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Valerie Jaffee’s Blog

Bad air politicians want a blast from the (smog-filled) past

Valerie Jaffee

Posted February 15, 2011

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Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for 1950s Women wearing gas masks to protest in Los AngelesIn October 1954, Los Angeles found itself swallowed up by a blanket of smog so thick that industry shut down and children stayed home from school for most of a month. Over 2000 auto accidents occurred in a single day, as drivers careened through the soot-filled air. Residents wore gas masks at community meetings, protesting the life-threatening pollution seeping into their lungs.

There’s no doubt that our air has been made significantly safer and cleaner since then due to government standards and programs. Now some politicians in Washington and their big corporate backers want to send us back in time.

Since 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency, acting under the Clean Air Act, has saved tens of thousands of lives and prevented hundreds of thousands of illnesses, all while our economy has more than doubled in size. They’ve gotten lead out of gasoline, saving our children from brain damage. Our cars now have catalytic converters, and our smokestacks are equipped with scrubbers.

Los Angeles pollution trends

(Ground-level ozone pollution levels in Los Angeles’s South Coast Air Basin from 1976 through 2008, courtesy of the South Coast Air Quality Management District)

There's lots of good news, but let’s not forget how bad it was before the Clean Air Act—in Los Angeles and communities across the country.

In 1955, Los Angeles residents suffered the highest ozone air concentration ever recorded downtown: 0.68 parts per million. That’s nearly 10 times higher than the current national standard. According to the Los Angeles Times, smoke and fumes in the city’s air were “nearly unbearable,” causing an eye-stinging, “throat-scraping sensation.”

Thumbnail image for Smog chamber testTrying to understand the effects of sometimes invisible air pollution on our bodies, scientists and government workers subjected themselves to experiments that would now be considered cruel and unusual punishment. 1950s volunteers sat in smog-filled chambers, while scientists with stopwatches timed how long it took for tears to stream down their faces. One subject developed bronchitis after filling his lungs with extremely high levels of ozone.

With the decades of progress we’ve made since then, it is shameful that members of Congress are now trying to stop the EPA from doing its job.

As my colleague Rob Perks explains, 120 House members and 18 senators currently in Congress have cosponsored bills aimed at blocking the EPA from reducing pollution. And a Republican budget proposal on the table right now would slash the EPA’s budget by some 30% for the remainder of the fiscal year.

What does that mean for us? Children breathing in and digesting more mercury, arsenic and other life-threatening contaminants. Big polluters continuing to spew unlimited amounts of carbon dioxide into our air.

It’s a blatant slap in the face for people suffering from asthma, bronchitis and lung disease across the country.

We’ve cleaned our air by leaps and bounds since the middle of last century. But there’s still work to be done. 175 million Americans remain exposed to air pollution levels that often make it dangerous to breathe. Right now, we need stronger air quality standards, not a free pass for polluters.

Our children and elderly deserve clean air, safeguarded by a government that’s not terrified to stand up to the money-hungry lobbyists of big polluters. We all deserve a healthier, cleaner, forward-looking future, not a dirty, backwards blast from the past.



Photo of women wearing gas masks in 1950s Los Angeles courtesy of South Coast Air Quality Management District.

Smog chamber test photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Times, Department of Special Collections, UCLA Library.

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Steven Earl SalmonyFeb 15 2011 02:17 PM

Could it be that we need to make democracy, real democracy happen?

Perhaps what we need, maybe all we need, is an adequately functioning democracy, but first ordinary people will have to liberate ourselves from the pernicious, widely shared and consensually validated thinking of a tiny minority in the human community who extol the virtue of greedmongering as good, as an activity to be valued most highly.

Even an enlightened dictator is not a person in whom I could place much faith. We need for duly elected, common people who are chosen by a society to accept the responsibilities and fulfill the duties of leadership by meaningfully embracing democratic principles and eschewing greed, by not "selling out" to greedmongers.

It appears to me that the most arrogant, foolhardy and avaricious, self-proclaimed masters of the universe among us rule the world in our time, and rule it absolutely. This situation is bold evidence of a corruption of democracy, not an example of the reasonable exercise of democratic principles and practices. These circumstances are not only a colossal insult to human beings with feet of clay, but also are a clear and present danger to global biodiversity, Earth's environs, its limited resources and to a good enough future for the children.

Democracy requires representatives who reject the entreaties and bribes of greedmongers as well as embrace principles and practices that promote long-term well being of ordinary people and not only the short-term desires and fantasies of masters of the universe.

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