Bad Air Days

Daniel Nussbaum's last article for the magazine was on the reminiscenses of six Southern California patriarchs

Southern California has three times the population and four times the number of vehicles now as in 1955--and much safer air. Yet, just as we learn that our smog can now often be described as “light,” studies indicate that even light smog can seriously damage health and that some cures have unintended bad effects. It’s enough to make you want to get that old gas mask out of the drawer and strike a nostalgic pose. Maybe something with a rock, pushing it uphill, like Sisyphus.

We complain about today’s smog, but in the ‘40s and ‘50s we feared it. Not unreasonably, either. Newspaper accounts then routinely employed adjectives lifted from the vocabulary of pain: “searing,” “choking,” “agonizing,” “strangling.” Early smog left residents with burning eyes and throats. Episodes sometimes lasted for weeks. No one knew how dangerous the poisoned air had become here. But they knew that in Danora, Pa., 20 people died from smog in 1948, and four years later, London’s “killer fog” wiped out 4,000.

Classic L.A. smog had a relentless, inescapable quality, like Mothra. Smog didn’t stay outside. It descended from above, it dimmed the sun and crept in through the cracks. Judges shut down their courtrooms early. The City Council once stopped a session because a visible smog cloud drifted into the chambers. Pedestrians would cover their faces with handkerchiefs, and so did workers at their desks. Literally and figuratively, L.A. wept. And posed for the camera. Newspaper photos from the Great Smog Era show the willingness of citizens to be playful, even with billows of brown, apocalyptic grunge wafting through the streets. A kind cop exaggeratedly wipes the eye of a little smog sufferer. A city councilman clowns with a gavel and a gas mask. Sweater girls pausing for eyedrops show off their assets, because what’s a looming health disaster without a little sex? Most of these pictures seem to say, “Hey everybody, don’t be glum! It’s only unbreathable air!”


On 39 days, from 1955 through 1960, ozone rose to a level that today would require a stage-3 alert. Schools, offices and factories would shut down, traffic would be kept off the freeways. But scientists and leaders of industry, prodded by perennially abused anti-pollution agencies, deserve credit for some amazing feats.

The last time the air was certifiably scary was in 1974, and since 1988 there hasn’t been even one stage-2 alert. Last year the South Coast Air Basin had only one first-stage smog alert. Twenty years ago: 121. On at least one day last year, the City of Lights had fouler air than the City of Angels. Houston’s worst ozone reading exceeded Southern California’s. Our missing friend, Catalina, emerges on the western horizon. We get to know the lines of Mt. Baldy again. Visiting players at Dodger Stadium can complete a game without needing extra oxygen. What a relief, what a surprise, what a blessing. Forgive us if we rub our eyes, not in pain caused by hydrocarbons and oxides of nitrogen but in grateful disbelief.

Still, sometimes an Angeleno, maybe feeling a bit unmoored in the midst of all this visibility, comes to wonder: Where are the gas masks of yesterday?


A Brief History of Smog in Los Angeles


In July, a murky pall of something has downtown L.A. coughing, rubbing its eyes and scratching its head. The Times calls this, the city’s first major smog episode, a “gas-attack” (Hey! There’s a war on). Suspicion turns to a synthetic rubber plant east of the river. “Visibility was cut to less than three blocks . . . workers found the fumes almost unbearable.” --L.A. Times



An expert brought in by this newspaper cites a variety of causes for the now-frequent bad air days, but assigns only minor blame to the automobile. One of his suggestions, that the smog war go countywide, leads to the creation of the Air Pollution Control District in November.


Worst Weep in History: Record Smog Blinding L.A.

--The Mirror,

Nov. 23, 1949 *


Breakthrough! At Caltech, Professor Arie J. Haagen-Smit, fresh from investigating the chemistry of the pineapple, combines hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides in a test tube and creates smog, earning him the title “Father of Smog.” Two years later, he will point the finger at the oil industry and the automobile.



“We are in a desperate situation, and drastic steps must be taken.”

--L.A. Mayor

Norris Poulson *


A survey shows that 91% of doctors believe that smog damages hearts, lungs, eyes, throats and other living tissue.

Ford engineers conclude that automobile waste vapors are dissipated in the atmosphere quickly and “do not present an air-pollution problem,” echoing oil-industry dismissals of Haagen-Smit’s theories. “The construction of more freeways is going to help. They reduce congestion and thus fumes from automobiles on our highways.” --Haagen-Smit, in a speech to chemists.


