Tracing the Implications of Things

            Some lessons to be learned from this story

London, England, 1952

People in London became so accustomed to the foul air they breathed that its dangers remained hidden.  While some control of industrial sources of emissions from burning fossil fuels was achieved after world War II, control over the traditional, pokeable English fire remained elusive.   Cheap bituminous coal made life easy and people did not imagine that their home fires were putting them at risk.  Without any outcry from the general public about the dangers from the soot, there was no political will to try to control a million individual home fires.  Such an undertaking was a regulatory nightmare compared to controlling a more limited number of industrial smoke stacks. Besides there were few alternatives since smokeless coal was in short supply and electric heat was not widely available. 

Aggravating the thick soot-laden air was a temperature inversion that deepened the impacts from the emissions from the city’s household fires.  The combination was insidious. Those who suffered were the most vulnerable —the very young whose physical strength and defenses were as yet not fully formed, and the old whose biological systems were already breaking down.  The particulate matter and other contaminants that they inhaled simply overpowered their respiratory systems.

Only months after the fog lifted did it become clear, through medical reports and news coverage, that thousands had died in a few short weeks as a result of those traditional home fires and the fossil fuels they belched out. People finally came to realize that their pokeable fires were killers.  That recognition, bolstered by action by citizen activists, pressured the government into appointing a committee to investigate.  That investigation, again coupled with pressure from civic groups, led to the enactment of the English clear air act of 1956.  A disaster followed by substantial deaths or damage leading  to public activism and pressure on government to enact laws to address the source of the disaster — this pattern repeats itself throughout these stories.


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