Smog has sil­ver lin­ing for sci­en­tists

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - OPINION -

It seems im­pos­si­ble these days to es­cape the Great Lon­don Smog. Not lit­er­ally, of course. It is now 64 years since the sul­furous yel­low blight de­scended on the Bri­tish cap­i­tal, block­ing the day­light for five days and killing at least 4,000 peo­ple be­fore it was car­ried off by the wind.

Thanks to a glossy new must-see TV se­ries, in which Lon­don’s most no­to­ri­ous pea-souper plays a sup­port­ing role, a new gen­er­a­tion has now been in­tro­duced to an era of fog, aus­ter­ity and gloom. But more of that later.

More im­por­tant, a team of Chi­nese, Amer­i­can and Bri­tish sci­en­tists has fi­nally solved the mys­tery of what turned the 1952 smog into a mass killer. The re­search, led by Renyi Zhang, a Nan­jing-ed­u­cated at­mo­spheric sci­en­tist at Texas A&M Univer­sity, in­cluded data from Bei­jing and Xi’an, two heav­ily pol­luted Chi­nese cities.

It has long been known that the 1952 smog co­in­cided with a pe­riod of cold, wind­less weather that trapped a pall of pol­lu­tants, mostly linked to coal-burn- ing, above the city. The new find­ings, pub­lished at the end of Novem­ber in the Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tional Academy of Sci­ences, re­lied on recre­at­ing the smog in a lab to de­ter­mine pre­cisely how sul­fur diox­ide in the air was turned into deadly sul­fu­ric acid. The sci­en­tists found that the main dif­fer­ence between China’s pol­lu­tion and the Lon­don smog is that in China much smaller air­borne par­ti­cles are in­volved.

“In China, sul­fur diox­ide is mainly emit­ted by power plants. Ni­tro­gen diox­ide is from power plants and au­to­mo­biles, and am­mo­nia comes from fer­til­izer use and au­to­mo­biles,” Zhang said in a state­ment. “In­ter­est­ingly, while the Lon­don fog was highly acidic, con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese haze is ba­si­cally neu­tral.” He said the new un­der­stand­ing of air chem­istry would fos­ter ef­fec­tive reg­u­la­tory ac­tion in China.

“We think we have helped solve the 1952 Lon­don fog mys­tery, and have also given China some ideas on how to im­prove its air qual­ity,” Zhang wrote.

Which brings us to The Crown.

It is the lat­est mul­ti­part megaseries from Net­flix, tempt­ing view­ers with a some­times rosy vi­sion of the early reign of Queen El­iz­a­beth. Episode 4 has every Lon­doner, from the newly en­throned monarch to an in­creas­ingly se­nile Win­ston Churchill, then Bri­tish prime min­is­ter, wrestling with the smog cri­sis.

Churchill had boosted the pro­duc­tion of coal. In those post­war years it was vir­tu­ally the only means of do­mes­tic heat­ing for most of the city. In the se­ries, his fail­ure to tackle the long-term pol­lu­tion prob­lem is shown as threat­en­ing his government.

Per­son­ally, I re­mem­ber the Great Smog rather fondly. For us kids, un­aware that as many as 100,000 peo­ple were cough­ing their way to emer­gency care, or that as many as 12,000 might even­tu­ally die from the ef­fects of the pol­lu­tion, it was some­thing of an ad­ven­ture.

In those days be­fore health-and-safety con­scious­ness, we were al­lowed out to see how far we could stretch our fin­gers be­fore they dis­ap­peared into the gloom. Bon­fires blazed out­side bus sta­tions to guide what were then vir­tu­ally the only ve­hi­cles on the streets.

In a sense, the Great Smog marked the end of the wartime era, which had car­ried on since 1945. Ra­tioning was to last for an­other two years. Money was still in short sup­ply, as were things to spend it on. In­ner Lon­don was still scarred with bomb sites.

But a cor­ner had been turned. The Great Smog at last prompted some ac­tion on ur­ban pol­lu­tion. By 1956, the first Clean Air Act came into force, and the use of raw coal was even­tu­ally banned.

Pea-soupers, once an es­sen­tial prop in lit­er­ary por­tray­als of Lon­don from Charles Dick­ens to Arthur Co­nan Doyle, be­came a dis­tant mem­ory.

By chance, I re­cently met a man who was a pro­ducer of The Crown and re­spon­si­ble for its smog se­quences. He asked me, as a sur­vivor, how I thought he had done.

I told him: “You could have made it thicker.”

The au­thor is a se­nior ed­i­to­rial con­sul­tant for China Daily UK.

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