Two Cheers for Air Pollution Control: Triumphs and Limits of the Mid-Century Fight for Air Quality

Screen Shot 2019-06-24 at 6.41.47 PMA smoggy Los Angeles street in 1960.  Credit

As President Trump, the auto industry and the state of California battle over air pollution standards,  a new  article in Public Health Reports analyzes the early years of 20th-century air pollution control in Los Angeles. In both scholarship and public memory, mid-century efforts at the regional level were overshadowed by major federal developments, namely the Clean Air Act and creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.

Yet the mid-century local experience was highly consequential and presaged many subsequent challenges that persist today. The article begins with an exploration of the existential, on-the-ground misery of smog in Los Angeles during the 1940s and 1950s. The article examines the role that scientific evidence on smog did and did not play in regulation, the reasons smog control galvanized support across various constituencies in the region, and, finally, some of mid-century air pollution’s limits.

Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that more than 110 million Americans still live in counties with unhealthy levels of pollution, according to the E.P.A. An estimated 100,000 Americans die prematurely each year of illnesses caused or exacerbated by polluted air.

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