London Vs. The Smog Monster
January 22, 2003 11:38 AM   Subscribe

50 years ago last month, a dark cloud settled in over London. And stayed for four days. This fog, which was brought on by a lethal combination of high pressure, near freezing temperatures and London's pervasive coal burning, starting killing things. At first, the animals at a cattle show, then the elderly, or those prone to resperatory disease. By the end, over 4,000 people had died. Strangely, to this day the disaster retains a low profile, unlike more glamorous disasters such as the Titanic, or Bhopal. Stranger still, is that unlike those others, while the fog was at its most deadly, few realized there was even an epidemic occurring, with most viewing it as, at worst, a mild nuisance.
posted by jonson (22 comments total)
Heh, you want low profile?

How many of you outside the UK knew about that? Until someone here says something about it, I believe I'm the only one. :-)
posted by shepd at 11:52 AM on January 22, 2003

We get that a lot here, but as far as I know it's never been so lethal. I've had asthma since I was a child, and I remember a lot of days that I wasn't allowed to go outside because the smog was so bad.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 11:54 AM on January 22, 2003

Only recently I learned that much the same thing happened, on a smaller scale, across the river from where I grew up. In Donora, Pennsylvania, in 1948. There used to be black-smoke steel mills all up the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio rivers to Pittsburgh, and sometimes you needed street lights at noon.
Like you said, most people thought of it as "the way things are".
posted by Isamu Noguchi at 11:57 AM on January 22, 2003

A similar event, in many ways, was the Chicago heat wave of 1995 -- which ultimately killed between 300 and 750 people, depending on how causality is meted out, many of those deaths after the worst of the heat had passed. (Some took days to discover, even as the city began sending out employees to check on elderly residents.)

I mean, it's Chicago, we all thought. We get icy, snowy winters -- so how hot can it get? Sociologically, though, this is different from earlier heat waves. We tend to shut ourselves up more, for safety, and we tend to be more isolated, especially as senior citizens.
posted by dhartung at 11:58 AM on January 22, 2003

Another similar event that passed without much fanfare was the 30th anniversary of the Clean Water Act which was prompted in large part due to a contaminated river catching fire in Ohio.
posted by mathowie at 12:18 PM on January 22, 2003

in winter, here in santiago, in the town centre, you can stand at one side of a square and have difficulty seeing the buildings opposite.

my partner works on the city outskirts, up a hill, and from her office window can watch the valley fill with a yellow cloud that obscures the city and, as the day goes on, slowly creeps higher...

traffic is cyclicly banned by number plate codes; on very bad days some roads are closed to anything other than public transport; on even worse days school is cancelled (don't think it got that bad last winter).

curiously (or maybe not, if you understand the science), in the suburbs where we live, and which aren't that badly affected by smog, the ozone level is supposed to be worryingly high. but despite that, and the heat, i've not had exercise-induced asthma since moving here (12 months ago; normally i'd expect something over that interval in the uk, and it seemed to be worse in the heat there).
posted by andrew cooke at 12:21 PM on January 22, 2003

"...a contaminated river catching fire in Ohio."

I remember watching that on the news when I was a kid. That would have been about '77 or '78, if memory serves. I recall seeing our local CBS anchorman break in and say "The Cuyahoga River is on fire" and then cut live to the scene where there was a pretty good blaze going.

posted by mr_crash_davis at 12:44 PM on January 22, 2003

Strangely, to this day the disaster retains a low profile, unlike more glamorous disasters such as the Titanic, or Bhopal.

For me, horror flicks depicting London have always had a silent character, The Fog.
posted by thomcatspike at 12:45 PM on January 22, 2003

Wait, that doesn't add up, does it?

