Living in China

Which was the most polluted: modern day Chinese cities or the European cities during the industrial revolution?

A comparison of the Gread Smog of London in 1952 versus Beijing's smog circa 2015
A comparison of the Great Smog of London in 1952 versus Beijing’s smog circa 2015. Image source: 西安伦敦雾霾对比照_网易新闻.

When you look at these photos you might think that the pollution in China is worse or equal to the pollution of London in the 1950’s, but you would be mistaken. There is a gulf of difference between these photos that is not apparent without background knowledge.

I live in China, so I see the pollution here first hand. I came from the UK and my parents and grandparents told me about the pollution in London and other cities in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. The pollution in London at that time was terrible.

My grandfather told me stories of getting lost on his way home from work. The pollution was so heavy he couldn’t see the other side of the road. He couldn’t see the street signs on the poles telling him where to go. He couldn’t see any people. He told stories of crossing the road and getting distracted part of the way across and not being able to tell which way he had come and which way he should continue.

In contrast, the China pollution is nowhere near that bad. It is news largely because we now have measures of the pollution and because the green people have our attention on the global warming and dead forests. However, the health issues are rather overstated.

The pollution in Beijing might irritate your eyes or agitated your asthma but it is nowhere near the level that London hand in 1952.

Look, if you will, at the Great Smog article on Wikipedia. I can back this up with reports I have read in newspapers, magazines and on the BBC TV and radio.

In London in 1952 was the Great Smog disaster. This was not the first such disaster and it wasn’t the last but it was by far the worst there has ever been.

It occurred in early December in 1952 and lasted for about 4 or 5 days. In that time, it is estimated that between 4,000 and 12,000 people died and 100,000 became ill due to the smog. Look at those numbers again. In London in 1952, thousands of people died due to air pollution in just a few days. Many tens of thousands became ill. It was a dreadful disaster.

The pollution in China is nowhere near the level reported from London. It is high, and China could and should do better but let’s have a little perspective here.

If we may return to the photograph that I started with. The difference between the two is that the Xi’an picture is taken at the worst of the pollution when the smog is densest. Whereas, the London picture was not taken at the peak level of pollution. The photographer has waited for the smog to clear enough to take a picture with some vague detail. Based on my grandfather and fathers reports, had the picture been taken at the height of the smog, it would just have been plain white with nothing visible at all.

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