I once heard a great story from an instructor of a class I took about electric transmission, about how during the early years of coal fired electric generation plants, that air quality in the cities at times was less than optimal. Newspaper reporters began to do stories on the pollution pouring out of smokestacks from coal plants that were located in the cities, close to the population who needed the electricity. The instructor went on to explain that many smokestacks had platforms that would be manned by a person to keep an eye out for reporters and photographers who were trying to get pictures of the smoke coming out of the smokestacks, and if a photographer was spotted they would limit production, to limit the emission for the picture.
I have no facts to back up his claim, but it was a good story, and it entertained the class for a few moments. I had forgotten about that story until my wife decided to recover our kitchen table chairs. One evening, as I sat on the floor digging staples out of our chairs from the last time they were recovered, I binged watched The Crown on Netflix. The Crown is a Netflix-original drama that chronicles the life of Queen Elizabeth II from the 1940s to modern times.
One episode dealt with the Great Smog of 1952, or sometimes referred to as “Big Smoke.” In 1952 a weather pattern stalled over London trapping all the smoke from homes which mostly burnt coal for heating, as well as the electric plants (many located in the city of London), as well as all the manufacturing plants of England’s capital city. The weather and pollution combined to form an extremely thick layer of smog, which hung over the city from Friday, December 5th to Tuesday, December 9th , 1952. Since Londoners are used to fog there was no panic, however this was not your typical London fog. Visibility was down to just a few feet. Public transportation stopped running. Ambulances did not respond to calls. During the day pedestrians would shuffle their feet to feel for things in their way such as a curb or post, as they could not see where they were walking. At night you could not see your hand in front of your face.
A policeman guiding a London bus through thick fog with a flaming torch.
After the smog blanket cleared when the weather changed, it was estimated that 4,000 people died due to the toxic air, with more modern estimates reaching up to 12,000 people. The majority of deaths caused during the fog were actually caused by exacerbation of existing respiratory complaints, or people with weaker constitutions like the young or elderly.
The crisis ended up influencing a great rethink of the dangers of air pollution, with environmental legislation like the City of London (Various Powers) act of 1954 and the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968, eventually leading to significant improvements in air quality.
Clean air legislation has a long history in this country as well, and coal fired plants have come a long way from the days of the Great Smog of 1952. Just this week the first “clean coal” plant became operational in the US just outside of Houston, Texas. Here is an article from the Washington Post. More on these new coal plants to be posted soon.
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