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illustration of people walking around in a heavy blue smog on a London street

Dark and Dangerous
People had a hard time finding their way home through the thick smog.

Illustration by Gary Hanna; Shutterstock.com (Smoke)

CCSS

R.1, R.2, R.3, R.4, R.6, R.7, W.2, SL.1, SL.2, L.4, L.5, L.6

The Killer Smog

In 1952, a deadly disaster in England changed our ideas about the air we breathe. 

Before You Read: Check out our Background Builder slideshow

 

Jim McMahon/Mapman ®

    Like so many terrible things, the dark cloud seemed to appear out of nowhere. It swept over London, England. It brought fear and death. It would kill 12,000 people. 

    This was not a monster from a nightmare. It was not a tornado or an alien spaceship. 

    This killer was air—a huge cloud of poisonous air. For five days, it covered London, causing panic and death. It became known as the Killer Smog of 1952. And it is one of the deadliest environmental disasters in history.

    Like many bad things, the dark cloud seemed to come out of nowhere. It swept over London, England. It brought fear and death. It would kill 12,000 people.

    This was not a monster from a nightmare.

    It was not a tornado or an alien spaceship.

    This killer was air—a huge cloud of poisonous air. For five days, it covered London. It became known as the Killer Smog of 1952. And it is one of the deadliest environmental disasters in history.

    Like so many terrible things, the dark cloud seemed to appear out of nowhere. It swept over London, England, bringing fear and death. It would kill 12,000 people.  

    This was not a monster from a nightmare.

    It was not a tornado or an alien spaceship.

    This killer was air—an enormous cloud of poisonous air. For five days, it covered London, causing panic and death. It became known as the Killer Smog of 1952, and it is one of the deadliest environmental disasters in history.

Going Dark

    The Killer Smog struck on December 5, 1952. Brian Bone was 9 years old. That morning, Brian opened the back door to let out his dog, Tarzan. The air was damp and smoky. But that wasn’t odd for London at that time of year. Brian shut the door and went about his day. 

    Later, when Brian went to call the dog in, he realized something was very wrong. The air had turned black. It had a sharp smell—like chemicals and rotten eggs. Brian and his parents called for Tarzan. But the dog had escaped through an opening in the fence. 

    Across London, everything went dark. Trains stopped on their tracks. Cars crashed. Being indoors was no escape. The black air crept under doors. It filled up homes, offices, and hospitals. 

    What was happening?

    The Killer Smog struck on December 5, 1952. Brian Bone was 9. That morning, he opened the back door to let out his dog, Tarzan. The air was damp and smoky. But that wasn’t odd for London at that time of year. Brian shut the door and went about his day. 

    Later, when Brian went to call the dog in, he realized something was wrong. The air had turned black. It smelled bad. Brian and his parents called for Tarzan. But the dog had escaped through an opening in the fence.

    Across London, everything went dark. Trains stopped. Cars crashed. Being indoors didn’t help. The black air crept under doors. It filled up homes, offices, and hospitals.

    What was going on?

    The Killer Smog struck on December 5, 1952. That morning, 9-year-old Brian Bone opened the back door to let out his dog, Tarzan. The air was damp and smoky, but that wasn’t unusual for London at that time of year. Brian closed the door and went about his day. 

    Later, when Brian went to call the dog inside, he realized something was terribly wrong. The air had turned black, and it had a sharp odor—like chemicals and rotten eggs. Brian and his parents called for Tarzan, but the dog had escaped through an opening in the fence.

    Across London, everything went dark. Trains stopped on their tracks, and cars crashed. Being indoors was no escape. The black air crept under doors and filled up homes, offices, and hospitals.

    What was happening?

Courtesy of Brian Bone 

Brian and Tarzan 
Brian Bone poses with his dog about two years before the Killer Smog. He called Tarzan, a German shepherd, his “great friend.”

Thick Smog

    London had always been known for its fog on chilly days. True, it made the city gloomy at times. But it was harmless. Fog is simply microscopic drops of water trapped in the air. 

    By the 1800s, though, London had grown more crowded and modern. Pollution from factories and chimneys filled the air. Much of this pollution came from burning coal. On cold and foggy days, dirty smoke would stick to the tiny drops of water in the air. In 1905, this dark, dirty air got a name: smog.

    Smog wasn’t a problem just in London. The early 1900s was a time of growth all over Europe—and the United States. Smoke from factories and steel mills turned cities ugly. 

    Most people thought nothing could be done to make the air cleaner. Coal was the cheapest way to heat a home. It was all most people could afford. 

    Plus, factory owners couldn’t close their factories. If they did, millions of people would lose their jobs. 

    It seemed like smog was just a fact of city life.

