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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

The Great Smog

Last week I mentioned that we are using Netflex to catch up on things we were too young to see back in the 1950s. One movie we watched recently was set in London fog, and that prompted me to think about some environmental history that has yet to become part of the curriculum from which we teach and learn.

The word “smog,” which combines “smoke” and “fog,” came into common usage after World War II. Both the word and the phenomenon had a very London origin. Londoners suffered constant cold during the winters of the war years, from 1939 to 1945, which also were uncommonly frigid. Fuel was prioritized for making weapons, planes, ships, and more, and many civilians said that they preferred going to work to having time off because it was warm at work and cold at home. When the war and its rationing ended, Londoners were delighted to burn as much coal as they could get. The result was smog.

Not only did that create a visual hazard, but also – and unknown to most happy furnace-stuffers – was toxic. On the first weekend of December 1952, in what was called “The Great Smog,” and thousands of people died. Within weeks, London physicians estimated 4,000 deaths; later analysis put the total at 12,000 because of deaths that occurred sooner than they otherwise would have. At least 100,000 people were ill during the five-day crisis, when the air was so thick with soot that it was impossible to see. Everyone had long-term effects from the era’s long-term pollution, with great increases in respiratory diseases. (That most adults also smoked cigarettes didn’t help, but we won’t go into that. Except to point out that this bad habit originated in America, and that American soldiers got free cigarettes with their rations.)

The smog problem started in Los Angeles even earlier. Although its climate is not at all damp and foggy like London, LA had such severe smog during windless days in the autumn of 1943 that some believed the Japanese were attacking with chemical warfare. When wartime gas rationing ended and car manufacturers went back to civilian production instead of making trucks and jeeps for the military, the smog became worse. Public transportation, which almost everyone used during the war years, became considered low-class and unfashionable.

Gasoline back then contained many more toxins -- including deadly lead—and no engineering on cars or trucks limited exhaust. Even as a child, I noticed that vehicles left visible trails of smoke behind them. Everyone in the 1950s drove much more than in the past, and everyone in LA wanted to be behind the wheel of his own car, speeding down new freeways. The result was that the city’s basin between mountains became thick with smog so strong that eyes burned and skin itched. Southern California no longer was the paradise that had such great appeal just two decades earlier.

Los Angles city government was the first to respond with an air pollution law, in 1947, but many people still refused to believe scientists who announced in 1951 that the cause was vehicular pollution. With help from Detroit engineers, though, as well as both carrots and sticks from the federal government in the 1960s, LA and other American cities began reducing air pollution and became livable again.

You may have seen, however, that China’s big city of Beijing recently had to call off all commerce for a few days because workers couldn’t breathe – even wearing masks, people could not go outside. India has experienced the same. These nations and others that are transitioning to industrialism are going through the same hard lesson from Mother Earth that Westerners learned decades ago: capitalism must be regulated, and greed brings grief. A common concern for the community is literally a matter of life and death, of breathing and not breathing.

* * *

Those of us who live in semi-tropical climates have no need of coal for heat, but there are other areas of environmental history that we should not forget. Ironically, it may be environmentalists themselves who most need reminding of Tampa’s most serious public health crisis, in a time before we understood the importance of killing mosquitoes.

Mosquitoes are not merely annoying: they are deadly. Prior to the early twentieth century, the connection between them and seasonal illness was not well understood. It was Dr. Walter Reed who scientifically proved the connection, in Cuba after the 1898 Spanish-American War. Five times as many American soldiers died from disease in Cuba as died because of war-related causes, and Dr. Reed was determined to find out why. Clara Maass, a member of the Army Nurse Corps from New Jersey, earned $100 by allowing herself to be bitten by the mosquito breed that Dr. Reed suspected of carrying yellow fever, and his premise was proven correct when she died.

Two decades earlier, Tampa suffered the most serious of its many yellow fever epidemics. Mosquitoes flourished after summer rains in the autumn of 1887; the deaths began and continued for most of a year. At least 1,300 cases were recorded, and the list of people who died from the disease and were buried at Oaklawn Cemetery included 122 names. That was an era when black people were not buried in the downtown cemetery. Their deaths and those of many poor and illiterate whites went unrecorded.

The late Leland Hawes, who was a walking encyclopedia of local history, estimated that at least 300 Tampans died. Let me put that in context: 300 would be ten percent of the then-population of 3,000. If we had a similar epidemic today in our town of 300,000, some 30,000 OF US COULD EXPECT TO DIE. That’s ten times as many as died in 9-11.

Nor were these kinds of rates exceptional. New Orleans routinely had worse epidemics, and even in cities as far north as St. Louis and Baltimore, people died at similar rates. Part of the cause was resistance to vaccines from the era’s anti-science bigots. The vaccine for smallpox, for example, had been known since Ben and Deborah Franklin vaccinated their Philadelphia family in the 1770s, following an idea that Lady Mary Wortley Montagu discovered in Turkey and brought to the West in 1718. Centuries later, though, those who insisted that disease was God’s will continued to proclaim their opposition to vaccinations.

More than that, the diseases that plagued young America (and still plague much of the world) were caused by poor sanitation. Keeping things clean always has been women’s work, and when women were (and are) excluded from government, sanitation gets a low priority – especially compared with investments in war. The unregulated result was that American cities grew without public sanitation systems, and with latrines and drinking wells dangerously close together. Locally, the Hillsborough River served as both a source of water and a repository for dead animals.

Male voters prioritized low taxes over public health, and Tampa had no water or sewer system until the voteless women of Kate Jackson’s Tampa Civic Association began working for this goal in 1911. New Orleans was a city of 300,000 with no sewage or clean water provisions in 1899, when city fathers granted women the vote to pass a bond issue that male voters rejected. They repealed women’s vote as soon as the election was over – but the point was clear: women were better environmental engineers than men.

In almost every city, women were the founders of the first hospitals and other public health needs. Those things are science, and yet women still are said to be far behind in the sciences… I won’t go off on that bandwagon, though. It’s enough to say that even at its most theoretical, scientific research affects our lives -- usually in a positive way.

Yet right-wingers often scorn the National Institutes of Health, the Center for Disease Control, and especially the Environmental Protection Agency, all of which contribute directly to our daily health and happiness. They argue for budget cuts, while at the same time taking advantage of new procedures and medications that these researchers uncover.

Most recently, they thoroughly oppose the vast majority of scientists, ranging fields from geologists to meteorologists, who tell us that our Earth is becoming warmer. The bigots assert that this is some sort of leftist conspiracy – and the question that I want to ask them is, “how would you feel if scientists suspected that temperatures are rising and the poles are melting, and they failed to warn you about that?” Of course the evidence isn’t all in and of course the Earth has had periods of warming and cooling many times in its long past (a premise these guys reject, too), but it would be absolutely irresponsible if experts knew of a new weather pattern and didn’t tell the public.

It’s important not to panic, though. It’s especially important for environmentalists not to take their usual (and btw, highly conservative) view that all change is inherently bad. For myself, if were young, I’d buy land in Canada. It and Siberia may become the world’s big breadbaskets when Tampa is a fish farm.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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