Smog in Early Los Angeles

(1940s - Today)

(1948)** - L.A. Civic Center masked by smog on January 6, 1948. Courtesy of UCLA Library Special Collections - Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive.  


Historical Notes

Air pollution reached its worst levels in Los Angeles during the 1940s and 1950s.  Millions of people driving millions of cars plus temperature inversion provided Los Angeles with a near perfect environment for the production and containment of photochemical smog.

Los Angeles suffered from smog well before World War II. Industrial smoke and fumes were so thick during one day in 1903 that residents mistook it for an eclipse of the sun. From 1905 to 1912, the Los Angeles City Council adopted several measures to combat dense smoke emissions. As the century progressed, the city sprawled and industry boomed, overwhelming those first primitive air pollution control measures. #+



(1940)* - BEFORE SMOG CHECKS - Three cars are seen here heading east on Hollywood Boulevard with smoke billowing out of their tailpipes.  


Historical Notes

The first California “Smog Check” program wasn't implemented until 1984.




(1940s)+^ - A woman is seen wiping her eyes as smog blankets Downtown Los Angeles.  


Historical Notes

Massive wartime immigration to a city built for cars had made L.A. the largest car market the industry had ever seen. But the influx of cars and industry, combined with a geography that traps fumes like a big bowl, had caught up with Angelenos.




(1955)^^ - Buildings in Los Angeles Civic Center are barely visible in picture looking east at 1st and Olive Streets when smog was at its peak.  Photo by John Malmin / Los Angeles Times  


Historical Notes

The real cause of L.A. smog wasn’t determiend until the 1950s.  The scientist who solved the smog mystery was Arie Haagen-Smit, a chemist at the California Institute of Technology. He was the first to recognize that ozone was the primary source of the haze. Ozone is created when partially unburned exhaust from automobiles and the hydrocarbons from oil refineries are hit by sunlight. Haagen-Smit also demonstrated that the ozone was the cause of the bleach smell L.A. residents were reporting, as well as the source of their eye irritation and respiratory problems. ^#




(1955)* - Three women on a downtown Los Angeles sidewalk are troubled by the eye-irritating smog. City Hall is barely visible in the background. Photograph dated Septmber 14, 1955.  


Historical Notes

On some days, the air was so polluted that parents kept their kids out of school; athletes trained indoors; citrus growers and sugar-beet producers watched in dismay as their crops withered; the elderly and young crowded into doctors' offices and hospital ERs with throbbing heads and shortness of breath. ^




(1955)#* - LAPD officer wiping his eyes due to the smog, with City Hall in the background.  





(1957)* - Outdoor view of a residential incinerator burning trash. Photo dated July 1, 1957.  


Historical Notes

Until the late 1950s most people burned their trash in their own backyards using incinerators similar (but smaller) to the one seen above.

All refuse burning in Los Angeles ended October 1, 1957 when Air Pollution Control District's ban on residential incinerators became effective.




(1958)* – Photo caption reads:  “Man at right defies convention and eye-searing pollutant as he strolls down Broadway wearing a gas mask, as Los Angeles battles another smog attack. Women on left suffer and use their handkerchiefs to wipe away their tears.” Photo dated: September 19, 1958.  


Historical Notes

By the mid 1950s there was no doubt among scientists that cars were a primary factor in LA’s smog crisis.
However, Los Angeles had no influence over the auto manufacturers. Smog wasn’t yet a national problem and it was very easy to dismiss smog as a quirk of LA geography.

Automakers were slow to respond.  They were wary of any change that would add cost to their vehicles.  As a result of public pressure, emission regulations would come to pass.  But, it would take another two decades for things to change.

It wasn’t until 1975 that the U.S. required new cars to have catalytic converters, the key piece of technology that allowed everything to change. #^




(1964)* - View looking south as seen from the Hollywood Hills showing the Wilshire corridor at top of photo with Baldwin Hills further back.  


Historical Notes

On August 22, 1964, Los Angeles basin was recognized as having the worst ozone problem of any city in the U.S.*




(1960)** - A smoggy day in Los Angeles. View is looking north on Figueroa Street in downtown Los Angeles.  


Historical Notes

Photo caption for the above photo reads: “SMOGGY DAY-It was smoggy yesterday as indicated by this photograph made from Figueroa St. looking east on 6th St. But it wasn't nearly as bad as the Air Pollution Control District predicted.”




(1966)* – Photo caption reads:  “In the smog battle a Los Angeles commuter wears an only slightly satiric gas mask on October 2, 1966. Automotive experts show how a new smog device cuts down on the emission of car fumes, while testifying before the California Assembly.”  


Historical Notes

It wasn’t until 1975 that the U.S. required new cars to have catalytic converters, the key piece of technology that allowed everything to change. #^




(1968)* - Smog-shrouded view of downtown Los Angeles, looking toward City Hall and the Hall of Justice, on October 7, 1968.  


Historical Notes

In 1974, the nation’s last recorded Stage Three smog alert occured in Upland (east of Los Angeles). Ozone levels hit .51 parts per million. Gov. Ronald Reagan urged residents to “limit all but absolutely necessary auto travel” and recommended that people drive slower to reduce emissions.+#




(1986)* - View of Spring Street looking south from 3rd Street at 3 p.m. on an unidentified day in November 1986, using infrared film.  


Historical Notes

In 1984, The California Smog Check program went into effect to identify vehicles in need of maintenance and to assure the effectiveness of their emissions-control systems.+#




(1970s)* - View of downtown Los Angeles office towers, barely visible through the smog. Photo taken from the Hollywood Freeway.  





