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How Los Angeles Began to Put its Smoggy Days Behind

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Posted every Monday (see archives), the Laws That Shaped L.A. spotlights regulations that have played a significant role in the development of contemporary Los Angeles. These laws - as nominated and explained each week by a locally-based expert - are considered to have been either beneficial to the city or malevolent. The laws may be civil or criminal, and they may have been put into practice by city, county, state, federal or even international authority.

This Week's Law That Shaped L.A."¨
Law: Clean Air Act
Year: 1970
Jurisdiction: Federal
Nominated by: Larry Pryor

During 2010, the Los Angeles metropolitan area suffered through three "red alert" smog days and 69 other "smog days." That is three red alert and sixty-nine other smog days too many.

But let's look for a moment on the bright side. And we mean the bright side as depicted by Plein Air painters rather than the Next Nature-style, particle-aided sunsets that Angelinos hate to love.

Yes, let's look at today's relative bright side. After all, NRDC President Frances Beinecke writes of traveling to Los Angeles in the 1970s, "when the air hit unhealthy levels of pollution more than 200 days a year." And this New York Times infographic shows decreasing area pollution woes from 1984 to 2004.

That's good news, because for decades smog was so synonymous with the City of Angels that those same Angels couldn't fly without packing inhalers. Pollution one day in 1903 was so severe residents thought an eclipse was nigh. The San Gabriels used to be so regularly shrouded that Fuji-san seemed like a camera hog. The county as early as 1947 opened the nation's first "air pollution control program." One October day in 1955 was said to be L.A.'s smoggiest ever. Some smog-boggling photos have been collected on this page by KCET colleague Nathan Masters - including a Boy Scout wiping air pollution-produced tears from a girl's face; an underground backyard smog shelter; and Miss Smog Fighter 1951, with sash, recoiling from a just-opened jar full of the stuff.

Some of those Los Angeles air quality horrors have improved however, thanks to a range of legislative, regulative - and many other significant - reasons.

Man selling fresh clean desert air for 50 cents a balloonfull in front of Loew's State Theatre in Los Angeles, Oct. 22, 1954.  Herald-Examiner Collection photo courtesy of The Los Angeles Public Library
Man selling fresh clean desert air for 50 cents a balloonfull in front of Loew's State Theatre in Los Angeles, Oct. 22, 1954. Herald-Examiner Collection photo courtesy of The Los Angeles Public Library

Perhaps the key single factor is the 1970 federal Clean Air Act. "It was such a huge change in the law," Larry Pryor says, nominating the Act as a Law That Shaped L.A, "because local controls were erratic and sensitive to industry costs rather than health costs."

Pryor is an associate professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism** and a prize-winning former editor and environmental reporter for the Los Angeles Times.

During a recent interview, Pryor recounted the back story that led to the passage of the federal Clean Air Act, as well as the related creation of the California Air Resources Board to administer the Act at the state level.

Signed into law by President Richard Nixon on December 31, 1970, eight months after the first Earth Day, the Clean Air Act set comprehensive emissions limits and allowed the newly established EPA to regulate seven harmful chemicals. The Act and its federal bully pulpit led to the expanded influence - or in some cases the creation of - local agencies such as the California Air Resources Board to administer the Clean Air Act. The Act was updated in 1977 and dramatically in 1990.

"There were so many pressures around the country to clean up air, not just in Los Angeles," Pryor says. "But I think the major impact was on Los Angeles because we were so far behind. We had by far the worst air in the nation and we also had all of the circumstance that were perfect for smog creation."

Those circumstances ranged from the topographic - part of the region wasn't for nothing called The Valley of the Smokes - to the suddenly staggering amount of automobiles as well as factories and refineries that peppered the Southland.

Pryor says that perhaps the key player in the tale was Dr. Arie Haagen-Smit, a Dutch-born CalTech chemistry professor. Haagen-Smit began studing air pollution in 1948 and soon figured out not only what constituted smog but how smog acted in real world conditions. In 1968, Haagen-Smit was named the first chairperson of the Air Resources Board.

"I was a reporter at the time covering the Air Resources Board," Pryor says. "And I can tell you that having someone with the scientific authority be able to say, 'This is smog and this is how it is created and this is what it is going to take to fix,' right there in one man and in the influence he had over the other board members was incredible."

Haagen-Smit and fellow scientists identified two primary categories of air offenders: stationary sources and non-stationary sources. The former included large factories and oil refineries; the latter, automobiles.

The State decided to tackle rides first. This, remember, was prior to catalytic converters, before increased fuel efficiency standards and in-between the death and eventual rebirth of the electric car. This was before better-sealed gas station pump nozzles - and even before self-service gas stations.

"Hydrocarbons were leaking like crazy out of people's gas tanks," Pryor says. "Every time you filled your car at the gas station, huge amounts of hydrocarbons were emitted," when that action was multiplied daily across the region.

California passed various new rules designed to curtail auto-caused pollution. Objections from the auto and oil industries were ultimately overcome, but Pryor points out that it was another business constituency that led to the implementation of a now-familiar pollution-monitoring program - the smog certificate.

The installation of catalytic converters and monitoring of mandatory smog tests on vehicles was at first going to be conducted by state employees working at state garages.

"The legislature thought that was like a police state," Pryor says. "So the Air Resources Board looked around and decided, what we can do is, we'll issue permits to garages and repair shops and gas stations and [authorize them to] conduct it."

The response? "Overnight the Legislature went for it because every garage owner in the state of California said, 'Hurray!'" Pryor says. "Because not only would people come in for their smog certificates but they've got a brake problem, they've got to have an oil change and get the filters done. It was a bonanza for garage owners."

While the non-stationary* assault on bad air kept the garages happy, some politicians and others feared that fussing with major stationery sources could cost jobs. Indeed, the NRDC's Beinecke writes of unfinished national business from the Clean Air Act: "Pollution from coal-fired power plants alone led to approximately 13,000 premature deaths in 2010."

But in L.A., change is, and has been, in the air. "Over the years, CARB and the EPA have gradually been tightening the noose," Pryor says. "If you drive past the oil refineries in Torrance you are still going to get a good whiff of sulfur, but by and large, compared to where we were in 1970, the regulators have done a miraculous job of holding down air pollutants."

That's not to imply in any way that the job's done. After a millennial spell where Houston passed L.A. for the infamy of being the nation's smoggiest city, L.A. retook that crown. Riverside-San Bernardino held the dishonor in 2010.

And as ever in this ongoing one-law-per-week series, this isn't meant to imply that Pryor or anyone else thinks that all the credit for helping fight such a complicated problem - and one with direct crossover to population, ports, technology, economic, politics, public health, global warming and many other frontline categories stems merely from one source - be it this one law or otherwise.

This is to say, however, that the Clean Air Act did become law, did serve to catalyze other change and that results - and skies - are clear or at least clearer. The EPA claims that nationwide during 2010 alone, the Clean Air Act prevented 160,000 premature deaths.

"Look at it this way," Pryor says. "If we hadn't had Arie Haagen-Smit, if we hadn't had the Air Resource Board, if we hadn't had the controls that were placed on the auto industry back in the early 1970s, imagine what the air would be like today. We literally wouldn't be able to breath. Given the context of Southern California, this is probably the best outcome that we could have expected."

**Jeremy Rosenberg is a part-time staff member at the school, participates in a weekly brown-bag lunchtime session hosted by Pryor and has a relative who works at the federal EPA.

Top Photo: Human 'guinea pigs' in the fight against smog, photo from the Herald-Examiner Collection,1956. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.


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