Dani Garavelli: Smoke gets in your eyes

London in the Great Smog of 1952. Officially 4,000 died, but it could have been up to 12,000. Picture: Getty
London in the Great Smog of 1952. Officially 4,000 died, but it could have been up to 12,000. Picture: Getty
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Britain was forced to tackle air pollution after the Great Smog of 1952 had tragic consequences. Now Chinese cities face similar problems, writes Dani Garavelli

In the cities of northern China the silhouettes of skyscrapers loom eerily out of the smog like pagan standing stones. Down below, the streets are swathed in a dank, claustrophobic gloom. The traffic has ground to a halt and masked residents cycle or walk through featureless squares like spectres.

The smog, caused by the country’s unfettered industrialisation and rising car ownership, has become a feature of everyday life, particularly in the winter months, when freezing temperatures mean higher fuel demands and moist conditions trap pollution close to the ground.

Last week, Harbin, a city of 11 million, was paralysed, with roads, airports and schools closed, as visibility fell to under 10 metres and measurements of PM2.5 – particulate matter small enough to get trapped in the lungs – reached 1,000 micrograms per cubic metre in places, 40 times the level deemed safe by the World Health Organisation and higher even than the 900 recorded in Beijing’s so-called “airpocalypse” in January.

Looking at images of northern China now, it seems like an alien landscape; in fact, just 60 years ago, the industrial cities of the UK, including Glasgow and Edinburgh, were frequently cloaked in a smog so dense the streets were darker than during the wartime blackouts.

From the industrial revolution until the early 60s, “pea-soupers” – so called because of their dirty yellow colour – would regularly descend on urban areas, rendering daily life a challenge. For many, the grimy atmosphere TS Eliot compared to a cat that “rubs its back on the window panes”, has a romantic aura which conjures up images of gas lamps and men in trench coats.

Authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle used the “dun-coloured veil” to evoke a sense of mystery. Impressionist painter Claude Monet left the beauty of his garden at Giverny to capture the sun trying to penetrate the murk behind the Houses of Parliament.

The reality, for those who had to endure it, was much less appealing; the smog which was made up of soot particulates and the poisonous gas sulphur dioxide, aggravated respiratory problems, and, because it blocked out the ultra violet rays of the sun, it led to a lack of Vitamin D in children, causing rickets. Like a malignant force, it clung to buildings and skin, turning them black, and could even seep under doorways into people’s homes. It was often so thick, police officers had to walk in front of vehicles with flares to guide them.

Smoke has caused problems since the Middle Ages, but these difficulties intensified as factories began springing up in the 19th Century. In 1909, a smog closed down the docks and claimed 1,000 lives in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

But it wasn’t until the Great Smog hit London in the winter of 1952-53, that it was finally acknowledged as a potential mass killer.

By the 1950s, the capital was the worst-affected city in the UK; its skyline was full of factory chimneys, nearly all of its 8 million residents had coal fires and three coal-fired power stations – Battersea, Bankside and Kingston-on-Thames -– had been built within its boundaries.

The impact of all this coal-burning on the environment was exacerbated because Britain was exporting its high-quality coal abroad and burning a low-grade variety which increased the sulphur dioxide in the air, at home. The Great Smog began on 5 December. As an anticyclone settled over the windless city, residents prepared for the usual inconvenience. But it soon became clear this smog was exceptional, both in terms of its density and its duration.

All public transport, including ambulances, stopped operating, a performance of La Traviata at Sadler’s Wells was halted because the audience couldn’t see the stage and 19 people drowned after they unwittingly walked into the Thames.

The first hints of a major health crisis came when 11 prize heifers at Smithfield Show choked to death. Soon tens of thousands of people were falling sick. Unable to reach hospital, many of them died at home. Bodies piled up in the morgues as undertakers ran out of coffins, until, on 9 December, the smog lifted.

Despite the death toll, officially 4,000 but probably closer to 12,000, the government was remarkably sanguine about the disaster. The then minister for housing Harold Macmillan mocked the idea that the government should be blamed for “the weather”, resisted any green measures, saying “an enormous number of broad economic considerations” had to be taken into account and arranged for the distribution of 3 million face masks he knew were as good as useless.

Later, it emerged politicians had covered up the true toll by arbitrarily declaring 20 December as a cut-off point for smog-related deaths (although it is believed deaths continued until February).

Eventually, however, with public pressure building, the government set up the Beaver Committee which led to the Clean Air Act 1956. This piece of legislation established “smokeless zones” – areas where only smokeless fuel could be burned.

It was followed more than a decade later by the Tall Chimney Act 1968, which, as the name suggests, forced factories to install taller chimneys so toxic smoke would at least be pumped out further away from the ground. Together these laws, which saw householders given grants to convert to alternative heating systems and power stations moved out of the cities, helped produce a dramatic improvement in air quality, although not before a further three smogs had claimed more lives.

One by one the great edifices which had been blackened by pollution were cleaned up and city dwellers across the country were able to live and work free of the threat of another pea-souper.

Today, air pollution is again a problem, due mostly to vehicle emissions. This type of pollution also reacts with sunlight to create the photochemical smog which sometimes occurs in British and other cities.

In China, as in the UK in the 1950s, however, the smog is due to the country’s over-dependency on coal. With a Lancet report suggesting air pollution now claims one million lives a year there and public unrest growing, politicians finally appear to be taking action to curb the problem, but only after years of inertia.

Earlier this month, the government announced it would give rewards amounting to more than $800m (£500m) for reducing air pollution in six regions in the north. And in September it unveiled a plan to reduce air pollution nationwide by putting limits on coal-burning and taking high-polluting vehicles off the roads on certain days.

It’s a start. But the scale of the problem, and the UK’s experience in tackling smog, suggests that if real progress is to be made, politicians at a local as well as national level will have to unite behind the cause – something which is by no means guaranteed – and China will have to find an alternative source of fuel. With that in mind, it is banning new coal-fired power stations near Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong and work is under way on dozens of nuclear plants.

However, with coal currently accounting for 70 per cent of total energy consumption, and the current target a reduction of just 5 per cent by 2017, it seems likely its northern cities will continue to be enveloped in smog for some years to come.