Ways to Die: The Great Smog of London

Just Another Pea-Souper
When it happened, it seemed almost normal - after all, dense, pea-soup fog often descended over London, and since the Industrial Revolution, that fog had often been riddled with coal dust and particulate matter from the factories. Charles Dickens was so familiar with it that “Pea Soupers” was even in his dictionary of city life. People had seen it all before. London was famous for its fog.

On December 5, 1952, an anticyclone descended upon Southern England, and the often-blustery city became almost windless. Combined with the atmospheric “cap” of warm air that the anticyclone provided, the chilly air of the city’s fog was trapped in one place. It wasn’t blown away, and it couldn’t rise into the upper atmosphere. By that evening, visibility was down to five yards.

For four more days, conditions deteriorated, until you could not see your hand in front of your face. The buses that had been guided by police with torches came to a standstill by the evening of December 8. The wall of haze was penetrated only by the huge, snowflake-like chimney soot crystals. Apart from the London Underground, there was no transportation within the city. Even ambulances no longer went out, after a record number of collisions during the first night of blindness.

But there was no panic. Those who could stay inside, did. If you could make it to the chemists, you would buy a smog mask and remember not to wear your good clothing while you shuffled slowly and carefully down the street. By the morning of December 9, 1952, the atmospheric inversion lifted, and the smog began to rise. By the next day, the winds were back, sweeping away the rest of the pea-soup haze.

Unseen Deaths
The toll that the smog took on the city was not realized until nearly three weeks after it occurred. Four thousand had died during those five days. Tens of thousands sought health care shortly after, for ongoing respiratory distress. The death toll in the city remained significantly elevated through Christmas, and people with ongoing health effects continued to die in the coming months and years, as a direct or indirect result of their exposure to The Great Smog. The final death toll is estimated at twelve thousand dead, and 25-40,000 with significant chronic health effects.

Though it was not realized until long after the smog had passed, and the Clean Air Act of 1956 had gone into effect, there were more killers in the smog than were understood back then. The hidden killer was not the coal soot that fell like dark snowflakes, or the staining, acid-forming smoke from household chimneys. While those caused significant expenses and damages to buildings, and some deaths from outright hypoxia (lack of oxygen - in this case, from asthma or obstructive coughing fits) they were not the deadly, bronchiole-irritating, pus-causing killers that so many succumbed to.

The real culprits in many deaths, especially those caused by the strangling pus of bronchopneumonia, or acute purulent bronchitis, were the ultrafine particulate matter floating within the smoke. Sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, heavy metal molecules, and more, were known to be components of smog, but prior to the 1960s, it was not realized how truly deadly these invisible particles were. While the body has many defenses against larger particulate, ultrafine particles can reach the deepest recesses of the lungs, and cause irritation of the bronchioles and alveolar sacs. These fill with fluid or pus, often allowing infection to take hold, and the victim is strangled from the inside.

A Slow Reform
Despite the thousands of deaths that were brought to the attention of Parliament by the Ministry of Health, the government of England did not truly accept that there had been an environmental disaster right on their doorsteps, fearing the economic ramifications of any meaningful reform. They invented an “influenza epidemic" and claimed it spread during that time. Historical data and autopsy reports prove that no increase in deaths from influenza was concurrent with the Great Smog.

Despite reforms passed by the Clean Air Act of 1956, there was another deadly pea-souper, exactly one decade later, in early December 1962. Continued reform throughout the 1960s meant that no standout disasters were visible for all to see, but pollution in the city continued to kill hundreds every year, well into the 1970s.

The Continuing Fight for Clean Air
While we may not have smoky coal or sooty buildings to contend with in the Americas or most of Europe, ultrafine particulate pollution (in the United States, caused primarily by automobiles) is still a major threat to health, and its invisible nature means that no major disasters like The Great Smog will come around to slap us in the face about its importance. But every year, thousands still die from the effects of living in areas where they cant escape the constant exhaust from vehicles. Millions more have chronic health effects due to the same toxins.

It might not seem like one person doing one thing can help much, but this Earth Day, take a walk instead of a drive. If you’re going down the street, ride your bike, not your car. Not every trip has to be by foot, andsometimes a vehicle might be necessary, but why put more toxins and deadly fumes into the air (that you have to breathe, too!) than you absolutely have to?

We may not have the coal and diesel exhaust of 1950s London, but doesn’t that make getting out of the car that much nicer? It’s a beautiful world out there. Take it in, and help keep it that way.

More on The Great Smog:

50 years after the great smog, a new killer arises

Day of Toxic Darkness

Case Study: Smog

Why the Great Smog of London was anything but great


"I went to a baby shower with a huge uterus pinata. Is that Ann Arbor Amish?"
"Well… you wouldn’t see that on the other side of the state!"


