A Toxic Turkey Day
History this week november twenty fourth nineteen sixty six. I'm sally helm. It's thanksgiving day in new york city and an awkward top-heavy superman balloon is floating down broadway. He's first up in the annual macy's day parade. There are a million people watching the streets moms and hats and mittens kids and checkered coats. There are marching bands ballerinas people waving palm in front of a castle on the toyland float on the flower float. Is the famous nina simone. She thinks the song blue skies but the skies are not blue in new york city. Today they're great. The clouds look dirty and after they leave the parade ballerinas and the marching band musicians and the pom pom waivers. Something might feel a tickle in their throat there is might be stinging they might even find it hard to breathe because while the macy's day parade is happening in midtown manhattan. The city's air laboratory up in harlem is recording extremely high levels of pollution. New yorkers have dealt with pollution before but nothing like this guy over this thanksgiving weekend the smog will turn deadly time all is said and done close to two hundred people will die the killer smog of nineteen sixty sex forces new yorkers and people all around the country to finally pay attention to the air pollution that they were actually breathing all the time. It's hard to talk about. Smog and smoke and air pollution dangerous without reflecting on humans inability to take chronic threats. Seriously there seems to be something about the modern mind that longs for this kind of conduct vision the big disaster rather than the toll. That your lungs. Your is your body supper each. And every day today the apocalyptic vision comes true. How did new york. City's killer thanksgiving smog. Help usher in a new era of environmental protection for the whole country. And how are we still looking at environmental disasters all wrong one for mom and one firm me. Hey beautiful ulta beauty invites you to see the joy this holiday season with tops gifts for everyone on your list including you discover black. Friday deals all week long from brands. Like tart collared pop i. They'd beauty and more shop in store online or try curbside pickup today also beauty. The possibilities are beautiful. This episode is supported by sling tv. Our producer mamie tried it out. Mckay me when did you think thanks. Allie as you know. I'm a huge fan of live tv. But i also like to stream my favorite shows so i can really binge them. That's why i like sling tv so much. It's the best of both worlds. Slaying has all my favorite channels. Obviously the history channel any and lifetime and even live news like cnn and msnbc plus sling has over fifty thousand shows and movies on demand. Lately i've been binging modern marvels unslinging. It's even some great ideas for this. Podcast and sling is super affordable. Starting at thirty dollars a month so make the smart choice and switched to sling tv. Get the best of cable for the best price. It's easy to switch and save things. Mckay me learn more at sling dot com slash. Podcast that is sling dot com slash podcast. He history fans keep up with all the great shows and documentaries on the history channel by signing up for email updates had to history dot com slash email to get updates right to your inbox i to know about premieres sweepstakes jabbour shows and so much more keep up with her of oak island pawn stars american pickers groundbreaking documentaries and warm sign up today at history dot com slash. Email professor frank. You grew up in germany but in the nineteen nineties. He came briefly to live in the united states and it out to la wonderful hometown and also a notoriously smoggy city. You could are has read all about the worst years of smog in the nineteen fifties couldn't stand at a three quarter in those early fifty s and not have watering is. He told us by the time he was there in the early nineteen nineties. Things were much better. Know watering is but still. He got curious about air pollution. He began to look into the history of smoke. And also it's modern cousin. What is smog. This is a term coined by a londoner smog as a combination of smoke and fog which describes the situation in london every nicely. This is ninety four when the treasurer of the coal smoke abatement society in london england sense of christmas day letter to the times of london and with that coal smoke abatement treasurer makes up this word that we still use today. Coal smoke is a problem at this time in london and in other cities to the world industrializing rapidly factories everywhere and a lot of those factories on coal combustion. So if you are living in a city that is becoming a center of industry it was dirty in a way that is barely speak of on nowadays because the smoke was everywhere in the big cities it intruded into private quarters. It was literally in the air everywhere. You can actually see it from outside. The worst kind of dark cloud over a city and people were very much against it but not so much for health reasons mostly due to the fact that the early twentieth century city was unhealthy on so many fronts. This was ranked as a minor issue. You gotta deal with your sewer problems before you deal with your smoke problems. But still people hated the way. That smoke. Just made everything. So dirty and ugly and gross. It's mostly a problem of cleanliness in by extension a problem for property values. It's not for real estate bellies. That's what people are upset about how this would affect their bottom line. Meanwhile the particulates that they're breathing in our very bad for their lungs. You may have seen an image of the black lungs of a city dweller compared to the nice pink lungs of someone who grew up in the country. That's beginning to happen for the first time but doctors epidemiologists won't be aware of this kind of damage for years over the last three decades. We have learned a great deal about how dangerous find us. Actually as to the lots we nowadays no that fine dust is actually among the top ten killers in the world. Its iron new history that we only became aware of how dangerous this is at a time where it was mostly gone into western world but retrospectively. We must say this was a matter of life and death so no one is doing all that much about air pollution or smog. Because it's not seen as a deadly problem but