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News and culture through the lens of Southern California. Hosted by A Martínez

The Ride: The day smog first visited LA (and never left)

by Susan Carpenter | Take Two®

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Smog. Here in Los Angeles, we all know it exists. In fact we live with it. And most of us know its primary source is cars and trucks.

But the story of how it got here and what was causing it is as thick and convoluted as smog itself.

It was July 8, 1943, “when Los Angeles got its first slap in the face of a smog onslaught that took really many people by surprise,” said Chip Jacobs, a former investigative reporter and co-author of “Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles” — a book that sheds light on one of L.A.’s murkiest mysteries.

“People were having car accidents,” he added. “Mothers were wondering why their kids’ eyes were watering. Police officers were spinning loopy. It became a circus-like atmosphere in this really hot metropolitan juggernaut known as Los Angeles, and the politicians were speechless.”

Because no one knew what it was.

Long before smog was smog, the mysterious haze that descended upon Los Angeles that day had many names. The L.A. Times referred to it as the daylight dim out. So-called heavy fumes were to blame.

“It rolled in like this dirty gray washcloth fog,” according to Jacobs. “And I mean, you could almost like taste it and it smelled kind of like gasoline and chlorine. Just imagine what’s otherwise a bright, humid day. All of the sudden this thing rolls in and your lungs are contracting. You can’t see anything.”

But where did it come from? Before smog was connected to cars, there were multiple suspects.

“First they thought it was the Japanese,” Jacobs said. “People thought it was a chemical warfare attack.”

And for good reason. The U.S. was in its second year of heavy fighting against the Japanese during World War II. Just a few months before smog rolled into the burgeoning LA metropolis, the Japanese had, in fact, bombed Santa Barbara.

But it wasn’t the Japanese.

“Then they thought it was the gas company butadiene plant on Aliso Street,” Jacobs said. “Well, guess what happened? They shut it out and smog got worse.”

Nope. Not butadiene.

Maybe it was sulfur.

“Other cities have had terrible air pollution, and it was always sulfur,” Jacobs said. “Sulfur is largely the product of coal-fired power plants, of which we had very few in LA. But the powers that be and fancy named scientists, PhDs, that rolled in assumed every municipal air pollution problem was the same.”

So what was the culprit in this addled, lung-congesting mystery that had L.A.’s then mayor Fletcher Bowron vowing to snuff it out in six months?

Smog. It’s what happens when bad emissions mix with good sunshine to create air pollution. But it wasn’t connected with cars until nine years after smog invaded L.A., in 1952, when Cal Tech professor Arie Haagen-Smit “opened up his lab window in a basement office… and brought in air, went throughout the scientific process, distilled it into acids and said, ‘Aha. Now I know what’s going on and you’re not going to like what’s going on people.’”

It was cars, in all their mass-produced, big-bodied glory. The very cars that were defining L.A. and its do-anything lifestyle were spewing noxious fumes and making a mess of L.A.’s iconic air.

Haagen-Smit was ridiculed and vilified. But eventually he was vindicated, as officials and the general public slowly began to accept the car-smog connection, and even more slowly realized something needed to be done. Haagen-Smit’s name now graces the emissions laboratory for the California Air Resources Board in El Monte.

Thanks to advancements in car technology and California emissions regulations, it’s rare we hear weather forecasts that include any reference to smog.

In 2015, there were 81 days that exceeded the federal ozone standard in the L.A. area, according to Sam Atwood, media relations manager for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which controls air pollution for urban portions of L.A., Riverside and San Bernardino counties and all of OC.

In 1978, the L.A. area exceeded the federal ozone standard 234 days, or roughly two out of every three days in the year.

But there’s still a lot of work to do. By 2031, the goal is virtually zero days of smog. Zero.

“In some ways, I wish we could have a 1943 every year just to remind us,” Jacobs said. “When you can see it and smell it and watch your dog struggle or watch your lawn turn brown … that was a call to action, and people’s indifference does tend to follow a bell curve where it shoots up in a crisis and then dips, dips, dips. We still have the worst air quality in the country.”

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