daniel Hautzinger
A double-decker bus during the Great Smog of London, in 1952
Estimates now put the number of deaths related to London's Great Smog of 1952 at 12,000

Winter had arrived early, and it was a frigid one. People piled heaps of coal into their furnaces to keep warm against the chill and turned their collars up against the notorious London fog. Dirty-yellow in hue, the thick haze was a common occurrence in the city; residents called the fogs “pea soupers.”

But this year it seemed worse. A high pressure system called an anticyclone trapped pollutants close to the ground, and dispersing winds were weak. On December 5, 1952 – 65 years ago today – the smog became so dense that you couldn’t see across the street, and a smell like rotten eggs permeated the air. Buses and taxis stopped running due to lack of visibility, and soon the only available transportation was the subway system. Schools and businesses closed. Robberies increased. Theaters stopped showing films because the audience couldn’t see the screen. In one East London area you reportedly couldn’t glimpse your own feet.

And there were deaths. Children, the elderly, and people with respiratory problems began to perish. Animals at a livestock show dropped dead. Some people even drowned in the Thames after accidentally walking into it. Undertakers ran out of coffins. By the time cold winds finally pushed the smog out over the sea four days later, some 4,000 people had died. Estimates of the total deaths stemming from the Great Smog of London are now calculated at about 12,000.

This year, a similar haze blanketed New Delhi. The Indian capital was deemed the most polluted major city in the world by the World Health Organization in 2014, and harmful smogs are frequent, especially in the late fall months. During the Hindu festival of Diwali, which this year occurred in mid-October, tens of thousands of tons of fireworks are exploded, leaving harmful particulate matter in the air. This compounds the pollution already generated by Delhi’s rapid expansion – it is by some measures the second-largest city in the world – with the dust from construction and emissions from millions of cars. And to make matters worse, farmers across the north Indian plain (which has also been blanketed in smog) burn crops to clear their land for planting around the time of Diwali. (Just think of the compromised air quality in California after this year’s wildfires.)

Smog in New Delhi in November 2017New Delhi's chief official said the city resembled a "gas chamber" as a result of its suffocating smog in November 2017

Such a confluence of factors, plus a perfect storm of colder temperatures and sluggish winds, caused Delhi to resemble “a gas chamber” in November of this year, in the words of the city’s chief official.

Not that this is new for Delhi. A similar problem arose in 2016 around the same time, and while this year’s smog was record-breaking, it is only so in the short term: the last time air quality there was this bad was only in 1999.

How bad was it? On November 8, some monitors reported an Air Quality Index of 999. The upper limit of the worst category, hazardous, is 500. Doctors and the local government declared a public health emergency, cautioning people to stay indoors. Schools were closed, transportation was delayed, traffic accidents increased, and cricket matches were postponed.

The national government offered almost no aid, while the local government and Supreme Court have turned to various measures to ease the smog: closing a heavily polluting power station for a time; restricting the sale of fireworks; traffic restrictions; a temporary ban on construction; a harebrained plan to use helicopters to spray water over the smog, even though experts cast doubt on its efficacy – and the helicopters couldn’t take off because of poor visibility.

According to a report by the Lancet Commission on pollution and health, 2.51 million people in India died from pollution-related causes in 2015, making the country first in pollution-related deaths (an estimated 9 million people died from pollution worldwide that year). The same report concluded that air pollution was the leading environmental cause of death in the world in 2015. As a result of pollution, Delhi’s schoolchildren have the weakest lungs in India, with more than 40% of children between the ages of 8 and 14 harmfully affected by pollution.

So can Delhi learn from London’s efforts to address smog? Did London effectively solve its pollution problem after their deadly Great Smog?

Smog in New Delhi in November 2017More than two and a half million people died from pollution-related causes in India in 2015

Sort of.

A year after the Great Smog, another haze descended on London. Though not as devastating, many residents took to wearing filtering masks. A government investigation into the Great Smog eventually led to the Clean Air Act of 1956, which restricted coal-burning in urban areas – no “dark smoke” was allowed – and encouraged the use of “smokeless” fuel such as electricity and gas for heating.

While that certainly helped, London still doesn’t have the cleanest air. Over a recent 13-month period, London’s mayor triggered a pollution alert seven times. Air pollution in the United Kingdom reportedly causes 40,000 premature deaths a year. The problem is bad enough that courts have repeatedly faulted the government over its failure to address it.

And Delhi, or India as a whole? It looks as if it will be a while before pollution gets better – in fact, it will most likely get worse. India’s environment minister recently said that, while pollution “is certainly detrimental for anybody’s health,” “no death certificate has the cause of death as pollution.” Tell that to the millions of people struggling to breathe.

You can dive into the United States' own debate over pollution in Frontline's recent investigation War on the EPA.

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