Few Americans may be aware of it, but in 1952 a killer fog that contained pollutants covered London for five days, causing breathing problems and killing thousands of residents. The exact cause and nature of the fog has remained mostly unknown for decades, but an international team of scientists that includes several Texas A&M University-affiliated researchers believes that the mystery has been solved and that the same air chemistry also happens in China and other locales.
Texas A&M researcher Renyi Zhang, University Distinguished Professor and the Harold J. Haynes Chair of Atmospheric Sciences and Professor of Chemistry, along with graduate students Yun Lin, Wilmarie Marrero-Ortiz, Jeremiah Secrest, Yixin Li, Jiaxi Hu and Bowen Pan and researchers from China, Florida, California Israel and the UK have had their work published in the current issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
In December of 1952, the fog enveloped all of London and residents at first gave it little notice because it appeared to be no different from the familiar natural fogs that have swept over Great Britain for thousands of years.
But over the next few days, conditions deteriorated, and the sky literally became dark. Visibility was reduced to only three feet in many parts of the city, all transportation was shut down and tens of thousands of people had trouble breathing. By the time the fog had lifted on Dec. 9, at least 4,000 people had died and more than 150,000 had been hospitalized. Thousands of animals in the area were also killed.
Recent British studies now say that the death count was likely far higher – more than 12,000 people of all ages died from the killer fog. It has long been known that many of those deaths were likely caused by emissions from coal burning, but the exact chemical processes that led to the deadly mix of fog and pollution have not been fully understood over the past 60 years.
The 1952 killer fog led to the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1956 by the British Parliament and is still considered the worst air pollution event in the European history.
Through laboratory experiments and atmospheric measurements in China, the team has come up with the answers.
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