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Discuss the Case Study of ‘London Smog’. - Environmental Studies

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Answer in Brief

Discuss the case study of ‘London smog’.

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  • London was cold and foggy on December 5, 1952. Damp, chilly air from the English Channel blanketed the city, trapping a dense stagnant layer just above ground level. As the 8.3 million Londoners stoked coal furnaces that heated most buildings and fuelled most industry in the city, smoke mingled with the fog to form a dark, acrid smog.
  • By midday, visibility dropped to a few meters. Traffic slowed to a standstill, and pedestrians, unable to see landmarks, got lost only blocks from home. Hospitals overflowed with people suffering from respiratory distress and cardiovascular problems. With all beds occupied, patients on stretchers filled hallways. As the smog lingered for three more days, visibility dropped until people couldn’t see their own feet as they walked down the street. Abandoned cars littered the roads.
  • People huddled in their homes, stuffing wet rags around windows and doors trying to keep out the choking smog. Prize cows at the Earl’s Court Cattle Show suddenly dropped dead, their lungs black with coal smoke. Humans, also, began to die in alarming numbers. Undertakers ran out of coffins. Several temporary morgues were set up to deal with the sudden influx of corpses. Many of those killed were elderly, or already weak or ill, but young, apparently healthy people also collapsed and died after only a few hours exposure to the toxic cloud.
  • By the time winds finally swept away the smog on December 9, more than 4,700 people had died—three times the number for the same period the previous year. The first government reports correctly attributed the deaths to air pollution. Worried, however, that the public might demand costly pollution controls or cleaner-burning fuel, the government later blamed the deaths on an influenza epidemic, even though medical records show no increase in flu diagnoses. In a recent study of historic documents, epidemiologists Devra Davis and Michelle Bell conclude that death rates in London continued to be abnormally high for at least three months after the 1952 episode.
  • Altogether, they calculate, at least 12,000 early deaths occurred because of this killer smog, and hundreds of thousands of people suffered from asthma, heart attacks, and other conditions aggravated by polluted air. This would make London’s killer smog the greatest air pollution disaster in recorded history. Dirty air wasn’t new to London.
  • Until the twelfth century, most Londoners burned wood for fuel. As the city grew and the forests shrank, wood became scarce and expensive. Most people switched to abundant supplies of low-quality, bituminous coal for fuel. In 1272, Edward I forbade burning coal in the city and threatened to execute anyone caught breaking his ban.
  • Lacking affordable firewood, however, most people ignored this royal proclamation and continued to use coal. In 1578, Queen Elizabeth I complained about the foul air of London, and in 1661, John Evelyn published Fumifugium or the Inconvenience of the Air and Smoke of London Dissipated, in which he deplored the “clouds of smoke and sulphur so full of stink and darkness.” Still, as the population grew, air pollution worsened.
  • A fog in 1879 lasted from November to March, four long months of sunless gloom. Residents described the air as “thick as pea soup.” They complained about the bitter smoke and darkness, but most people assumed that smoky urban air was just an inconvenience or the cost of progress. The high number of deaths in 1952, however, changed attitudes toward air pollution. In 1956, Parliament enacted a Clean Air Act restricting coal use and requiring filters and scrubbers on industrial smokestacks.
  • Subsequently, most other industrial countries have passed similar legislation, and air quality in the developed world has increased dramatically. Still, air pollution is probably responsible for many health problems. In megacities of the developing world, poor air quality remains a major health threat.
Concept: Consequences of Air Pollution - Photochemical Smog
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