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INTERVIEW - Pollution looms 50 years after London smog

10.12.2002
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INTERVIEW - Pollution looms 50 years after London smog
LONDON - Fifty years after a thick \"peasouper\" fog killed thousands in London, pollution is still choking major cities, a leading environmentalist said last week.
The type of fog that enveloped the city for five dark December days in 1952 and shaped the international image of the British capital as a misty metropolis is no more, but it has been replaced by invisible air pollution from vehicle exhausts. \"The days of the big London smogs are thankfully gone but the air pollution we have now is still a cause of continuing problems and we must strive to improve air quality by whatever means that we can,\" Jon Ayres told Reuters. The professor of environmental and occupation medicine at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland was a young boy living in London when the great smog enveloped the city. \"There were days when you couldn\'t see more than just a few yards (meters) in front of you,\" he recalled. \"In a funny sort of way, as kids, we thought it was quite exciting. One didn\'t perceive it as a problem. It was just a fact of life in those days.\" POLLUTION DISASTER The historic haze of half a century ago is now considered to be Britain\'s worse air pollution disaster. It was so thick that at night many people had difficulty finding their way home. Theatre performances were cancelled and transportation ground to a halt because of a temperature inversion over the city that trapped pollution like a lid on a saucepan. A band of warm air sat on top of cold air underneath and increased emissions from domestic burning coal fires had nowhere to escape. Deaths from bronchitis, asthma and pneumonia soared in the following weeks and months. Estimates of the increased number of deaths ranged from 4,000 to 12,000. Those five dark days prompted the government to pass the first Clean Air Act in 1956 which introduced smokeless zones and cleaner fuels to reduce pollution. \"Air pollution in those day was completely different in its source. It was from coal burning in domestic grates, largely,\" Ayres said. \"Nowadays it is traffic generated.\" A cocktail of chemicals including particulates - very small particles often emitted by diesel engines - and ozone, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, benzines among others make up the new air pollution. \"It brings forward the time of death of people with pre-existing severe heart of lung diseases,\" Ayres said. Official estimates suggest that pollution could be contributing to the deaths of about 20,000 people per year in Britain. But the National Society for Clean Air (NSCA) estimates the number is closer to 40,000 people in Britain each year - 10 times more than die in road accidents every year. Air quality is improving thanks to improved transport policies, engine technology and fuel technology but Ayres believes it is a global problem that requires a global solution. \"We\'re generally heading in the right direction but there are one or two odd trends which make prediction rather difficult. But as long as we are aware of what\'s needed and keep striving to reduce emissions...we are in a position to continue to improve the situation,\" he added. Story by Patricia Reaney REUTERS NEWS SERVICE
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