I've Got You Under My Skin: Smog and Modern Memory

Smog, 1948 | Photo courtesy of the USC Digital Library

Wednesday, February 11, 2015 was a good day. Santa Ana winds, blowing moderately, had mixed stalled air over the central district of Los Angeles. Levels of ozone and nitrogen oxide were below state and federal maximums, as they had been all month. As it does most days, the amount of "particulate matter" in the air climbed as the traffic increased and industries began their day.

At the end of the previous week, morning fog had pushed levels of unhealthful air higher in coastal Orange and Los Angeles counties. Older adults, children, and anyone with lung or heart disease were advised to avoid prolonged outdoor activities in the hazy air.

By February 11, air quality conditions had moderated, but particulate levels remained elevated throughout much of that day. High levels of fine particles are tied to greater incidence of childhood lung disease and chronic illness in older adults.

Exactly sixty years before, when I was nearly seven and spent the afternoon of February 11, 1955 outside, the weather was as warm as it was on February 11, 2015.The breaths I drew then contained some of the highest levels of air pollution in the nation. The bright sun cooked together particulates from diesel trucks, nitrogen oxide from manufacturing plants, carbon monoxide from car exhaust, sulfur dioxide from oil-fired industrial furnaces, and stray hydrocarbons evaporating from solvents and degreasers, industrial paints, and gasoline.

Running in air that polluted for 30 minutes, according to the American Lung Association, was like smoking a pack of cigarettes.

Warning | Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

The first breath I took in 1948 was troubled air. Its quality in the Los Angeles basin had been declining since 1919, when the region's non-agricultural economy began to boom and millions of migrants arrived in what they had been told was a land of perpetual sunshine. By 1948, Los Angeles was painted in the colors of smog -- sunsets that ran from peach to dried blood, daylight that shaded from urine to adobe.

The visible fraction of the air we breathed was bad enough. Boys like me, hurrying down the block, couldn't see the ozone. It's not one of the colors in the vivid palette of smog. It's a transparent, highly reactive gas refined in sunlight from volatile hydrocarbons and the by-products of auto exhaust.

For many adults, at just 0.02 parts per million, ozone can sting the eyes and accompany each breath with pain. At higher concentrations, people wheeze and develop a headache. Some feel lightheaded.

I didn't pay attention to what I couldn't see in the air of 1955. I remember my eyes watering when I got older, but I don't remember if they did that February day. Maybe my throat was scratchy that afternoon, but my mom was a heavy smoker then and the effects of second-hand smoke were worse.

I've nearly forgotten what breathing the unmitigated pollution of fifty years ago felt like, but my body hasn't. I still bear the marks of that February afternoon in my lungs and heart and arteries. The physical insults to young bodies continued even after responsible adults knew what caused the air to turn the color of old bruise, even after they knew what air pollution was doing to boys like me, and even after they knew how to prevent at least some of the damage from happening.

Smog had rolled in with smokestack industrialization, giving good jobs with real benefits to people like my parents. They bought cars. They bought houses. They lived better through chemistry, a lot of it extraordinarily polluting. Their sons and daughters ran laughing through smoggy afternoons. And as they filled their lungs with the livid air, each breath multiplied their lifetime risk of heart disease, chronic emphysema, and lung cancer (more reasons not to be nostalgic about a 1950s childhood).

Boys and girls playing in the park near my house on February 11, 2015 -- children running as hard as they can in the clearer light -- will nevertheless carry traces of that afternoon all their lives.

Their burden of risk, I hope, will remain lighter than mine because parents and politicians made hard decisions decades ago to begin clearing our air. The air is better now, but advocates fear that momentum to make it safer has stalled now that the air looks clear even in summer and now that some nerves are rattled by the changes that will have to be made in transportation and power generation so that all our future breaths will be taken with air that won't frighten us.

Faced with its continuing inability to meet federal Clean Air Act standards for particulates, the board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District recently adopted a soot mitigation plan that worried health and environmental advocates criticized as weak. Unless particulate levels drop under the new plan, the AQMD may be required to adopt new pollution limits on power plants and industrial facilities, potentially raising energy costs and affecting industries and jobs

Wednesday was a good day. I drank in the bright air of that afternoon and thought that it was a better day than I had known before. But still not good enough.

Better, 1990s
Better, 1990s | Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

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