Human Guinea Pig, 1956
Anyone who breathed in Los Angeles during the 1950s could recognize the painful annoyance of smog. On some days, the polluted air made people’s eyes water, their throats hurt, and left them short of breath. But just what was smog? Why was the air sometimes more irritating and sometimes less? Behind these puzzles lay politically charged questions like who caused smog, and what should be done to reduce it?
The Los Angeles County Air Pollution Control District played a leading role in studying and combatting smog during the 1950s. This public newsletter described one effort to quantify the human experience of air pollution. On smoggy days, District employees donned specially constructed plastic helmets. As “various mixtures of natural smoggy air, and pure, filtered air” were pumped in, the subjects recorded their reactions on standardized forms. These reports were correlated with concentrations of pollutants measured using recently developed scientific instruments like oxidant recorders and long path infrared spectrophotometers. The study, funded by the U.S. Public Health Service and supervised by a University of Southern California psychologist, sought to establish threshold values for eye irritation. In turn, these threshold values underlay a new system of “Smog Alerts” that allowed the District to close down schools and limit driving and industrial activity during especially toxic periods.
During this same period, the auto industry sought to undermine the credibility of chemist Arie J. Haagen-Smit, whose experiments had showed that smog was formed by the interaction of sunlight and automobile exhaust.
· Neela Banerjee, David Hasemyer and Lisa Song, “For Oil Industry, Clean Air Fight Was Dress Rehearsal for Climate Denial,” Inside Climate News (June 6, 2016).
· Peter Brimblecombe, “Deciphering the Chemistry of Los Angeles Smog, 1945–1995,” in Toxic Airs: Body, Place and Planet in Historical Perspective (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014): pp. 95-108.
County of Los Angeles, Air Pollution Control District Report (August 1956): p. 1. (Box 48, Collection 1675: “South Coast Air Quality Management District Records, ca. 1955-1983,” Archives and Special Collections, University of California, Los Angeles.)