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70 years later, remembering the day the smog blocked out the sky

On July 26, 1943 a "gas attack" hit the city of Los Angeles. 

Here's how Chip Jacobs and William J. Kelly described this dark day in Angeleno history in the first line of their essential book, "Smogtown": “The beast you couldn’t stab fanned its poison across the waking downtown.”  The "beast" was smog.

Air pollution from industrial sources had been building for decades: the L.A. City Council first took action trying to limit industrial pollution in 1905. But in the summer of 1943, everybody’s eyes watered. Cars swerved through the soup. It felt like the air got bad all at once.

At the time, we didn't know exactly what smog is: nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds — both found in fuels  — mix with sunlight to form ground-level ozone. That’s the key ingredient in smog. Tiny particles of matter from fossil fuels get into the air, too. Summertime worsened all this, even though it took a little while longer for our scientific knowledge of smog to catch up with our allergies to it.

The mayor of L.A. vowed, futilely, to get rid of the smog within four months. Still, it lingered. And nine years later, California got scared straight by the deaths of thousands of Londoners in a historic 1952 smog incident. 

California’s then-governor hired a guy to make recommendations about pollution reforms. The Beckman Commission recommended car exhaust standards, banning open burning of trash, more controls on refineries and fueling operations, slower growth for heavy polluting industries, and a mass transit system. The recommendations of Arnold Beckman, founder of Beckman Instruments, would serve as a road map for what air regulators have been doing ever since.

California’s efforts toward smog controls spurred the national conversation and the Clean Air Act in 1970. The state has a whole plan — as every state now does — for how to meet a raft of air pollution standards. So does each region in California, including the South Coast Air Quality Management District. We measure ozone – that basis for smog – over an hour, and eight hours. We measure chemicals in air, including carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide. We measure lead. We even measure the particulates in multiple sizes.   

The Golden State is still not meeting federal smog standards, but it's getting closer. The state once exceeded federal eight-hour ozone standards 230-some days a year 40 year ago. Now we miss that target half as often.   

Regulators say mobile source pollution remains an insistent foe to reducing smog. From 1980 to 2010, the state's population increased by 65 percent and people more than doubled their daily miles driven. Together Californians drive more than 300 billion miles a year. Getting that number down is what experts say could prevent another day like July 26, 1943.