January 15, 1954 – if you were around at the time, and you were living in L.A., you would be suffering from a combination of burning eyes, running nose, persistent cough and shortness of breath. And you were this way every time the air hung around Los Angeles and the winds didn’t blow. There were days you couldn’t see any further than a block in front of you. Cities like Pasadena disappeared from view. It looked like fog, but it was a brownish haze and it didn’t smell like it came from the ocean. It smelled like what it was made up of; exhaust from cars, smoke from factories and smoke from incinerators. All of this contributed to the phenomenon known as Smog.
Incinerators? Believe it or not, it was common practice to burn your trash in your very own incinerator – a furnace-like device you fed trash in, set on fire and watch billows of smoke streak skyward. Every home and apartment building had one. And the smell of burning trash often filled the air on any given day. Of course, as the smog became worse, and as the culprits in the average backyard were being eyed more suspiciously, the city adopted a policy of alerting residents which days were okay to burn trash and which days weren’t.
But still, it didn’t solve anything. L.A. was gagging on its own air, people were worried, and the health of a city was starting to be at risk.
In 1953, the problem reached crisis proportions, and steps were taken to try for a solution. Los Angeles, then as now, was an entanglement of bureaucracy, and real changes to the way Angeleos lived and carried on the day to day were slow in coming. Committees, hearings, reports and cost estimates were mulled over. Fingers were pointed in every direction, looking to place blame. But something had to be done, and it had to be done sooner, rather than later.
This documentary, aired on this day in 1954 by radio station KNX in Los Angeles in an effort to drive awareness, and some civic indignation towards City Hall, in an effort to speed-up the solution to Smog in Southern California.
It finally cleared up – but not instantly, and not for many years. Smog stopped being a problem in the late 1970s, when local newscasts no longer reported “light to moderate eye irritation from smog” every day. Although L.A. occasionally has bouts of smog when the air gets stagnant, it is nowhere near as common as it was in 1954.
I will admit, this documentary goes under the heading of “dry as dust” – the subject was serious and it was treated as solemnly as a dental procedure. But it was a crucial problem and it affected the livelihood of a city. Some of the voices of Civic leaders are recognizable from the city landmarks they were later named after. Also remember, the city was a lot smaller then and there were less cars on the road than there are now. Had steps not been taken in 1954 to tackle the problem with smog, it’s hardly imaginable what it would be like in 2015, some 61 years later.
At least you can breathe now.
Here is The Troubled Air, as it was first aired on KNX in Los Angeles on January 15, 1954.