Which is cleaner for our tots: 1950s smog or London air now?

Breakfast meeting to discuss air quality.

Breakfast meeting in Holborn to discuss air quality with Simon Birkett – the most amazing campaigner – addressing delegates from the back of the room.

This blog post is by Nicola Baird sharing ideas about thrifty, creative and eco-friendly ways to raise children. This post is about every breath we take… For more info about my book Homemade Kids, with lots of ideas about parenting click here.

Of course lots of you reading this post won’t live in London… but I bet you still know about the famous 1952 pea souper London smog of 6-9 December that triggered a huge clean-up for city air, world over. And so it had to, considering that cattle were keeling over at Smithfields market; more than 4,000 people met an early death and 100,000 were made ill.

See some amazing foggy pictures of a typical London afternoon back then on the Spitalfieldslife.com blog, here.

So 60 years on, which is cleaner? The London that suffered from the Great Smog or London ruled by Boris? Well, there’s no smog out of my window, despite it being a December winter afternoon in central London… but I’m well aware that I cough and splutter like a cigarette user – despite not being a smoker. And one of my children (like many of her classmates) has asthma.

This extract is taken from the campaigning organisation Clean Air In London http://cleanairinlondon.org/about/

“Air pollution in our biggest cities is much worse than most of us have realised.  It averages well over twice World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines and legal limits near many of London’s busiest roads.  Mayor Johnson has estimated some 4,300 premature deaths in London in 2008 were attributable to long-term exposure to dangerous airborne particles alone.

Clean Air in London’s Mission is to achieve urgently and sustainably full compliance with WHO guidelines for air quality throughout London and elsewhere.  It works closely with other campaign groups and a wider network of supporters and volunteers to identify and build understanding of the most important issues and encourage decisive action on them.

Clean Air in London’s immediate priority is to see that air quality laws are enforced rigorously in London in 2012 (and thereafter).  Clean Air in London believes that if we comply fully with relevant laws Britain can show the world how to tackle successfully air quality, climate change and sustainability issues.”

Air pollution these days is invisible
So, yes your instincts are right – it was better then. The danger ingredients now are PM10s which are biggish particulates – 80% come from transport (and in particular people using diesel vehicles). The other big problem is nitrogen oxide (known as NOx) which is emitted in London in greater amounts than any other capital. Here in London, half the NOx can be blamed on transport, and the other half from domestic gas boilers.

It’s no different from the 1950s – how we get around, and how we heat our homes (and water) is still compromising our health.

Clearly driving children to school is doing no one any favours. If anyone has any ideas about how to encourage families to stop doing the school run by vehicle a lot of people would be very happy to hear them! But the lack of information – about London’s dodgy air quality is extremely worrying. At a recent meeting  (see pic above) run by London Sustainabilty Exchange (LSX) I discovered that even if London closed Heathrow Airport and banned all car transport it still would not meet the EU target for 2015. I must be a very naive campaigner, as I was the only one in the room to audibly gasp. Surely it’s a horrifying fact for any of us who live and/or work in London – or indeed any big city.

2013 is going to be the Year of Air. Not sure yet what this means, but fingers crossed it’s going to help all the people who need – or want – better air to breathe.

Want to read a similar post? See this for a video of what asthma feels like if you are a child.

Over to you

Any ideas how to stop families driving to school? There has to be a better way than a badge for the walkers each week; or a one week effort each May to go by leg… Carrot and stick ideas both very welcome.

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3 Comments on “Which is cleaner for our tots: 1950s smog or London air now?”

  1. danieljmarsh Says:

    There is a wealth of information including the latest levels in your area of London, on-line or delivered straight to your smart-phone (for free) at:


    There are also health guides and videos about air quality, including the history as reported above

  2. nicola baird Says:

    This caused a bit of a stir on Facebook (12 comments), pasted below. The question was the same, which is cleaner – the air then or now?
    Vicki: london air now. hope not a trick

    Nicola Baird vicki if only it was a trick – the piece above (by me!) left me gasping.

    Vicki: ah – that’s a worry – but it suffers from a flaw – in that it is hard to believe – obviously thats the point you are making – a silent invisible killer. but people recall tales of cattle death etc . is it truly worse now? invisible killers I guess need visuals of some sort. and killer data – is it >4000 deaths? if so you should say so.. But great blog.,. def worth saying dont get me wrong.

    Chris: Thank you, Nicola. Reflecting on your blog: I’m a bronchitic, and the London air in the mid-1960’s when I was a student (Gower Street and South Ken) was pretty dirty/left me coughing/and it was still smoggy at times. I now live in Ken High Street, which (according to Evening Standard reports I follow closely) because of its situation/the fact that traffic fumes don’t disperse as quickly as they should – is supposed to be the most traffic polluted street in London – yet don’t seem adversely affected. [Admittedly, I’ve for many years made a practice of breathing out/holding my breath if a heavy goods vehicle/taxi or other horror is emitting fumes nearby.. same when in proximity to anyone with a cold.] I’ve noticed when dusting that the dust is whitish (maybe because the paving stones in the High Street are white York stone, and the chewing gum removal machines create a lot of dust..) rather than black, as it used to be 20/30 years ago..

    Nicola Baird Good points Vicki , Chris and Pete . I’ll toughen up some of the figures. Perhaps we demand more of our air quality than we did. thanks for reading.

    Karin This is close to home, if not literally. My son seems to have developed asthma since living in Kingston – he was aged 21 when he went there. It started with a serious chest infection, but he’s been told the air isn’t helping. He felt so much better in Europe and especially in the Alps this Summer.

    Nicola Baird “And kingston is almost green lung. will think more how to make this issue visible.

    Vicki:Your story is in time out this week! A whole page and with the 4300 early deaths data (page 24)

    Duncan: It’s an important issue and we certainly still need to clean up urban air. Unfortunately I doubt the data is there to make a fair comparison with the 1950s. Today we understand a lot more about the mechanisms so can estimate the number of deaths from P…See More

    Nicola Baird Tnx Vicki. As TO puts it your lungs are doomed. Eleven years earlier – solves the pension prob? LOL.

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