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Something in the air

Smogtown The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles Chip Jacobs and William J. Kelly Overlook Press: 384 pp., $26.95

November 02, 2008|Chris Daley | Daley is a Los Angeles-based writer.

A panorama of the Los Angeles skyline used to often resemble a poorly developed roll of film, cut through the middle with a view-obscuring brown smudge. Welcome to "Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles," in which Chip Jacobs and William J. Kelly demonstrate that our current air quality is a free-breathing dream compared to the nightmare that enveloped the city for a good portion of the last century.

The authors trace smog's invasion back to a gray day in 1943 when visibility was so low that Angelenos -- fearing chemical attack -- rushed from their jobs and crashed their cars in the haze. Thus began a series of epic battles in the fight against air pollution: urban growth vs. nature, weather vs. industry, home rule vs. federal regulation, and the automobile vs. the health of the citizenry. The very attractions that lured people to Los Angeles in the 1940s and 1950s -- picturesque mountains, warm winters, thriving commerce and development -- were the same things that made their eyes tear up and forced their children to play inside. As scientists struggled to identify the causes of the toxic air, politicians and bureaucrats tried to regulate without causing too much trouble for local manufacturing. City officials grew so desperate that they accepted suggestions by mail from anyone with an idea to stop the noxious assault.

"Smogtown" is a regional history for the layperson, focusing slightly more on civic drama and scandal than hard science and legislative details. The cover promises "A Cautionary Tale of Environmental Crisis," and the archival photos show "smog suits" for sale on downtown streets and children clutching dolls in their own miniature gas masks. Jacobs and Kelly bring a combination of alt-weekly sensibility and public service gravitas to their account. Evidenced by chapter titles like "Bouffants & Stethoscopes" and "The Wizard of Ozone," the authors apply humor to a grave subject, though entertaining thematic organization sometimes trumps clear chronology. However, the book is not lacking in historical heft. Instead, style delivers substance in true Hollywood fashion, with character-driven plots draped in glamour and sensation. Whether we learn about photochemical pollution via a renegade Caltech scientist or travel with a group of Beverly Hills socialites as they embrace environmental activism, the history of smog has never been so sexy.

We see moments of hope in the struggle against smog, L.A.'s "unofficial billboard": prohibition of trash burning, the requirement that automakers revamp their engines to reduce emissions, carpool lanes, mass transit funding and the electric car. Unfortunately, triumphs are often offset by new villains -- in what nature writer Jenny Price calls the "social geography of air" -- pollution generators who target low-income neighborhoods lacking political clout. While there has been real progress -- cars now emit 1% of the exhaust seen in the 1960s -- global warming is the new threat. Jacobs and Kelly place blame on our reluctance to sacrifice public enemy No. 1: the automobile.

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