"I went to a baby shower with a huge uterus pinata. Is that Ann Arbor Amish?"

"Well… you wouldn’t see that on the other side of the state!"

"I need this logo redone. It should look like the old one, but it doesn’t have to match in any way. I really don’t know what I want so, you know, just work your magic."

A client who then offered to pay me in haircuts.

(via clientsfromhell)


Black Panthers Don’t Exist

Black panthers aren’t a real species. They’re actually melanistic (the opposite of albinism) leopards, jaguars, or other big cats.

via Animalist.


Why is the Sea Salty?

Have you ever wondered why the sea is salty? Maddie Moate has the answers…

via Earth Unplugged.




Phil is one Bad Astronomer. Love this.

Woah, you really know about early medicine and it's history!!! Do you have any readings recommended? Or books? By the way what course did you take?


I don’t know anywhere near as much as I want to know! I’m always learning :D

I studied Biology and Dairy Science in school.

For some interesting History of Medicine stuff, the National Library of Medicine has a good site - check out their collections and education resources for some really quick and fun lessons.

If watching things is your bag, “Blood and Guts: A History of Surgery" is one of my favorite BBC documentary series.

My favorite authors that you guys might love:

Everything by Mary Roach, especially Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Also everything Carl Zimmer, especially Parasite Rex

I’ve liked everything I’ve read by Richard Preston, too, especially The Hot Zone. Haven’t read every single one of his books, though.

Amy Stewart has the best bugs, plants, drinks…and illustrator. Wicked Plants is great.

Other good books:

Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA

Women in Science: Then and Now

Madame Curie: A Biography (by Eve Curie)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Napoleon’s Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History

Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

Zooborns (…shush)

A Little Book of Sloth (…stay shushed)

For fiction, Douglas Adams, Christopher Moore (especially Fluke and Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove), Terry Pratchett, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Marion Zimmer Bradley are my favorites.








Living Fossils

Located in Hamelin’s Pool, a shallow area of Shark Bay in Western Australia, these odd formations aren’t rocks—they’re stromatolites, and they were built over millennia by single-celled cyanobacteria (also known as blue-green algae). 4,000 to 6,000 years ago, a huge bank of seagrass began to block the tidal flow into Hamelin’s Pool, which meant that the water became twice as salty as the open ocean. Animals like snails and chitons that would usually feed on the algae couldn’t survive, so the blue-green algae began to flourish. Gathered in colonies, they trapped sediment with their sticky surface coatings. This sediment reacted with calcium carbonate in the water and formed limestone, essentially creating a living fossil—this limestone is alive, its top surface layer teeming with active cyanobacteria. The limestone builds up slowly at a rate of about 1mm per year. The stromatolites in Shark Bay are estimated to be between 3,000 and 2,000 years old, but they’re similar to life forms in Precambrian times, 3.5 billion years ago, at the dawn of complex organisms. There are over 50 kinds of cyanobacteria in Shark Bay, and one is thought to have descended from an organism that lived nearly 2 million years ago, making it a part of one of the longest biological lineages.

(Image Credit: 1, 2)

I normally abhor the term “living fossil” but I’ll let it slide this time because AWESOME. Like little prokaryotic time capsules.


MeCre (mechanical creatures) by Gaby Wormann

(Source: Vice Magazine)


Let This Awesome Science Infect Your Mind

Ed Yong is one of the finest science writers in the world. His National Geographic blog is chock full of the weird, wild, and WTF-inducing stories that make our living world so darn interesting. So I was overjoyed when I heard he would be speaking at this year’s TED.

He didn’t disappoint. In his talk above, he unlocks the under-appreciated and often cringe-worthy world of mind-controlling parasites. They get no respect, I tell ya, no respect at all. Yet they are cornerstones of countless ecosystems, determining food availability and managing population sizes like armies of freaky fauna, each deployed in a Trojan Horse of evolution’s design. Every parasite’s life is a story, by definition, an elaborate chain that extends from host to host, and I think they’ve found their minstrel in Ed. I mean that as a compliment, of course.

Listen to him weave a tapestry of tapeworms, explain what makes flamingos munch on zombie shrimp, show you how a cricket is like a TARDIS, how a wasp turns a cockroach into a cocker spaniel, and how a brain-controlling protozoan reminds him of an Elizabeth Gilbert novel. My favorite part of this? The idea that ideas themselves may be parasites.

I haven’t loved a TED talk this much in a long time. Or maybe that’s just the parasite talking. 


Any Two Countries Map Embroidered Pillow Cover, ThreadSquirrel

(via staceythinx)


Fross Reliquaries: Photography by Brandon Ballengée

(via staceythinx)