"Smog Town USA"

Wow did you get a look at the air quality over the Los Angeles Basin and the valley the last couple of days?  Can you believe all that smog? Smog, what an odd word. The name smog was the brainchild of the U.S. Weather Bureau way back around 1914 when some creative employee (but more likely bored), decided to combine the words smoke and fog and came up with smog. The new term was greeted with gales of laughter by co-workers and the public alike. One newspaper even joked about it by asking “Why stop with smog? Why not call a mixture of snow and mud ‘smud,’ snow and soot ‘snoot,’ and a mixture of snow and hail ‘snail.’  giving us a weather forcast that might call for  “Snail today, turning to snoot tonight; tomorrow smoggy with a chance of smud’.”  Yeah, smog was a real laugher, yet despite all the ridicule the name stuck and nearly a hundred years later the word is still in use today.

It’s been years since I’ve seen smog that bad in the skies over L.A., so bad in fact that the AQMD  issued its first-ever mandatory “no burn alerts” prohibiting residents in the downtown Los Angeles area, West Hollywood, Burbank and most of the eastern San Fernando Valley from lighting up their wood-burning fireplaces.  Weather reports explained that the heavy smog was the result of a low hanging inversion layer that caused pollutants produced by motor vehicles, power plants, wood-burning and other sources to become trapped close to the ground. Unfortunately the trapped microscopic particles in the smog build up to very unhealthy levels, and when breathed in, have the potential to lodge themselves in your lungs, blood stream and vital organs triggering asthma and other respiratory problems for individuals sensitive to pollutants or with cardiovascular issues.  According to the California Air Resources Board, pollution from all sources in Southern California have the potential of causing roughly 5,000 premature deaths annually  and affecting the health of countless others. 

I gotta tell you I was in the Hollywood Hills Sunday afternoon and looking down on a smog shrouded L.A. certainly brought back some not so pleasant memories of my youth,  memories of a time when Los Angeles was nicknamed “Smog Town USA.” Do you remember?  Yeah that was back in the fifties and sixties when some days the air was so foul it hurt. Do you remember when it used to hurt to breath?  I certainly do. I used to get this pain deep in my chest every time I sucked down a breathe. Headaches, watery and aching eyes were also common occurrence on extremely smoggy days and let me tell you, there were more smoggy days than clear ones back then.

During major smog alerts some parents chose to keep their keeps home from school and in the house. If you did go to school, you spent your day indoors as you weren’t allowed to go outside for recess or lunch. High school’s would even cancel PE classes, games and all after school outdoor activities. One of my friends said they used to sound the air raid sirens on extremely smoggy days, but I don’t remember that. Perhaps they did.

]Azusa was especially bad. Nestled against the foothills at the mouth of San Gabriel Canyon, it was a natural smog pocket.The smog would come rolling in like fog and be trapped against the mountains. Our elementary school was less than a mile below the foothills but there were lots of days when the smog was so thick you couldn’t see the mountains at all! It was as though they never existed! Our only salvation were the warm Santa Ana’s that blew down through the canyons and pushed the smog out over the ocean where it hung ominously off the coast, waiting for the Santa Ana condition to subside so it could make its way back over the valley.  Yeah the Santa Ana’s were heavenly. I remember wishing for everyday to be as clear and clean as a Santa Ana Day, but that didn’t happen. In time the warm winds faded and the smog returned to foul the air.

I remember sometime around the mid sixties watching a news show about how to clear the skies above L A.  There was of course the usual discussion about cleaner burning fuels and lowering exhaust emissions,  giant wind mills, bans on certain industries and even gas masks, but the one I remember best was one man’s plan to bore massive tunnels through the San Gabriel Mountain tops, fit them with giant exhaust turbine fans so we could  “suck all the smog right out of the sky and blow it out over the Mohave Desert where it wouldn’t hurt anyone.” I remember thinking it was a pretty cool idea but of course it never happened. But in time through rules and regulations, great strides in automotive and truck emissions, and other smog producing industries, air quality did improve and breathing stopped hurting.

For the last several decades air quality has held, but every now and again there are days like this past weekend when the smog returns in force. These smoggy days serve to remind us of Smog Town USA and what once was, and to caution us as to how easily we could return to those dire conditions. So for now breath easy and enjoy the blue and hope that never happens.

Just a Thought,






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