Sarah S. Elkind: Los Angeles and the History of Air Pollution

In How Local Politics Shape Federal Policy: Business, Power, and the Environment in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles, Sarah S. Elkind investigates five Los Angeles environmental policy debates between 1920 and 1950. She reveals how practices in American municipal government gave business groups political legitimacy at the local level as well as unanticipated influence over federal politics. In the following guest post, Elkind contrasts today’s resistance to EPA regulations in the business community to how the business community responded in 1940s Los Angeles when the city first started suffering the effects of smog.


“The water we drink and the air we breathe must be kept pure. It is not a form of anarchism or communism or crackpotism to demand that. It is the highest expression of citizenship.”
—“That Ol’ Debbil, Smog,” Los Angeles Daily News, 30 September 1946

Last week, the EPA announced new regulations to reduce the amount of mercury, arsenic, and harmful chemicals emitted by the nation’s power plants and factories. The announcement was met with immediate criticism. Opponents of these new rules, including Republican officials and many in the utility industry, called the rules burdensome, and a threat to the economy. Supporters noted that these regulations were two decades in the making, and will return enormous economic and health benefits. The framing of regulation as an epic choice between one form of public welfare (prosperity and, thus, economic survival) and another (health and, thus, survival) has dogged American politics for over a century. But there was a time and a place when the economic calculus was conceived very differently.

When smog first appeared in Los Angeles in the 1940s, the local business community moved quickly to save industrial prosperity—by championing air pollution control. The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce is the surprising hero of the first decade of Los Angeles’s fight against smog. The air pollution that they undertook to control was, unlike the mercury and arsenic that the EPA is attempting to control now, a new and mysterious phenomenon: a brown, eye-stinging smudge that had no obvious cause and no clear health consequences.

Smog’s arrival in Los Angeles coincided with a burst of military production for World War II. Influenced by the war itself, the Los Angeles Times described smog as a “gas attack.” Their eyes streaming from the lacrimous stew of industrial fumes, smoke from burning trash, and automobile exhaust that collected in the Los Angeles basin each summer, Angelenos blamed industry for their misery. “Why wouldn’t this be a good time to adopt a policy against any more factories for Los Angeles? . . . Why shouldn’t we devote our future energies to taking decent care of the people who are here rather than to trying to bring more people here to add to our problems?”[1] They warned, “If the authorities don’t do something about this the people will.”[2] In the 1950s, protests took on a McCarthy-ite tone:  they accused “those who are piling up huge profits at the expense of suffering humanity” of undermining American might more effectively than anything dreamt up by “Moscow assassins in their program to attain world power.”[3]

This public wrath and his own conviction that the public interest embraced public health as well as prosperity prompted the head of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce’s Smoke and Fumes Committee to attack smog. Under Morris Pendleton’s guidance, the chamber sponsored a surprisingly effective voluntary air pollution control campaign amongst its members and a serious research program on the causes of smog. This activism earned the chamber the trust of county air pollution control officials in the 1940s and 1950s. The business group jealously guarded their position as insiders and allies.

Los Angeles eventually discovered that automobiles caused a great deal of their suffering. This discovery removed control over air pollution from local hands, and placed the fate of Los Angeles’s skies in the hands of the automobile industry and the federal government. As the power to control air pollution in Los Angeles shifted, the political debate did as well. The automobile industry at first denied responsibility for Los Angeles’s air pollution, and then complained that catalytic converters were too difficult to make, were too expensive, and would cost the country jobs and prosperity—the same objections that the opponents of the EPA’s new rules are raising now.

We have become so used to hearing of regulations—particularly consumer protections like banking rules or the proposed controls on mercury emissions—as threats to prosperity that it has become nearly impossible to imagine these debates in any other way. But in 1940s Los Angeles, controlling air pollution and creating a healthy environment was understood as essential to prosperity, and the business community led the regulatory effort. Ralph Izzo and the Public Service Enterprise Group could be the Morris Pendleton and the Smoke and Fumes Committee of the current regulatory debate. If they are, we will all be able to breathe a little easier.

Sarah S. Elkind is associate professor of environmental history at San Diego State University and author of How Local Politics Shape Federal Policy: Business, Power and Environment in Twentieth Century Los Angeles.

  1. [1]“Policy,” Editorial Comment, Los Angeles Citizen News, 21 Sept 1943.
  2. [2]H. F. Dutton as quoted in “D. A. Plans Test Suit in City’s Smoke Fumes War,” Los Angeles Daily News, 31 August 1944.
  3. [3]Roy E. Gillespie, open letter, “Re: Calder Phillips Crusade for Clean Air,” Box 25, John Anson Ford Collection, Huntington Library, San Marino, California.