(1970s)^^ - A driver fights the smog in 1970s Los Angeles.  





(1986)* - View of Wilshire Blvd. looking east from San Vicente at 11:30 a.m. on December 5, 1986, following five first-stage smog alerts.  


Historical Notes

In 1987, AQMD established a landmark rideshare program requiring companies employing at least 100 people to offer incentives to workers to carpool or use public transit. Employers complained that it shouldn’t be their job to change workers’ driving behavior, and the project went away in a few years.*#




(1979)* - Photograph caption dated September 14, 1979 reads, "The Hollywood sign is barely visible through the smog in this photo taken from above Lake Hollywood in Cahuenga Pass."  





(1984)* - A tourist at the Griffith Park Observatory focuses her telescope for a sharper view of what appears to be a city skyline, looming through the smog.  Photo date:  August 10, 1984  





(1973)** - The tall buildings in downtown Los Angeles rise above a blanket of smog.  


Historical Notes

Most of smog found in Los Angeles is a type of air pollution derived from vehicular emission from internal combustion engines and industrial fumes that react in the atmosphere with sunlight to form secondary pollutants that also combine with the primary emissions to form photochemical smog. *^




(ca. 1979)* - View from Elysian Park looking south along the Pasadena Freeway from Buena Vista Drive about 11:00 a.m.  Downtown Los Angeles office buildings nearly disappear into the smog.  





(1993)^^ - The Los Angeles skyline shrouded in smog as seen from the 1st street bridge in July 1993.  


Historical Notes

In 1993, bowing to pressure to do its part to revive the sluggish economy, the AQMD approved a program that allowed major polluters to trade emission credits among themselves. The program, dubbed RECLAIM, proved ineffective and fed the agency’s soft-on-the-bad-guys reputation that continues to this day.

Some 58 bills were introduced in Sacramento that would exert control over the AQMD and state Air Resources Board and make them more business-friendly. +#




(2003)^^ – The downtown Los Angeles skyline peaks out above a layer of smog as seen from Griffith Park.  


Historical Notes

In 1996, the ‘Big Seven’ automakers committed to make zero-emissions vehicles, and General Motors rolled out the EV-1.

In 2003, however, automakers go to court and effectively eliminate the state’s zero-emissions vehicle standards. +#




(2015)^^ – Downtown skyscrapers reflect the light from the setting sun as seen from more than 20 miles away on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.  


Historical Notes

The year 2000 saw a milestone in that no Stage One smog alerts were issued for that year, compared to 42 days in 1990, when people with respiratory problems were urged to stay indoors.*#




(2005)++ – Panoramic view looking northeast showing downtown Los Angeles, with snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains in the background.  The Harbor Freeway and LA Convention Center are in the foreground. Photo by Daniel Castro  


Historical Notes

Although a pristine view of the downtown skyline may still elude Angelenos on most days, air pollution rarely cripples the city in present times as it did in the mid-twentieth century. Severe smog has largely abated.  This was all due to citizen activism, scientific advances, and landmark environmental legislation that allowed the EPA to regulate air pollutants.^




(2013)*^ – A slightly different angle view also showing downtown Los Angeles with the beautiful snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains in the background.  City Hall is seen at lower center-right. Once the tallest building in Los Angeles (1928 thru 1964), City Hall is now dwarfed by scores of other high-rise buildings.  Photo by Todd Jones  


Historical Notes

In the 1970s and '80s, the Los Angeles region often saw more than 200 bad-air days a year, with ozone levels exceeding 300 parts per billion on the smoggiest summer days. Peak ozone concentrations have dropped to about a third of that, even as the region’s population has grown and the number of vehicle miles traveled has doubled.

The success of emissions standards that began more than four decades ago, especially The Clean Air Acts of 1970 and 1977, has slashed air pollution in Southern California by 70% since 1970.^^ 




(2008)## - Aerial view of Downtown Los Angeles with Wilshire Blvd in the background heading off to the west. Photo by Ron Reiring  


Historical Notes

Over the past several decades, California officials set groundbreaking standards that phased out many inefficient car and truck engines and some of the dirtiest fuels for everything from jet skis and lawnmowers to school buses and heavy-duty trucks. Local smog-fighters in the Los Angeles basin forced cleanup of oil refineries, manufacturing plants, and consumer products such as paints and solvents. Other local and state programs offered incentives for replacing old trucks and buses.

The result: Some of the most problematic pollutants-smog-forming nitrogen dioxide and fine particles created by diesel-engine exhaust and other fossil fuels-declined in the worst neighborhoods by up to 50 percent in 20 years.^*

Much more can still be done.


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References and Credits

* LA Public Library Image Archive

^ KCET: LA's Smoggy Past in Photos;

** UCLA Library Digital Archive

*# USC Digital Library

+# LA Weekly: History of Smog

#+ AQMD - The Southlands War on Smog

#^ LA Smog: The Battle Against Air Pollution

^^ LA Times: Los Angeles Under Cover - Smog Through the Years; New Attack on California's Dirty Air

++ Los Angeles

+^ SoCal Historical Architecture

#* Photos of Los Angeles

## Flickr-Los Angeles in Good Light - Ron Reiring

*^ Wikipedia

^* National Geographic: As Smog Thins in L.A., Dramatic Evidence of Kids' Healthier Lungs

^# WIRED: July 26, 1943: L.A. Gets First Big Smog



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