On Dec. 5, 1952, a thick layer of fog settled over the streets of London, blanketing the city. This was no ordinary wintery mist, but rather a noxious haze of sulfur dioxide from coal-fired industrial factories and cookstoves in London homes. London’s Great Smog hung in the air for five consecutive days; visibility was reduced to mere feet and cars were abandoned or led off the road by police with traffic flares. It was the “nation’s worst air pollution disaster” and remains the deadliest smog event on record. According to the Telegraph, the devastation the smog wrought “only became apparent when undertakers reported that they were running out of coffins and florists had sold all their flowers.” In the following three months, an estimated 13,000 people died of respiratory complications.
The hazy scenes of London’s Great Smog bear a striking resemblence to modern-day images of China’s urban centers on their most polluted days. And though China has never had an event to match those four days in London, its pollution problem is persistent and pervasive. In 2010, air pollution contributed to 1.2 million deaths in China. Between 1981 and 2001, particulate levels in its major cities were five times greater than what the United States experienced before 1970. And the problem is worsening at an incredible rate. In 2009, the concentration of particulate pollution in the Chinese city of Harbin averaged 101 micrograms per meter, according to the World Health Organization. Four years later, in October 2013, levels were up tenfold, a new record.
this week, Gina McCarthy, the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), said she would be meeting with partners in China in the coming days to address air pollution issues, but was careful to stress that this is not an challenge limited to China. The West, too, has faced hazardous pollution. “We have been there before,” she said on Monday, Dec. 2. The comparison bears consideration; what follows is a series of photo pairings — smog in London then, and in China now.
Above left, a woman in Changchun, China walks along a road on Oct. 21, in a dense smog that forced business, school, and road closures. On the right, a woman in London wears a protective mask in Nov. 1953 during a smog episode nearly a year after the city’s deadly Great Smog.
London’s Great Smog rolled into city’s streets on a “mass of cold air,” and remained, trapped by a layer of warmer air above. PM 2.5 — the mass, in micrograms, of particles larger than 2.5 micrometers in a cubic centimeter, a common measure of hazardous air pollution — rocketed to 1,600, a record China has yet to approach even on its worst days.
Perhaps the closest China has come was the smog that settled over Harbin, a city of 10 million people in northeast China, in October. As PM 2.5 climbed to 1,000, the city effectively shut down, closing schools, airports, and highways.
Above top, Beijing residents ride a bus through smoggy streets on Jan. 23. Below, a bus passes Christmas shoppers on London’s Regent Street, on Dec. 5, 1952.
The Great Smog of 1952 prompted Britain’s 1956 Clean Air Act, which led to legislation in the United States. In New York, in particular, pollution had become a major problem: particularly deadly clouds of smog were blamed for 200 deaths in 1963 and 168 more in 1966. These events were pivotal in motivating Congress to establish the EPA and pass landmark clean air laws. Like China today, most of that pollution was caused by burning coal and, to a lesser extent, by heavy traffic in cities like Los Angeles.
“We know what planning can do,” McCarthy said of the EPA’s work with China. “We know there are many ways in which you can engage your states, and in China’s case provinces, to bring a sense of urgency to this issue.”
“I am hopeful,” she said. “One of the reasons I am hopeful is that I know what we’ve been able to accomplish in the United States.”
Above left, a moped headlight cuts through the haze in Hefei, China, on Jan. 14. On the right, traffic is halted by smog on Dec. 5, 1952 in London.
The United States has set limits on the amount of pollution for daily exposure — breathing air with PM 2.5 of more than 35 for 24 hours is hazardous, according to the EPA’s guidelines. That number is even lower in South Korea, Japan, and the European Union. But in China, air quality is classifies as “good” even as PM 2.5 levels creep up toward 100. The skewed metric “takes into account the level of our current stage of development,” a minister at China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection said in June 2012, referring to the country’s industrial reliance on coal.
U.S. consulates in China have started monitoring pollution levels and releasing the readings at levels considered a serious health hazard. That has drawn sharp rebukes from China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, which accused the United States of violating international law.
Above left, a Chinese security guard stands amid dense smog at the pavillion on Coal Hill in Jingshan Park, Beijing, on Jan. 10, 2009. On the right, a British police officer wears a face mask while standing in a road in London in 1952.
The United States has tried a variety of tacks in dealing with China’s rampant air pollution, and some measures — like measuring and publicizing China’s deadly air quality — have clearly irked Beijing. Though the United States hasn’t stopped reporting its pollution readings, it’s also trying a honey-not-vinegar approach.
“EPA and the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) in China have a deep and strong relationship,” Gina McCarthy said Monday, ahead of her trip to China. “MEP in China knows they are facing significant air quality challenges. They have known that for some time. We have known that as well. For the past 15 years, we have been working with them in depth on ways of addressing their air quality challenges.” The United States is well-suited to the task, McCarthy said, because the United States has itself “faced these challenges.”
And it’s true. China’s air quality may be deadly but so, too, were the dark blankets of pollution that hung over major American cities just a few decades ago. In the 1940s and 1950s, streetlamps in Pittsburgh were left on during the day due to illuminate streets that were often darkened by smog from coal-fired steel plants. In addition to the deadly smog episodes in New York in the 1960s, a severe event in the mill town of Donora, PA, in October 1948 killed 20 of the town’s 14,000 residents and left half of the survivors ill.
Above top, a man wearing a face mask waits for a bus in Beijing on Jan. 23. Below, the light from a fruit seller’s stall illuminates the smog in Piccadilly Circus, London, on Dec. 7, 1952.
The Chinese government proposed ambitious new anti-pollution measures in September 2013, including reducing the burning of coal near China’s industrial hubs, that aim to lower PM 2.5 by 10 percent over five years. Even with the reduction, though, smog levels would remain hazardous according to international standards.
Above, pedestrians wear masks to prevent breathing noxious smog — on the left, in Harbin, China on Oct. 22, and on the right, in London on Nov. 17, 1953.
Chinese pollution has serious consequences for East Asia and the United States. Clouds of smog from China have been tracked across the Pacific, affecting air quality in South Korea and Japan, and even as far as California.