*ticks fingers*

Maybe it was the tenth anniversary.

posted by mr_crash_davis at 12:47 PM on January 22, 2003

That flammable Cleveland river also is responsible for of my favorite Randy Newman songs. Also, it makes a fantastic visual.
posted by jonson at 12:49 PM on January 22, 2003

Tolkhan - that's great! Thanks. That's one of my favorite things about Mefi, when the discussion of an interesting subject leads to further information about it.
posted by jonson at 1:30 PM on January 22, 2003

As a kid, I remember reading a book about disasters and they mentioned the Killer Fog of London. It scared the bejesus out of me so much that I refused to go out into a fog for the next year (I must have been 6 or 7 I guess). My parents had to physically drag me to the car one time because I was worried about keeling over from the "deadly fog".

(In the same book, they mentioned this fire and this flood. I read some morbid stuff as a kid...)
posted by grum@work at 2:13 PM on January 22, 2003

the bruce sterling / william gibson novel "the difference engine," has some thing quite similar but it's set a few year earlier.
posted by kid_twist at 2:23 PM on January 22, 2003

grum@work, I'm not certain if we're thinking of the same book, but Phillip Wylie's "The End Of The Dream" is a must read. In it, he predicted that the Cuyahoga River would explode, well before it caught fire. He also predicted clouds of NO2 desending on cities and killing people with the noxious gasses we create. It could be argued that he predicted the impact and progressive scope of cybersex, complete with vibro-devices (remind anyone of a certain cell-phone thread?).

("Cuyahoga" remains one of my favorite REM songs to this day. Sorry for not linking anything, but my dialup is being pissy to me.)
posted by Wulfgar! at 2:29 PM on January 22, 2003

At first, the animals at a cattle show, then the elderly, or those prone to resperatory disease

...and then the killer black fog came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 4:18 PM on January 22, 2003

shepd -- How many of you outside the UK knew about that [the Windscale incident]? Until someone here says something about it, I believe I'm the only one. :-)

This was covered in the book We Almost Lost Detroit which I read about 30 (?) years ago. Ah, the glory days of nuclear power.
posted by newlydead at 5:58 PM on January 22, 2003

ShepD - this was on my Mefi post list. other things (like incendiary political posts) seemed always to take precedence.

By the way, smog is at least visible;
Carbon Monoxide, Ozone, and other particulates are the big 'unsung' killers in America and the industrialized world.

Jonson - great post. I needs more comments (the really good ones always get less attention) maybe a title like "The Fog that ate London"
posted by troutfishing at 6:22 PM on January 22, 2003

S'funny you mention that, troutfishing, I worried over the title, (see the title at the top of this page) going from the dramatic "worse than bhopal" to the ridiculous "Low Pressure Front Kills Thousands in England", but eventually settled for the straightforward. A lot of my posts have been of this goofy, "hey here's something quirky I remembered reading about once" style, and I'm never sure if they provoke much discussion. Clearly I need to post more about boobies.
posted by jonson at 9:09 PM on January 22, 2003

The first widely-known Cuyahoga River fire was in 1969. (An earlier one took place in 1952.) Another event critical to the momentum of the first Clean Water Act was a 1969 oil spill off Santa Barbara. Personally, I don't see the precise relationship between any of these widely noted events and the unnoticed tragedies that were the topic of the post.
posted by dhartung at 9:44 PM on January 22, 2003

There isn't really one. Mathowie just brought it up because they are polluction related anniversaries, that's all. Also cause the clean water act sprung from pollution, just as the London Death Fog caused them to pass a wide sweeping Clean Air act that slowly fazed out the use of coal in the homes.
posted by jonson at 11:52 PM on January 22, 2003

Jonson - no no! - I meant for the link title. The of the link title as a tiny little billboard. I think "London Vs. the Smog Monster" would have been a GREAT link title too. Still a great post - I just like to see the good ones patronized. No need for boobies, unless you can shoehorn them into a link title in a crass way such "A fog so thick, you couldn't see an erect nipple a foot away!..."
posted by troutfishing at 8:34 AM on January 23, 2003

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