3,000 at Meeting Urge Smog War

--Los Angeles Examiner

Oct. 21, 1954



A 17-day October assault leads to mass meetings and a hurried visit to Los Angeles by Gov. Goodwin Knight.

“The Governor of California has no other power in the smog problem except to declare martial law. The presence of the National Guard and soldiers patrolling the streets of Los Angeles will not cure smog.”

--Gov. Knight, refusing a request by the Pasadena City Board of Directors that he declare a state of emergency.


Worst L.A. Smog Crisis; New Attack Due Today

--Los Angeles Times

Sept. 14, 1955



Sept. 13. Highest levels of ozone ever recorded here (although earlier unrecorded levels were probably worse). The APCD gets to try out its new smog-alert system. Police stand ready with barriers to blockade freeways. Oil refineries will be shut down, too, if levels creep up just slightly. Then a cleansing breeze intervenes.

“There no longer exists a reasonable doubt that Los Angeles smogs are indeed related to very considerable increases in respiratory and cardiac deaths.” --Dr. Clarence A. Mills, University of Cincinnati.

“I simply cannot stand to be poisoned any longer by this terrible smog and fumes.” -- Albion Nelson, 63, before his suicide.


L.A. Smog Kills, Expert Warns

--Los Angeles Mirror News

Sept. 26, 1956



A UC Riverside report explains that giant fans can’t be installed to blow away smog because they would require one-sixth of the energy produced in the United States.

“In three to four years, we’ll rarely have smog. And in five to six years, we’ll have no smog if we implement the program the way it is outlined in the bill.” --APCD smog czar S. Smith Griswold, feeling rapturous about state legislation mandating anti-smog devices on cars



Compelled by California law, a whiny, foot-dragging Detroit begins installing air-pollution devices on new cars.

“Premature” --A Westways writer, explaining why the Automobile Club of Southern California came out against legislation requiring inspection of the devices. *


After the first Earth Day, President Nixon responds to a national clamor for environmental healing by signing the Clean Air Act and creating the Environmental Protection Agency. Now Los Angeles can exceed federal clean-air standards and California clean-air standards at the same time.



Extremely high ozone levels in Upland and the Fontana-Rialto area trigger two days of stage-3 smog alerts under a newly revised system. It is the first and last time a stage-3 alert is called, although dozens of earlier smoggy days would have qualified.

“I would be willing to bet any amount of money--anything you want--that, once everybody is convinced that the main difficulty in Los Angeles is due to motor cars, a solution will be found.”--Rene Dubos, microbiologist and environmentalist.

Catalytic converters can help reduce up to 90% of auto emissions. But many motorists will continue using cheaper leaded gas, which quickly makes the air-pollution device worthless.


“The air tastes like dirt.”

--Running back Elvis Peacock at the Rams practice camp at Cal State Fullerton



An L.A. Rams trainer postulates a “smog advantage” for his team that’s similar to a snow-and-cold advantage enjoyed by teams like the Minnesota Vikings.


“My throat hurt. My eyes . . . .”

--Mets shortstop Jose Oquendo, who left a game at Dodger Stadium hyperventilating after singling during a first-stage alert.



California’s Smog Check program goes into effect. Concerned that smog could ruin something really important--The Olympics--Southern Californians agree to car-pooling, staggered work hours and business slowdowns. Ozone levels drop an estimated 12%.



Two doctors at USC examine lung tissue of 152 Southern Californians between ages 15 and 25 who died in accidents and homicides. All had some degree of damage, and 54% showed signs of severe illness. Employers required to set up car pool programs.



The EPA approves an AQMD strategy to meet standards by 2010. Fifty days later, pressured by state legislators and businesses, the AQMD loosens rules, virtually assuring that an extra several hundred tons of pollution will continue to be released daily. Nine scientific advisors resign in protest.



Cleanish air at last! Cars start burning reformulated gas, which the Air Resources Board says does more to reduce pollution than any other technological breakthrough. In 1997 , ozone levels exceed federal standards on 60 occasions, but are down dramatically. The AQMD proclaims the best air in 50 years. The party atmosphere curdles in May, 1998 with the EPA revelation that catalytic converters are converting auto emissions from smog-producing poisons to greenhouse gases, suggesting that the price for clean air may be the ocean lapping at the Hollywood sign.