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Happy Smogiversary, LA. We Don't Wear Gas Masks Anymore But The Air Is Still Terrible

A smog-shrouded view of downtown Los Angeles on October 7, 1968. (Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library archive)
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In Los Angeles, smog is a given and most of us know its primary source is cars and trucks. But the story of how our infamous smog came to be is as thick and convoluted as the smog itself.

It was July 8, 1943 when the first real smog rolled into town, taking many people by surprise.

"People were having car accidents," said Chip Jacobs, a former investigative reporter and co-author of Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles. "Mothers were wondering why their kids' eyes were watering. Police officers were spinning loopy. It became a circus-like atmosphere in this really hot metropolitan juggernaut known as Los Angeles, and the politicians were speechless."

Because no one knew what it was.

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With eyes smarting, Helen Bellinger, left, and Carolyn Aberle get ready to battle the irritating fumes covering Los Angeles in 1943. (Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library archive)

People started wearing gas masks in public. Even Peaches, a donkey at the Griffith Park Zoo (the precursor to the L.A. Zoo) was outfitted with goggles (smoggles?) to protect his eyes from the irritating air, and yes, there is a photo.

Before smog was called smog, the mysterious haze that descended upon L.A. that fateful day had many names. The L.A. Times referred to it as the daylight dim out.

So-called "heavy fumes" were to blame.

"It rolled in like this dirty, gray washcloth fog," according to Jacobs. "You could almost taste it and it smelled kind of like gasoline and chlorine. Just imagine what's otherwise a bright, humid day. All of the sudden this thing rolls in and your lungs are contracting. You can't see anything."

But where did it come from? Before smog was connected to cars, there were multiple suspects.

A view down the middle of Flower Street near 3rd Street in 1950. Smog is obscuring the view of buildings and cars, especially in the distance. (Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library archive)

Some believed the Japanese had launched a chemical warfare attack on us. The U.S. was in its second year of heavy fighting against the Japanese during World War II. Just a few months before smog rolled into the burgeoning LA metropolis, the Japanese had, in fact, bombed Santa Barbara.

But it wasn't the Japanese.

The next suspect was a gas company butadiene plant on Aliso Street, Jacobs said. But after that plant was shut down, the smog only got worse.

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So, not butadiene. Maybe it was sulfur? The scientists brought in to assess the situation just assumed it was, according to Jacobs, but they turned out to be wrong.

"Other cities have had terrible air pollution, and it was always sulfur," he said. "Sulfur is largely the product of coal-fired power plants, of which we had very few in L.A."

Only the tops of downtown Los Angeles skyscrapers are visible from a nearby hillside in this 1964 photo. (Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library archive)

So what was the culprit in this addled, lung-congesting mystery that had L.A.'s then-mayor Fletcher Bowron vowing to snuff it out in six months?

Smog. It's what happens when bad emissions mix with good sunshine to create air pollution. But it wasn't connected with cars until nine years after it first invaded L.A.

Three women on a downtown Los Angeles sidewalk are troubled by the eye-irritating smog in this September 14, 1955 photo. City Hall is barely visible in the background. (Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library archive)

In 1952, Caltech professor Arie Haagen-Smit "opened up his lab window in a basement office... and brought in air, went throughout the scientific process, distilled it into acids and said, 'Aha. Now I know what's going on and you're not going to like what's going on people.'"

It was cars, in all their mass-produced, big-bodied glory. The very cars that were defining L.A. and its do-anything lifestyle were spewing noxious fumes and making a mess of the city's iconic air.

Haagen-Smit was ridiculed and vilified. But eventually he was vindicated, as officials and the general public slowly began to accept the car-smog connection, and even more slowly realized something needed to be done. Haagen-Smit's name now graces the emissions laboratory at the California Air Resources Board building in El Monte.

In the smog battle, a Los Angeles commuter wears an only slightly satiric gas mask on October 2, 1966. (Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library archive)

Thanks to advancements in car technology and California emissions regulations, it's rare we hear weather forecasts that include any reference to smog. But air quailty in the Los Angeles basin has been backsliding in the past few years.

In 2017, there were 145 days that exceeded the federal ozone standard in the L.A. area, according to data from the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which controls air pollution for urban portions of L.A., Riverside and San Bernardino counties and all of Orange County. That figure is up from 132 days in 2016 and 113 days in 2015.

In 1978, the L.A. area exceeded the federal ozone standard 234 days, or roughly two out of every three days in the year.

The Hollywood sign is barely visible through the smog in this photo taken September 14, 1979 from above Lake Hollywood in Cahuenga Pass. (Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library archive)

So we've come a long way, but there's still a lot of work to do. By 2031, the goal is virtually zero days of smog.

"In some ways, I wish we could have a 1943 every year just to remind us," Jacobs said. "When you can see it and smell it and watch your dog struggle or watch your lawn turn brown ... that was a call to action, and people's indifference does tend to follow a bell curve where it shoots up in a crisis and then dips, dips, dips.

So happy smogiversary, Los Angeles. We can breathe a lot easier than we used to, but don't let that fool you -- we still have the worst air quality in America -- a distinction the American Lung Association has given us 19 of the past 20 years.


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Monday, July 8, 2019, 6:45 a.m.: This article was updated with the most recent air quality data from the South Coast Air Quality Management District, as well as a new link to the American Lung Association's annual State of the Air report.

This article was originally published at 5:02 p.m. on July 9, 2018.