Pn Friday 5 December 1952, a thick fog settled over London. The city’s “peasoupers” were a common event in those days, but this fog was different. It persisted – and intensified. After two days, visibility had dropped to its lowest level on record – just over a metre. Londoners, as if blindfolded, were walking in front of cars and stepping off rail platforms. At Sadler’s Wells, a performance of La traviata was halted when the audience could no longer see the stage.
Then hospital wards began to fill up as citizens succumbed to respiratory illness. By the fog’s fifth and final day, tens of thousands had been laid out after breathing in thick, soot-laden air for several days. Of these, an estimated 8,000 to 12,000 eventually died. “The fog caused more civilian casualties than any five-day German bombing campaign had managed a few years before,” says Tim Smedley in Clearing the Air. Never had the debilitating impact of polluted air been more forcibly demonstrated. The government responded in 1956 by passing the Clean Air Act, which brought coal-fired power – the principal cause of those dense fogs – under careful control. “By the late 1970s, London’s peasoupers were a thing of the past,” adds Smedley. And for several decades after that, air pollution was treated as a problem solved. Scientists put the number of early deaths attributable to atmospheric poisoning at 8.8 million a year But as both Smedley and, in Choked, Beth Gardiner make clear that quiet assurance now looks horribly complacent. Our air today may not have the look of a peasouper. Nevertheless, its quality has been worsening relentlessly and is poisoning us as assuredly as it did in 1952, though the deadly airborne contaminants we now inhale consist of microscopically tiny particles rather than gobs of carbon. Polluted air used to stare us in the face. Today, it is an almost invisible threat. Nor is the issue confined only to London. Across the world, men, women and children are breathing in air that is becoming more and more harmful to their health. As Gardiner states: “Nothing is as elemental, as essential to human life, as the air we breathe. Yet around the world, in rich countries and poor ones, it is quietly poisoning us.” We have sleepwalked into a public health crisis. Nor is it difficult to spot the main culprit: motor vehicles, in particular those powered by diesel engines, which are now pumping out nitrogen oxides and tiny particles, known as PM2.5s, in increasing volumes, damaging our lungs and tainting our blood. Earlier this month, scientists put the number of early deaths attributable to this atmospheric poisoning at an incredible number: 8.8 million a year. Nine out of 10 people round the world now breathe air containing high levels of pollutants. As a result, nearly 600,000 children die every year from diseases caused or exacerbated by air pollution. It is a shocking litany of damaged lives, laid bare by Smedley and Gardiner in stark and vivid terms. Both are clearly motivated by concern for their own children and both rightly link the crisis we face from polluted air to the catastrophe that is already being triggered by global warming. As Gardiner puts it: “Both are symptoms of the unhealthy foundation on which we have built our world: fossil fuels.” Of the two books, Gardiner’s is the more descriptive, following the story of the harrowing impact of air pollution – from Brooklyn to Poland and Delhi to Berlin – in terms of its human cost. Smedley, by contrast, is more prescriptive and ends his book with a detailed blueprint for saving our cities. Suggested measures include a ban on all petrol and diesel cars in city centres; the replacement of diesel buses and trains with electric vehicles; and an end to the use of wood-burning stoves and coal fires. It’s an achievable vision, he insists. “However, whether it happens in 10 or 100 years is down to public pressure and political will.” • Clearing the Air: The Beginning and the End of Air Pollution by Tim Smedley is published by Blomsbury (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99 • Choked: The Age of Air Pollution and the Fight for a Cleaner Future by Beth Gardiner is published by Granta (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99