Smogtown, an L.A. story.

Smogtown, an L.A. story.

Smogtown, an L.A. story.

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 22 2008 8:37 AM

Cutting Through the Smog

What L.A.'s story can teach the rest of us.

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Smog, that dirty gauze that shrouds buildings and streetlights, blots out mountains, and sends hacking residents running indoors, is as much a symbol of Los Angeles as the Hollywood sign it so often obscures. Although the air here has improved since the days when Johnny Carson routinely joked about its noxiousness, the city and its smog remain entwined in the cultural imagination. Not without good reason. Los Angeles invariably ranks first in the American Lung Association's annual "State of the Air" survey of most-polluted cities. (Earlier this year, in a surprise upset, it was surpassed by Pittsburgh in one category, "short-term particle pollution," or soot.)

In Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles, journalists Chip Jacobs and William J. Kelly document the rise of this tenacious phenomenon and the various, often-bungled attempts to eradicate it. The narrative that emerges is more than a tale of a region and a populace besieged by smog; it is also a parable for a nation beset by environmental and social problems. Though smog may have been, as the authors write, "not only a blight on the skyline but on the boom mindset," it was not, apparently, blight enough to impel the citizens of Los Angeles to make any material or long-term sacrifices. In the end, the smog crisis is a parable with a pessimistic moral: "To a large degree," the authors write, "people breathed the air they deserved."


Jacobs and Kelly date the beginning of Los Angeles' 65-year campaign against smog to July 8, 1943, the day the city was suddenly blanketed in a "harsh, pea-soup London fog." Drivers were blinded. Eyes and throats burned. Rumors spread that the Japanese had launched a chemical attack. The "fume-beast," to use the authors' term, retreated the following day, but it would soon inhabit the city more or less permanently. Smog was at first thought a mere nuisance—visibility reduced, movie shots delayed—as well as a nagging source of civic embarrassment and aesthetic displeasure. But then crops began to wither, residents suffered headaches and nausea, and children struggled to breathe and stay on task at school. The public grew fretful, increasingly so as doctors reported empirical evidence that smog worsened health. We now know how true this is. Studies have shown that smog plays a role in asthma, chronic bronchitis, lung cancer, and heart disease.

The quest to confront the murk began with the familiar blundering toward a diagnosis that just about every knotty social issue entails. Among the pleasures of this well-researched cultural history is revisiting the past by way of old newspaper articles and archival material, which expose both hapless guesses and dogged persistence on the way to smog literacy. "Although it is quite possible that the automobile does contribute to the nuisance," concluded Raymond Tucker, a St. Louis professor brought in to untangle the conundrum, "it is not in such proportion that it is the sole cause." In fact, science would eventually reveal that the automobile was overwhelmingly the primary contributor. Yet initially the Air Pollution Control District, the country's first official agency dedicated to fighting smog, targeted sulfur-dioxide emissions from oil refineries, even though only small quantities of the substance were present in L.A. air; it also outlawed municipal trash incinerating. These approaches weren't wrong, exactly, but they were like trying to drain a swimming pool with a bucket.

Concrete science was soon to arrive, however. Arie Haagen-Smit, a Dutch scientist who studied pineapples at the California Institute of Technology, suspected the culprit was oxidation, the process by which metal rusts, and captured smog in a test tube to conduct some experiments. Haagen-Smit concluded that Los Angeles' type of haze, now known as "photochemical smog," forms when nitrogen oxides, mainly from automobile exhaust, react with hydrocarbons, mainly from the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, in the presence of sunlight to create ozone and other toxic smog constituents. (A rudimentary understanding of this process, though critical to grasping what's at stake, is not easily gleaned from Smogtown, which can be a little, well, hazy on the science.) Geographic factors peculiar to Los Angeles—mountains on three sides and a meteorological quirk known as a "temperature inversion"—compounded the problem.

But what nature exacerbates, man has created. An enormous driving population—with roughly 11 million registered cars, Los Angeles has more vehicles per capita than any other city—and scarce options for public transportation have not helped matters. Nor have the region's poorly planned freeways. Flowing east to west, the same direction as the wind currents, they funnel "exhaust-rich air straight into the suburbs." Then, too, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, both hubs for imports, bathe the surrounding areas in "a cloud of toxic diesel exhaust from the armada of ships, trucks, and trains" transporting consumer goods that have arrived from overseas.