The Great Smog, which blanketed London for five days in December 1952, is estimated by some experts to have killed more than 12,000 people and hospitalized 150,000. Thousands of animals also died.
“People have known that sulfate was a big contributor to the fog, and sulfuric acid particles were formed from sulfur dioxide released by coal burning for residential use and power plants, and other means,” lead author Renyi Zhang, a scientist at Texas A&M University, said in a statement.
“But how sulfur dioxide was turned into sulfuric acid was unclear. Our results showed that this process was facilitated by nitrogen dioxide, another co-product of coal burning, and occurred initially on natural fog.”
The study said that similar conditions often occur in China.
“The difference in China is that the haze starts from much smaller nanoparticles, and the sulfate formation process is only possible with ammonia to neutralize the particles,” Zhang said.
Sulfur dioxide is mainly emitted by power plants in China, while nitrogen dioxide comes from power plants and vehicles, and ammonia comes from fertilizer use and vehicles.
“Again, the right chemical processes have to interplay for the deadly haze to occur in China. Interestingly, while the London fog was highly acidic, contemporary Chinese haze is basically neutral,” he added.
Exceedingly high levels of fine particulate matter (PM) occur frequently in China, but the mechanism of severe haze formation remains unclear. From atmospheric measurements in two Chinese megacities and laboratory experiments, we show that the oxidation of SO2 by NO2 occurs efficiently in aqueous media under two polluted conditions: first, during the formation of the 1952 London Fog via in-cloud oxidation; and second, on fine PM with NH3 neutralization during severe haze in China. We suggest that effective haze mitigation is achievable by intervening in the sulfate formation process with NH3 and NO2 emission control measures. Hence, our results explain the outstanding sulfur problem during the historic London Fog formation and elucidate the chemical mechanism of severe haze in China.
Sulfate aerosols exert profound impacts on human and ecosystem health, weather, and climate, but their formation mechanism remains uncertain. Atmospheric models consistently underpredict sulfate levels under diverse environmental conditions. From atmospheric measurements in two Chinese megacities and complementary laboratory experiments, we show that the aqueous oxidation of SO2 by NO2 is key to efficient sulfate formation but is only feasible under two atmospheric conditions: on fine aerosols with high relative humidity and NH3 neutralization or under cloud conditions. Under polluted environments, this SO2 oxidation process leads to large sulfate production rates and promotes formation of nitrate and organic matter on aqueous particles, exacerbating severe haze development. Effective haze mitigation is achievable by intervening in the sulfate formation process with enforced NH3 and NO2 control measures. In addition to explaining the polluted episodes currently occurring in China and during the 1952 London Fog, this sulfate production mechanism is widespread, and our results suggest a way to tackle this growing problem in China and much of the developing world.