Postcards from the American Dark Ages of Smog

Donald Trump has called the EPA a 'disgrace.' There was a time when it didn't exist.

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Nov 19 2016, 5:00pm

Image: EPA

When we hear discussions of emissions controls circa 2016, it's likely to be within the context of climate change—an ever-mounting excess of carbon in the atmosphere is pushing us into a future of unchecked global warming. In terms of cause and effect, the burning of fossil fuels is then considered in terms of downstream and still kind of abstract effects, which is in constrast to the state of affairs just a few of decades ago.

Image: LIFE Magazine

What we had then was smog—the choking brown-yellow haze of vehicular and industrial emissions that is nowadays more likely to be assigned to city skies in China and India. Smog isn't gone from the United States, but its mitigation is a success story of environmental regulation. This mitigation also happens to be rather provisional, as an incoming Trump administration takes aim not just at Obama era climate-directed fuel efficiency and emissions standards but at environmental regulation itself, particularly the EPA, which the president-elect has called a "disgrace."

It may be a good time then to take a look back at the skies of the 1940s and '50s, before the passage of the tentative Air Pollution Control Act of 1955 and the landmark Clean Air Act of 1963/1970. If a single one of those scarred skies were to have precipitated the ensuing regulation, it would have been that above Donora, Pennsylvania in October of 1948, when everything turned dark.

Image: LIFE Magazine

What took place was an environmental disaster that claimed the lives of 20 residents and sickened 6,000 more over the course of five days. "People are always coughing in Donora," a local journalist would note, according to a 1999 account in Smithsonian Magazine, but this time was different. Fumes from a local steel mill and zinc plant had become trapped at the bottom of a horseshoe bend in the Monongahela River Valley underneath a layer of colder air—a phenomenon known as a temperature inversion—leaving the town effectively sealed into a bubble with its own pollutants (which were continuing to spew from the factories all the while, despite the mounting disaster).

Five days later, the smog was washed away in a rainstorm. The event was widely studied, and, a few years later, Harry Truman would cite Donora at the country's first national air pollution conference. Air pollution had become a federal matter and it would soon be curtailed sharply by the Clean Air Act of 1963 and a series of forceful amendments to the act signed into law in 1970 by Richard Nixon.

Los Angeles, 2004. Image: TravelingOtter/Flickr

The Donora disaster is a story often told, but as a consequence it can seem more isolated than it really was. Smog ravaged the United States throughout the 20th century, both before and after the Clean Air Act. In 1943, residents of Los Angeles thought they were under chemical attack by the Japanese when an acrid cloud moved in, burning eyes and lungs and cutting visibility to single blocks. In 1958, LA's smog brought the city nearly the point of blockading freeways. In 1974, the city would issue its last and only stage-3 smog alert. Elsewhere, in November 1953, smog killed between 170 and 260 people in New York City; 1963: 200; 1966: 169.

Smog isn't solved in the United States. The gushing head-wound of mid-century industrial mania has been crudely stitched up, largely thanks to federal regulation, but smog—mostly from cars and factories—still claims some 200,000 lives every year. In Baltimore, where the emissions-related mortality rate is highest, 130 out of every 100,000 residents will die every year due to long-term exposure to air pollution.

It's reasonable to gather around the climate change cause, but air pollution remains an old-school killer and a clear and present public health threat. In the coming assaults on the EPA and environmental regulation, we'd do well to keep that in mind.