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Jerry Brown’s hazy claim: L.A. ‘invents’ smog
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Sunshine, Hollywood and freeway gridlock are all inextricably linked to Los Angeles, and so is smog.
But was the City of Angels the first to create the noxious, eye-stinging, smudgy haze? Weren’t other industrial cities spewing thick black smoke and creating smog centuries ago?
As it turns out, it depends on what you consider ‘smog.’
Gov. Jerry Brown, a warrior in the state’s air pollution battles, offered his California-centric version of smog’s history during a speech in Los Angeles in October.
"Smog was invented in Los Angeles. It was," the governor told an audience at Griffith Observatory, with downtown Los Angeles cloaked in a brown haze several miles away, as shown in photos of the event. "The name was invented. There was a fellow at Caltech and he came up with the idea and they called it smog."
The governor made the claim during a ceremony marking the signing of California’s landmark climate change bill, SB 350. It requires the state to get 50 percent of its electricity from air-friendly, renewable energy sources by 2030.
We decided to fact-check Brown’s "smog was invented in Los Angeles" statement, to cut through what seemed like a dubious claim.
First, it’s clear L.A. has no ownership over the term smog. Brown sounds like he was having some fun with the "invented in Los Angeles" portion, from listening to him speak. Still, he was literally and blatantly wrong.
News articles from as early as 1905 credit London doctor Harold Des Veaux with coining the word smog to describe natural fog contaminated by smoke, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
Great Britain’s affliction with foul air is referenced in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, written in 1606. But its soot-choked skies date as far back as the 12th century, when wood became scarce and residents turned to burning coal to keep warm, according to a history of the country’s air pollution by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
It’s clear that other urban centers fought the effects of smog long before anyone imagined the metropolis we call Los Angeles.
So, what kind of smoke was the governor blowing?
"Jerry Brown -- brilliant as he is -- is confusing some facts," said Chip Jacobs, author of Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles. "We didn’t invent smog. Smog has been known to arise in many parts of the world well before he was born."
We were headed for a False or Pants On Fire!
Then, Jacobs added this comment: "Brown did have something right in his jumbled pronouncement -- the Caltech professor."
Was there some truth behind the governor’s inartful statement? To get a better picture, we contacted the California Institute of Technology, based in Pasadena.
School officials confirmed that Brown was referring to a 1940s-era Caltech professor named Arie Haagen-Smit.
Haagen-Smit was the first to prove that automobile exhaust, when exposed to sunlight, creates what’s referred to as photochemical smog, or modern-day smog. It’s the same hazy brown gunk that’s polluted Los Angeles’ air for more than half a century. And it is different from the thick, black coal-driven smoke of London’s industrial era.
"Professor Haagen-Smit did not invent (photochemical) smog, but he discovered the mechanism behind it. This has often been described as inventing smog," wrote Professor Richard Flagan, who teaches chemical engineering at Caltech, in an email.
Another expert on air quality in Los Angeles said the governor’s claim is less murky than it appears.
"The term smog was used earlier, but it meant something totally different. The definition totally morphed," said Sarah Elkind, a history professor at San Diego State University.
"Los Angeles was the first city to deal with photo-chemical smog, which is part of the reason why I would judge Gov. Brown’s statement as mostly correct," added Elkind, author of the book How Local Politics Shape Federal Policy: Business, Power, and the Environment in Twentieth Century Los Angeles.
A spokesman for the governor said in an email that Haagen-Smit "was the first one who coined the term for the modern air pollution produced by motor vehicles that we think of today." He also acknowledged that the term smog had been used to describe other types of pollution long before the 1940s.
Gov. Jerry Brown said: "Smog was invented in Los Angeles. It was. The name was invented. There was a fellow at Caltech and he came up with the idea and they called it smog."
A look at historical sources shows the term smog dates back more than a century. It was coined by a London doctor to refer to the smoky black air that fouled Great Britain during its industrial period. Brown’s statement ignores this history, viewing smog’s origin with only a California lens.
But looking deeper, a gradual shift in the term’s meaning took place in the 1940s and 1950s as scientists, including Caltech professor Arie Haagen-Smit, studied the cause of Los Angeles’ persistent and foul brown haze. In his statement, the governor references Haagen-Smit, who is credited as the first to prove L.A.’s smog was caused by automobile exhaust, and who at least one current Caltech professor says is "often described as inventing smog."
The governor’s statement, while fuzzy at first glance, is partially accurate. But it leaves out important details and takes information out of context.
We rate the claim Half True.
Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition
"The Pioneers," Arie Jan Haagen-Smit, Journal of the Air Pollution Control Association, Volume 28, No. 5, May 1978
London's Historic "Pea-Soupers," United States Environmental Protection Agency Journal, Summer 1994
ASK TOM WHY, Dear Tom, Who coined the word "smog"? , By Tom Skilling, chief meteorologist at WGN-TV, January 2003
Email interview, Richard Flagan, professor of chemical engineering at California Institute of Technology, Oct. 22, 2015
Phone interview, Chip Jacobs, author of Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles, Oct. 21, 2015
Phone interview, Sarah Elkind, professor of history at San Diego State University, author of How Local Politics Shape Federal Policy: Business, Power, and the Environment in Twentieth Century Los Angeles, Oct. 20, 2015
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