    London had always been known for its fog on chilly days. It could make the city gloomy. But it was harmless. Fog is just microscopic drops of water trapped in the air.

    By the 1800s, though, London had grown more crowded and modern. Pollution from factories and chimneys filled the air. Much of this pollution came from burning coal. On cold and foggy days, dirty smoke would stick to the tiny drops of water in the air. In 1905, this dark, dirty air got a name: smog.

    Smog wasn’t just in London. The early 1900s was a time of growth all over Europe and the United States. Smoke from factories and steel mills turned cities ugly.

    Most people thought nothing could be done to make the air cleaner. Coal was the cheapest way to heat a home. It was all most people could afford.

    And factories needed to stay open. If they closed, millions of people would lose their jobs.

    Smog, it seemed, was just a fact of city life.

    London had always been known for its fog on chilly days. Although the fog sometimes made the city appear gloomy, it was harmless. Fog is nothing but microscopic drops of water trapped in the air.

    By the 1800s, however, London had become more crowded and modern. Pollution from factories and chimneys, much of it caused by burning coal, filled the air. On cold and foggy days, dirty smoke would stick to the tiny drops of water in the air. In 1905, this dark, dirty air got a name: smog.

    Smog wasn’t a problem only in London. The early 1900s was a time of growth all over Europe—and the United States. Smoke from factories and steel mills turned cities ugly.

    Most people thought nothing could be done to make the air cleaner. Coal was the cheapest way to heat a home, and it was the only affordable option for most people.

    And if factory owners closed their factories, millions of people would end up unemployed.

    Smog, it seemed, was simply a fact of city life.

Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images 

When Day Turned to Night  
People in London make their way through the darkened streets during the Killer Smog of 1952.

A True Disaster

    What few people knew at the time was that smog wasn’t just dark and smelly. It was also dangerous. It contained chemicals and particulates—mostly specks of unburned coal. As the Bone family searched outside for Tarzan, their lungs filled with poison. 

    Scientists didn’t fully understand how smog damages the body. But there were signs that it was harmful. On smoggy days in London, schoolkids would wheeze as they tried to work. Emergency rooms would fill with patients having lung problems. Still, little was done to reduce air pollution—until the smog of 1952.

    Smog wasn’t just dark and smelly. It was dangerous too. It contained chemicals and particulates—mostly specks of unburned coal. But not many people knew that. 

    Experts didn’t fully understand how smog damages the body. But there were signs that it was harmful. On smoggy days in London, kids would wheeze in school. Emergency rooms would fill with patients who had lung problems. Still, not much was done to solve the problem—until the smog of 1952.

    At the time, few people realized that smog was dangerous as well as dark and smelly. It contained harmful chemicals and particulates—mostly specks of unburned coal. As the Bone family searched outside for Tarzan, their lungs filled with poison.

    Scientists didn’t fully understand how smog damages the body, but there were signs that it was harmful. On smoggy days in London, schoolkids would wheeze as they tried to work. Emergency rooms would fill with patients having lung problems. Still, little was done to reduce air pollution—until the smog of 1952.

Monty Fresco/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Helping Out 
A policeman uses a torch to direct traffic. Drivers couldn’t see where they were going, and many cars crashed.

Deadly Days

    This smog was worse than others before it. The weather was very cold. People were burning more coal than usual to stay warm. And there was no wind to clear away the dirty air. So day after day, schools stayed closed. Workers couldn’t get to their jobs. 

    By day three of the fog, there was some good news at the Bone house. Tarzan had made his way home. But Brian couldn’t do much to celebrate. He was sick in bed with a burning, painful cough. 

    All around London, thousands of people were getting sick. At first, most doctors believed that people were suffering from the flu. But soon it became clear that the smog was making people sick—and killing them.

    By the time the smog finally cleared on the fifth day, more than 4,000 people had died. In the coming months, roughly 8,000 more would die from lung damage.

    This smog was worse than others before it. The weather was very cold. To stay warm, people were burning more coal than usual. And there was no wind to clear away the dirty air. So day after day, schools stayed closed. Workers stayed home.

    By day three of the fog, there was some good news at the Bone house. Tarzan had come home. But Brian couldn’t do much to celebrate. He was sick. He had a burning, painful cough.

    Around London, thousands of people were getting sick. At first, most doctors thought it was the flu. But soon they saw that the smog was the problem.

    The smog cleared on the fifth day. By then, more than 4,000 people had died. In the coming months, about 8,000 more would die from lung damage.

    This smog was worse than others before it. The weather was extremely cold. People were burning more coal than usual to stay warm, and there was no wind to clear away the dirty air. So day after day, schools remained closed and workers stayed home.

