Opinion: Seven things you probably don’t know about L.A.’s smog


The word “smog” appeared, lightheartedly, in a Santa Cruz newspaper in 1880, sizing up London’s smoke and fog blend: “as unwholesome as it is unpleasant.” Within a few decades, Los Angeles had taken the smog crown. Until 1957, most Angelenos burned their trash in backyard incinerators that pumped crud right into the air. A cynical businessman marketed canned L.A. smog — “This is the smog used by famous Hollywood stars!” A Caltech professor named Arie Haagen-Smit nailed cars and industry as the guilty generators of smog, and in 1963, a crazed man who believed it was his mission to eliminate polluting buses ran down and killed a bus driver.

Chip Jacobs wrote the book “Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles,” and he’s working on a limited TV series based on smog’s heroes and horrors. In an interview, Jacobs described seven events or aspects of the smoggy story of the City of Angels you may not have heard about.

The ‘blame it on the enemy’ conspiracy theory

“When smog first besieged Los Angeles in a way that people couldn’t ignore or just call smoke and fumes from industry, it was July 1943 and was so severe that there was a rumor going around that it was from a Japanese chemical warfare attack. The Japanese had actually shelled parts of Santa Barbara the year before, so that was just the natural inclination — hey, the Japanese are bringing war to the West Coast.”


Order in the court! (cough cough)

“There was a Superior Court judge holding a hearing [in 1948] on a dump in Whittier that people were saying was blowing really nasty fumes and gases to surrounding communities. But when the judge was presiding, with his black robe and gavel, he started looking around and smog had actually gotten into his courtroom and was engulfing the witness stand.”

The smog! It’s coming from inside the car!

“At first Angelenos were greatly indifferent to this claim and they wanted to believe it was still industry doing it. It really wasn’t until the mid-’60s, when the antiwar movement was coming, when public cynicism about institutions was mounting, that they turned against the car companies that they loved so much. It was a very difficult concept for them to grasp, that the cars that made the freeway culture possible and gave them a suburban lifestyle was endangering their children. Like a patient hearing a diagnosis they didn’t want to hear, they looked the other way and said it was something else causing it.”

Anybody know how to solve this? Anybody?

“The people running the Air Pollution Control District were at a loss. And the head of this agency said, you know what? Anybody with a piece of paper and a pencil, regardless of their background — they can send us in their idea to solve the smog problem. They never expected to get what they did, which was truckloads of mail being dumped at their offices with some really loony ideas that would never work. The classic one is cutting gigantic holes in the San Gabriel Mountains to create a natural vent for air pollution. They found it would take an incredible amount of energy just to blow away one day’s worth of L.A. air — I mean, like the Hoover Dam running for seven days. It just would never pencil out.”

Smog killed L.A.’s farms

“L.A. used to be an agricultural powerhouse, and between the time of the first attack [1943] and the JFK assassination, we lost three-quarters of our crop land.

“Scientists were saying some crops could withstand this dirty air, and some just did not have the biological firepower to do so. We had spinach, lettuce, beets, oats, alfalfa, celery, onions — and it actually became like a disaster tourism industry. People would drive all the way out [east of the city] on two-lane roads and point at all these brown-yellow stocks wilting on the ground. [Smog] was like a tidal wave drowning the agricultural economy of Los Angeles.”

China exports everything, including smog

“Everybody knows how ghastly China’s smog problem is. That smog also does not obey international borders, and on some really breezy days, a third to a quarter of the air pollution in the Sacramento Valley and the San Francisco area comes from China. It’s drifting across the Pacific in these giant plumes. So even as our cars have gotten cleaner, our gasoline is purer, and we’ve taken all these technological steps, this Frankenstein that we helped create known as the People’s Republic of China’s economy is biting us.”


The human guinea pig

“In the 1950s, when smog was at its worst, the head of the Air Pollution Control District wanted to show his empathy with the average Angeleno, and so he volunteered to spend two hours in a plexiglass smog chamber fitted with a chair, a makeshift desk and a thermostat cranked to 90 degrees. He was trying to mimic the conditions going on during a very bad smog siege. His name was S. Smith Griswold, and he was a square-jawed former Stanford fullback. The man almost died inside the smog chamber. He staggered out with tightness in his chest. His doctor said he’d lost 22% of his lung capacity in that short time.”