[Revealing bit from the archives, the government wouldn't do that would it?]

50 years after the great smog, a new killer arises
Attention turns to car fumes on anniversary of 1952 disaster
Paul Brown, environment correspondent
Saturday November 30, 2002
The Guardian

The great smog of 1952 was so thick people could not see their feet. Some of the 4,000 who died in the five days it lasted did not suffer lung problems - they fell into the Thames and drowned because they could not see the river.

The pea souper brought about the first successful air pollution laws anywhere. But campaigners say the battle is still not won and as many people may still die from air pollution as in the smog's worst days.

That great smog halted London. It stopped traffic and trains, the theatres and cinemas closed because the audience could not see the stage, prize cattle died at Smithfield show at Earl's Court, and the undertakers ran out of coffins.

There had been smogs before, in every major conurbation. But London was the world's biggest city at the time and nearly all of its 8 million inhabitants used open coal fires. The blanket of cold air from the continent which became stationary over the capital caused the warm, smoke laden air from homes and power stations to cool and fall back to earth. It created a blanket of sulphurous smog so dense that visibility was less than half a metre.

Pollution had been seen as the price of progress, but the smog of 1952 woke the public to the terrible toll. The National Society for Clean Air (NSCA) says of the smog: "It marks the dividing line between the general acceptance of air pollution as a natural consequence of industrial development, and the understanding that progress without pollution control is no progress at all."

But it took years of compaigning to get the Conservative government to accept reform. To cover up the true extent of the smog disaster the government invented an influenza epidemic. In fact research has shown there was no epidemic and that the thousands more people who continued to die for the next four months did so because of the air pollution.

The government's policies were at least partly to blame. To maximise revenue the UK was exporting its clean coal and keeping the sulphur laden "dirty" coal for UK power stations and domestic fires. The result was a combination of soot laden air and droplets of sulphuric acid lying in a 200ft deep blanket across London, leading to the worst smog ever recorded.

Devra Davis, honorary professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, in her book When Smoke Ran Like Water - published on December 5, to coincide with the anniversary - blames Harold Macmillan, then minister for housing, for suppressing the truth about dirty coal. A later claim by the Ministry of Health that 5,655 had died of influenza in the first three months of 1953 was a fabrication to hide the smog deaths.

The government quietened public fears by setting up a committee of inquiry. It recommended a Clean Air Act which became law in 1956, gradually bringing an end to open hearth coal fires. London and provincial cities continued to have smogs but they became less dangerous as people switched to central heating and smokeless fuels, and by the mid-1960s they had disappeared.

An international conference commemorating the anniversary is being held at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London on Monday and Tuesday December 8-9, not just to celebrate the end of smog but to look at the air pollution problems facing city dwellers. Tim Williamson, policy officer of the National Society for Clean Air in Brighton, said the killer was no longer smoke from domestic fires but car fumes.

Government estimates are that 24,000 people a year had their lives shortened as a result of air pollution. Robert Maynard from the Department of Health said that inhabiting a relatively polluted city for a prolonged period led to a shortening of life expectancy. Mr Williamson said this was not the whole story. "There is emerging evidence that heart disease and cancers are caused by long term exposure to air pollution. The calculations of how many people die prematurely, by a few days or weeks, may not be the half of it. What about those that live for a long time with debilitating lung conditions and heart disease?"

In 1950 there were 4m vehicles registered in Britain, half of them cars; now there are 28m vehicles, 85% of them cars. Coal provides only 15% of energy for home heating.

"We have defeated one problem only to create another, and like the government of 1952 this one has yet to come to terms with the problem," Mr Williamson said.

The following correction was printed in the Guardian's Corrections and Clarifications column, Tuesday December 3 2002

The international conference on air pollution is organised by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and will be held at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London (see http://www.lshtm.ac.uk/smog).