    By day three of the fog, there was some happy news at the Bone house. Tarzan had made his way home. Unfortunately, Brian couldn’t do much to celebrate. He was sick in bed with a burning, painful cough.

    All around London, thousands of people were getting sick. At first, most doctors believed that people were suffering from the flu. But soon it became clear that the smog was making people sick—and killing them.

    By the time the smog finally cleared on the fifth day, more than 4,000 people had died. In the coming months, approximately 8,000 more would die from lung damage.

New Laws

    The Killer Smog of 1952 changed the way people thought about air pollution. Over the next four years, the government in England passed a new law to make air cleaner. Factories were moved outside the city. The government also helped people pay for cleaner heating systems that didn’t use coal. 

    And in 1970, the U.S. put the Clean Air Act into effect. This important law helped cut down on air pollution. 

    Since then, there have been no killer smogs in England or America. But dirty air remains a deadly problem around the world. Beijing, China, and New Delhi, India, are often covered in smog caused by factories and cars. Many other cities are too. About 7 million people die every year from breathing dirty air. 

    Few understand the dangers of pollution better than Brian Bone. He recovered from his illness. But throughout his life, he suffered from lung problems caused by the smog. 

    And he always understood what a gift it was to take a deep breath of sweet, fresh air. 

    The Killer Smog of 1952 changed the way people thought about air pollution. Over the next four years, the government in England passed a new law to make air cleaner. Factories were moved outside the city. And the government helped people pay for cleaner heating systems that didn’t use coal.

    And in 1970, the U.S. put the Clean Air Act into effect. This law helped cut down on air pollution.

    Since then, there have been no killer smogs in England or America. But dirty air is still a problem around the world. Beijing, China, is often covered in smog caused by factories and cars. So is New Delhi, India. Other cities are too. About 7 million people die every year from breathing dirty air.

    What about Brian Bone? He recovered from his illness. But all his life, he had lung problems caused by the smog.

    And he knew what a gift it was to take a deep breath of sweet, fresh air. 

    The Killer Smog of 1952 changed the way people thought about air pollution. Over the next four years, the government in England passed a new law to make air cleaner. Factories were moved outside the city, and the government helped people pay for cleaner heating systems that didn’t use coal.

    And in 1970, the U.S. put the Clean Air Act—an important law that helped cut down on air pollution—into effect.

    There have been no killer smogs in England or America since that time, but dirty air remains a deadly problem around the world. Beijing, China, and New Delhi, India, are often covered in smog caused by factories and cars. Many other cities are too. About 7 million people die every year from breathing polluted air.

    Few people understand the dangers of pollution better than Brian Bone. He recovered from his illness—but throughout his life, he suffered from lung problems caused by the smog.

    And he always understood what a gift it was to take a deep breath of sweet, fresh air. 

Shutterstock.com 

Background Builder

ACTIVITY: 
Finding Text Evidence

You’ve just read “The Killer Smog.” Now do this activity to help you better understand the article.

Tip: Text evidence means details in a story that support an answer or show that it is true.

What to do: Use text evidence—or details from the article—to answer the questions below. We did the first one for you.

You’ve just read “The Killer Smog.” Now do this activity to help you better understand the article.

Tip: Text evidence means details in a story that support an answer or show that it is true.

What to do: Use text evidence—or details from the article—to answer the questions below. We did the first one for you.

You’ve just read “The Killer Smog.” Now do this activity to help you better understand the article.

Tip: Text evidence means details in a story that support an answer or show that it is true.

What to do: Use text evidence—or details from the article—to answer the questions below. We did the first one for you.

In London in the early 1900s, how did smoggy days affect people’s health? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “A True Disaster.”

Answer: On smoggy days, people felt sick, schoolkids wheezed, and emergency rooms filled with patients.

In London in the early 1900s, how did smoggy days affect people’s health? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “A True Disaster.”

Answer: On smoggy days, people felt sick, schoolkids wheezed, and emergency rooms filled with patients.

In London in the early 1900s, how did smoggy days affect people’s health? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “A True Disaster.”

Answer: On smoggy days, people felt sick, schoolkids wheezed, and emergency rooms filled with patients.

Why couldn’t Brian Bone celebrate when his lost dog came home? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Deadly Days.”

Why couldn’t Brian Bone celebrate when his lost dog came home? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Deadly Days.”

Why couldn’t Brian Bone celebrate when his lost dog came home? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Deadly Days.”

By the fifth day of the Killer Smog, how many people had died?

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Deadly Days.”

By the fifth day of the Killer Smog, how many people had died?

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Deadly Days.”

By the fifth day of the Killer Smog, how many people had died?

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Deadly Days.”

How many people die every year from breathing dirty air?

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “New Laws.”