Bad Air Day

Katharine Kerr shares some history she first wrote about for her Patreon page.

So, Some People We Could Name, but won’t because they’re depressing, want to roll back the environmental protections that are now USA law.  Let me tell you why this is a bad idea.

I was born in 1944 in Cleveland, Ohio, which at that time was a prosperous industrial city. It had a great school system, splendid public libraries, and other civilized amenities.  It was also filthy.  The Cuyahoga River runs through the middle of town. Steel mills and other big manufacturers lined the river.  They dumped their chemical effluvia right into the water, which was a dirty brown soup with an odd glistening layer on top. The river drained into Lake Erie, which was pretty much dead for many miles out from shore.

The steel mills also belched out anything they damn well wanted to belch through enormous towers.  At night, you could see these noxious gases burning as if the towers were torches in the hands of giants.  Other manufacturing plants did the same, but the mills were the worst, except maybe for the Diamond Match company. It used tons of sulfur for its matches, and enormous heaps of the stuff came upriver on barges.  They unloaded it right onto the ground and left it there at times for days. If it rained, the river got a mouthful of that.

The air. Ye gods, the air. On sunny days in summer, you didn’t notice it much if you were a kid, but in winter, when the snow fell, it turned gray. Quickly.  At all times of the year the outside windowsills were thick and black with the smuts.  My grandmother used to wash her curtains every week in summer, when the windows were open for the air.

Beyond the dirt level, every winter a lot of people, especially kids and elders, got very ill with bronchitis and pneumonia. Some died from it.

Eventually, as you may have known, the river had had enough. It caught fire. Yes, the river.  The soup on top, laced with sulfur and the gods only know what else, went up in huge, towering flames.  Pouring water on it would do no good, especially not that water, so it burned for a good long while. It destroyed a bridge and some industrial property. It also provided the impulse to clean up the air and the environment by helping pass the Clean Water Act of 1969.

Long before then my family had moved to California, to a small town on the coast where the air was breathable.  However, we also visited the Los Angeles basin regularly, the city of LA and surrounding areas like Disneyland.  I considered going to UCLA for college, back in 1962, but again, I couldn’t breathe. This air was brown, not black, and some days were clear, but mostly your eyes stung, your sweat was kind of sticky, and you caught every cold germ that came along. If you swam in a chlorinated pool, and most people did, your eyes turned vampire red when you got out.

LA’s really nice, now, since the clean up.

But a lot of short-sighted people want to go back to the old days. Trust me, you won’t like it if they win. As Tom Lerher once sang:

If you go to American city
You will find it very pretty
Of two things you must beware
Don’t drink the water and don’t breathe the air.

Posted in Rants Tagged , permalink

About Katharine Kerr

Katharine Kerr's bookshelf Katharine Kerr spent her childhood in a Great Lakes industrial city and her adolescence in Southern California, whence she fled to the San Francisco Bay Area just in time to join a number of the Revolutions then in progress. After fleeing those in turn, she became a professional story-teller and an amateur skeptic, who regards all True Believers with a jaundiced eye, even those who true-believe in Science. An inveterate loafer, baseball addict, and rock and roll fan, she begrudgingly spares time to write novels, including the Deverry series of historical fantasies or fantastical histories, depending on your point of view. She lives near San Francisco with her husband of many years and some cats.


Bad Air Day — 6 Comments

  1. Oh, I remember being a kid in LA during the fifties. All autumn long, when it was hottest after the months and months without rain, the air was so thick you couldn’t draw a deep breath. It felt like a tennis ball was lodged in your chest right at your breastbone.

    We regularly visited my grandmother in Arcadia, below the San Gabriel Mountains. Which we could not see, the smog was so thick. I remember one Christmas, directly after we’d had a rain, being startled to see those mountains rising some five or six miles away. I thought they’d sprung up overnight.

  2. I went to college in Pittsburgh PA, just at the end of the steel mill era. The buildings were all black, but the air was more or less clean. I went back recently (the Nebula weekend last year) and they’ve cleaned all the buildings. They are not black! The town is amazingly not gloomy at all!

  3. As late as the mid 70s, when the cleanup had begun (slowly and grudgingly), I lived in LA for half a year. My mother had COPD, and every morning I would go out, look at the traffic light at the end of the block, and come back in to tell her whether she could go outside or not: if the green light was a deep blue (as it was, more often than not) there was enough gunk in the air to warrant her staying inside.

    Recently I saw a film set in NYC in the late 60s, and was reminded that the sky used to look like that: a tobacco haze over everything, that turned the noon-day light a pale straw color. Please let us not go back to that.

  4. I grew up outside of Houston, about a mile from an oil refinery. We used to go out in the morning and sniff. If it smelled bad, we’d say, “Ah, I can smell Pasadena (home to a lot of chemical plants) this morning.” And smog settled over Houston, too, often mixed with the fog that is a major part of winter on the Gulf Coast. No mountains (or even hills) to trap it, which might have been the only saving grace. Chemical plants and refineries continue to be major industries along the Gulf Coast. The air is much better, but Houston never meets the EPA standards.

    A friend of my father’s was the state representative for a district on the east side of Houston in the 60s. He kept trying to get environmental legislation passed. When people in his area painted their houses, the paint would peel off in a year or two, due to the air. He made a little progress.

    Federal action and a good EPA have been the only things keeping Texas air remotely breathable, given that the Orwellian-named Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has never met a coal-fired power plant it didn’t like (in a state covered in sunshine and rolling with wind). I am so furious about what’s going on at EPA that I can’t even express my anger in effective words.

  5. Thank Dog I live in Oregon.

    But I do remember in the late ’60s the brown haze obscuring down town Portland from the top of the West Hills.

    Then lots of people stopped smoking, catalytic converters became the norm, mass transit became efficient and people USE it. The aluminum plant closed down due to too much recycling. Our one and only steel mill faded into oblivion. Heavy Industry gave way to Portland as a financial hub rather than manufacturing.

    We can swim in the Willamette River again–most of the time. Now we are fighting coal trains and oil trains running right through the middle of town shipping fuel to China.

  6. I remember the six months I lived in greater LA. I worked over by PVE. One day I came into work and was struck by elfshot, frozen in place. The winds had turned from the coast and blown everything out to sea.

    Looking out a huge place glass window, for the first time I could see across the bay to the most gorgeous mountain. I had had no idea it was there.