It was the summer of 1944, and half a world away, American troops were marching across Europe. In Los Angeles, it wasn’t safe to go outdoors. And this was something they couldn’t blame on Hitler. Instead, Angelenos were about to discover that a black cloud of doom descending on their city was their own fault.
As industries thrived, population surged and cars started congesting streets, a mysterious pall of pollution covered the Los Angeles area during the summers of 1943 and 1944.
The Los Angeles Times dubbed it a “gas attack,” publishing vivid descriptions and photographs depicting how it left people struggling to catch their breath and wiping their teary eyes. Airplane pilots worried that they couldn’t see well enough to land. Astronomers couldn’t see anything. Mountains were obliterated from view. The smog was so potent it ate through rubber. The air smelled curiously like bleach. Angelenos wondered: Could their sunny city be turning into the Pittsburgh of the Pacific Coast?
As long ago as 1903, Angelenos complained about noxious smoke billowing from industry. But it wasn’t until 1943, when the region’s wartime economy boomed, that the problem became severe enough to cause alarm. The term smog--a mix of smoke and fog--was coined back then. But no one knew exactly what it was. A report from the Los Angeles County Fumes and Smoke Commission called it “a hellish cloud” created by 2 million people.
Hoping to find its source and nail down a quick solution, The Times in 1946 hired an air pollution expert from St. Louis. He concluded that everyone and everything was to blame--a thousand smokestacks, tens of thousands of households burning trash, hundreds of thousands of cars and trucks.
Facing such an unfathomable challenge, Los Angeles County in 1947 created its Air Pollution Control District, and almost immediately required permits for all major industries.
The war on smog had officially begun.
Today, half a century later, the warning that everyone, everywhere is responsible for smog holds true. Southern California’s smog fighters are still battling to reform everything from household paint to big rigs.
In the early 1950s, the real culprit behind smog was identified, but the news was far from reassuring. A Caltech professor discovered that the primary ingredient was ozone--a potent oxidizing compound that forms when hydrocarbon and nitrogen gases from an array of vehicles, factories and households react with sunshine.
Back then, Angelenos knew, air pollution was a matter of life and death. In 1948, similar smog in a Pennsylvania town was blamed for the deaths of 20 people, and four years later, several thousand people died from respiratory problems when a “killer fog” of particles blanketed London.
Gov. Goodwin J. Knight feared a catastrophe in Los Angeles, so the state and Los Angeles County launched some primitive efforts to clean up air pollution, such as restricting open burning at garbage dumps and cutting sulfur fumes from refineries. But the smog kept getting worse. A September day in 1955 goes down in history as recording the highest ozone concentration ever--nearly three times higher than any level reached this year.
After half a century of regulations, smog is waning. Even though the region’s population has tripled since 1950, its air is only about one-third as polluted. Factories face strict pollution limits. Trash burning has been outlawed since 1958. Automobiles are equipped with catalytic converters and computerized engine controls. Today, some cars, trucks and buses even run on electricity or low-polluting alternative fuels.
With strict laws now in place, Los Angeles vows to never return to those miserable days when some people sported gas masks and others covered their eyes and noses before venturing outdoors. In fact, with the smoggy season essentially over, 1999 is the first year in more than 50 years that the entire basin has escaped without a single full-scale smog alert.
No one, though, is declaring victory yet.
With its abundance of people and vehicles and its pollutant-trapping mountains and weather conditions, the Los Angeles Basin remains the nation’s smog capital. Unhealthful smog levels are still recorded on many summer days, and the problem is projected to persist for at least for another decade.
Some people, especially children and the elderly, still find their breathing labored, their chests tight, when they exert themselves outdoors on smoggy days. Despite decades of research, medical experts still don’t know whether the air is permanently harming the lungs of children who grow up here.