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Smog surrounds The Shard, western Europe's tallest building, in London
Reuters/Suzanne Plunkett
In a haze.
THE FOG FROM FRANCE

Britain’s media is shrouded in a toxic smog

By Cassie Werber

All day, Britain has been shrouded in a thick fog of weather reporting. Cyberspace was choked with breathless talk of “toxic smog.” Worst of all, the smog wafted over from the continent, specifically France. An age-old rivalry—my city is both better and also suffers more than your city—was rekindled.

Yesterday, city authorities in Paris implemented traffic restrictions and other measures to reduce dangerous levels of pollution that have settled over the French capital. The alert was triggered when the level of so-called PM10 particulates—particles with a diameter of 10 microns or less—pushed above 80 micrograms per cubic meter of air; the World Health Organization considers a 24-hour average of up to 50 to be the guideline for acceptable air quality.

In the past two days the PM10 readings around Paris have averaged between 80 and 100 micrograms per cubic meter, making for some striking photos of the city’s famous landmarks enveloped in a haze. Similar weather conditions last year around his time triggered similar pollution-limiting orders in the city.

The source of the meterological panic across the English Channel stems in part from a rather tame press release. The British government’s environment agency said today that pollution was “high” in some areas, due to pollution blown across from France mingling with local particulates. This unholy alliance was already down to “moderate” levels in London and the Southeast by the time the agency issued the warning. Particulate levels were expected to be “reporting lows by tomorrow.”

There has indeed been a noticeable rise in pollution late yesterday and today across many parts of the UK; London has seen pollution levels of more than double its annual average, even if the levels have not risen as high as those that triggered alerts in Paris. Here is a plot of PM10 pollution at a station along London’s Euston Road:

King's College London

Never one to shy away from alarmist headlines, the British press nevertheless caught smog fever. Guides quickly sprang up on “Everything you need to know as plume of air arrives in UK,” while live blogs chronicled each new development, including videos of the smog marching silently and malevolently over the country.

Of course, any level of pollution, however “moderate,” can be harmful, particularly to the elderly or people with asthma. People with breathing conditions are rightly aware of pollution levels, and measure them constantly as a matter of course. (And eclipse watchers tomorrow always knew they’d have to contend with the weather in some form or another.)

It is little comfort for anyone suffering pollution-related problems, but the spike in London only briefly brought pollution to the same level as the average day in Shanghai, which itself pales in comparison to a host of other cities where simply going outside represents a serious health hazard, and needs no embellishment for people to appreciate how grave the situation is.