Energy and Public Health
Around noon on July 26, 1943, citizens of Los Angeles were suffering through a major heat wave when an acrid smoke mysteriously started to smother the downtown area. It reduced visibility to only a three-block distance and stung the eyes of people caught in the spreading cloud. Many of them soon found they suddenly had trouble breathing. Those affected by the fumes began to cramp up with nausea and started vomiting. At first, residents feared they were facing a gas attack from Nazi or Japanese enemy agents. Officials soon put the blame on the Southern California Gas Company, which operated a plant in the downtown area that made butadiene, a petroleum-based chemical used to manufacture synthetic rubber. After the factory was closed, however, the air crisis continued. With further investigation, experts later determined that the source of the smoke was the exhaust of train locomotives and truck diesel engines, as well as backyard trash-burning barrels scattered throughout the city. Blocked by the nearby mountains and an atmospheric inversion layer that hung over the city, the smoke particles were held in the Los Angeles basin as if contained in a box.
That summer day marked the first recognized instance when Los Angeles faced the extreme smog conditions that have now become a part of its urban ambience. As the pollution problem continued and caused respiratory and other health problems for citizens, officials set up a Bureau of Smoke Control within the city’s health department. Laws and burning ordinances were