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1950s / London Great Smog - 1952
On Friday, December 5, 1952 a substantial fog rolled across London, England. This was not a particularly rare occurrence in that city. What made it memorable and lethal was the fact that it stayed for the better part of four days and basically brought the British capital to a standstill. The first week in December 1952 brought unusually cold weather to Great Britain. An unusual weather system known as an anticyclone moved over London. (Anticyclones are high pressure systems that create stationary surface hazes.) Not only was the thickening mist not moving, the smoke from the city's coal-burning furnaces in homes and offices was also trapped. In the early 1950s, the coal used in most London households was of a lower grade than the type used before the Second World War. (The higher quality coal was saved for export.) It also had a high sulfur content. Because the anticyclone was trapping both the fog and the coal smoke, the city was engulfed in a stinky blanket of mist that made many basic outdoor activities impossible. Driving became a dangerous adventure. City buses moved at a snail's pace, often with policemen preceding them on foot with torches. Within a short while bus service stopped altogether due to the low visibility. (The unaffected London Underground kept its schedule, however). Private cars were abandoned on the streets. Most outdoor activities, including sports events, were cancelled. The smog became so bad that it began to seep into indoor venues. Movie theaters and concert halls had to cancel shows because of diminished visibility. Finally, after four days of intense smog, a new weather system cleared London's skies on Tuesday, December 9. However, about 4,000 Londoners died from respiratory illnesses shortly thereafter related to breathing the unhealthy coal smoke. Health officials later put the death toll at about 12,000 from the lingering effects of what became known as The Great Smog. In 1956 the British parliament passed the Clean Air Act which mandated pollution controls and restricted furnaces to burning pollution-free fuels. The legislation worked. London has not experienced anything even close to The Great Smog of 1952 in all the years since then.