London's Great Smog of 1952 still associated with childhood and adult asthma

By Liz Meszaros, MDLinx
Published July 12, 2016

Key Takeaways

Even 60 years later, the Great Smog of 1952 that occurred in London has sweeping and lasting effects on the health of those exposed to it in childhood, and even in utero, according to researchers from Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, University of California, San Diego, and the University of Massachusetts.

The Great Smog of 1952 occurred when a thick fog covered London for 5 days—from December 5 to December 9, 1952—and mixed with the black smoke emitted from homes and factories, which relied on coal for heat and power. This coupling created a deadly smog that killed approximately 12,000 people, and is thought by many to have been the catalyst that spawned the environmental movement.

Matthew Neidell, PhD, associate professor of Health Policy and Management, Mailman School of Public Health, and colleagues gathered health data from the 1940s and 1950s, focusing on the development of asthma in childhood and adulthood. They used data from a life history survey that was a part of the English Longitudinal Study on Aging, and compared responses from those who were exposed to the Great Smog in utero or early childhood, to respondents born between 1945 and 1955.

After analyzing 2,916 responses to the survey, they found that exposure to the Great Smog during the first year of life was associated with a 19.87% increase in the incidence of childhood asthma (95% CI: 3.37-36.38), and a similar trend between exposure during the first year of life and adult asthma with a 9.53% increase (95% CI: -4.85-23.91), and in utero exposure and the incidence of childhood asthma with an 7.91% increase (95% CI: 2.39-18.20).

The implications of their results resound for other countries as well, noted these authors, specifically citing Beijing, which boasts the highest levels of air pollution ever recorded.

"Our results suggest that the harm from this dreadful event over 60 years ago lives on today,” said Dr. Neidell. “It also suggest that very young children living in heavily polluted environments, such as Beijing, are likely to experience significant changes in health over their lifecourse."

The study was supported by the University of California Center for Energy and Environmental Economics.

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