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’$2 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.

The reasons smog exists are arguably the very reasons it has proved so difficult to conquer—a dilemma common to many entrenched social problems. Is it realistic to ask suburbanites who live in developments located miles from centers of employment, and without practical means of mass transit, to stop driving their cars? Does it make sense to expect that politicians, answering to constituents who demand jobs and a solid economy, will tighten the reins on activity at the diesel-spewing ports?

Still, necessity is the mother of legislation, and L.A.’s response, for both good and ill, is more broadly relevant. The city’s long reign as the country’s top air polluter ultimately forced California to become a bellwether in confronting the issue. As early as 1959, the California Department of Public Health developed the first statewide air-quality standards. In 1967, with the passage of the Federal Air Quality Act, the state lobbied for and received a waiver that allowed it to set and enforce emissions thresholds more rigorous than federal levels. That same year, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan founded the California Air Resources Board, which in its lifetime has instituted a host of significant reforms. In the 1990s, for example, it set new standards, the strictest in the nation, for low-emissions vehicles and cleaner-burning gasoline. During the tenure of progressive Gov. Jerry Brown, the state saw the introduction of the country’s first carpool lanes, the first law mandating smog checks for cars, and regulations that required automakers to develop emissions controls.

The tale of the city’s struggle against smog is thus one that inspires belief in the possibility of government to bring about change. Indeed, a number of the initiatives were far-reaching in their effects. Under the Clean Air Act, other states are permitted to adopt California’s more stringent emissions regulations, and several have done so—including those with high-traffic areas, like Massachusetts and New York. And since California makes up more than 10 percent of the total new-vehicle market, auto companies often find it easier to produce technology that meets the state’s standards rather than to create two different models. Today, the authors note, the pollution a new car emits has been cut by 90 percent from its 1990 levels. In California, this has meant fewer high-ozone days overall. In 1983, 152 days exceeded the federal ozone level; by 2003, the number had fallen to 68.

Yet for all the progress, there has been plenty of backsliding. Smogtown includes numerous examples of businesses unwilling to forgo profits and politicians all too willing to cave to industry demands. The Stanford Research Institute, a consortium of oil companies masquerading as a think tank, tried to discredit Haagen-Smit and his findings. The automakers stalled on developing emissions control equipment, claiming consumer prices would be too high. The state responded by approving independently pioneered technology, and—voilà!—the automakers produced their own. Arguably most controversial of all, the 1990 Zero Emissions Vehicles Mandate remains thwarted. The law required automakers to make 10 percent of their total fleet “zero emissions vehicles,” such as battery-powered electric or hydrogen fuel-cell cars, by 2003. But it has been watered-down almost from its inception, owing to heavy opposition from automakers (including a lawsuit filed by General Motors). These and other similar moments together serve as a disturbing reminder that even minor capitulations can have sweeping consequences. Smog, the authors write, remains a matter of “wheezy urgency.”

Now, with Detroit’s Big Three on the verge of collapse, the authors’ bottom line seems prescient, but perhaps not quite in the way they expected: Jacobs and Kelly reserve their harshest criticism not for the automakers whose “core mission is to profit from product sales,” nor even for the politicians who too often yield to them, but for the inhabitants of Los Angeles, whom they call upon to embrace, belatedly, a sense of accountability, by altering their “cherished suburban lifestyle.” In the past, each time the citizenry has been asked to sacrifice—by not burning trash, say, or by paying nominal taxes to fund public transit—there has been an outcry.

Times are obviously changing. The Bush administration is currently suggesting it will borrow from the $700 billion financial rescue fund to keep the auto companies afloat, a move that would force taxpayers to foot the bill for the bailout of an industry in dire need of restructuring. But another response may yet be in order. If the authors are right that as smog persists and global warming looms, Los Angelenos must stop relying on the government to clean up their mess and learn the consequences of their myopically auto-dependent ways, it might also be the moment for all Americans—not just the residents of Los Angeles—to welcome one idea it seems nobody dares mention: higher gasoline taxes. As an editorial in the Washington Post recently pointed out, paying more at the pump would likely produce a host of positive and necessary changes from stimulating the market for fuel-efficient cars to checking urban sprawl to diminishing the clout of petro-states. Not least, we might all cough less.