there is a very particular set of circumstances in which smog can be lethal. Smoke becomes a killer particularly when weather conditions impede dispersal off flute and that's usually the results off an inversion layer. An inversion layer. Normally air is warmer close to the earth and it gets colder as you go up. You may have experienced that. If you've ever climbed a mountain you may also know the concept that heat rises so typically warm air is rising up from the earth. Getting colder as it goes up and dispersing and flowing and moving around but sometimes this whole situation gets reversed. Warm air slips on top of cold air. The cold air does is so it's trapped. The warm air acts like a lid basically traps pollutants in the place at the place where they are produced and causes them to accumulate in the atmosphere when this happens pollutants buildup and smog can become deadly in the us. The first major smog event happens in july of nineteen forty three los and our lady the queen of the angels as the spaniard named the fastest growing city in the nation up until the forties had been known for its clean air. If you had to urculo says you went to la to breathe those california breezes and clear out your lungs. but now i've been forty. Three is when the i l. a. Smoke episode comes you at watering. Is your breathing problems. Visibility is terrible. The air smells like bleach and it all comes on suddenly on july twenty sixth. Nobody knows what it is. What is the pollutant. Doesn't come from its world war two so people actually. It might be a japanese gas attack. And this smog is different from london. Smog it's not really about smoke. It's photochemical smog. Where pollutants from card sauced and factory production cause chemical reaction in the atmosphere. That creates this particular. La smog plus la is two inversions because of its top poker graffiti. It's bordered by mountains. But people won't figure all this out for almost a decade the science just isn't there yet thankfully in nineteen forty-three no one in la dies from the smog but five years later in nineteen forty eight. The northern pennsylvania was the biggest air disaster in the united states until new york city in sixty six. This is an industrial community around a river valley don on the industrial town of pennsylvania and brings with it mysterious residents have difficulty in breathing. The murkier rain brings relief but epidemic of pneumonia is in the wake of denaro deadly golf. The valley where dinara sets is ripe for inversions and there are steel mills and sink plants in the area spewing off pollutants on halloween in nineteen forty eight pollutants get so concentrated that the local fire brigade has to go door to door giving people oxygen twenty people died. It's the deadliest toll per capita of any small episode before or since and this gets national attention. These events to at least function gets gets noticed. What happens if the door is that. The federal medical authority is asked to investigate. What happened here. The investigators link the pollution and deaths to noxious fumes coming from the local factories. There are a few lawsuits. But that's what it. There is no legislation to warning system. This is the factory and the factory is calling the shots. Of course the factory makes sure that next time there is an inversion more careful factors. Don't want to kill the neighbors but there are no real consequences for the factories. There's also very little in the way of national or a global effort to prevent disasters like this from happening again and one does happen again in london which remember had invented the term smog in nineteen. Oh four but since that era they kinda gotten off scot free the best guesses maybe they were just lucky for a few decades but then this returns in late nineteen fifty two this will be the deadliest smog ever it also comes from an inversion that traps pollutants released by factories by city residents epidemiologist. Deborah davis wrote that in london quote. Smoke like top water from a million chimneys in the london smog of nine hundred fifty. Two four thousand people died within a few days. The death toll and the filth rose together the killer smog lasts for months. Thousands of people die though it takes a while to entangle. Just how many people die from smog. It's not like the diet immediately. There was no kind of imminent calls the identify but it's a burden on the respiratory system. That may get a heart attack. They be get breathing problems his about the best estimates that we have suggests that twelve thousand people died prematurely during that. Smoke is a nineteen fifty two and this case there is some regulation four years after this killer smog. Britain passes a big law about clean air. Though doctor you says activism had been happening even before the big smog. So the reality is that this flashy moment of action after a disaster was just one piece of larger puzzle which brings us to new york and the united states last killer smog because of a slow drip of activism and reform and scientific progress. New york isn't totally unprepared for something like this by nineteen sixty. Six meteorologists can sort of predict inversions and there are some regional pollution monitoring systems in fact right before the smog. Event happens the. Us senate committee on public works puts out. This video contains a variety of chemical compounds released from a great number of diverse sources of air pollution. Many of these compounds are oxen. Corrosive and irritating under the influence of sunlight warm temperature and water vapor polluting substances. React with each other in the air to produce new compound more destructive and entertaining their original component of chemical marks. Officials are beginning to understand what they're up against but in new york city. The infrastructure still isn't ready for the disaster that is about to strike. There's a city department of air pollution control but they only control things up to the city limits. There's an interstate sanitation commission but they're mostly focusing on water so any kind of framework that you need for comprehensive drives against pollution. It's just bought. Their new york city does have a smog alert system and a way to monitor and measure pollution. There's one lab in an old courthouse in harlem and a few days before thanksgiving. It starts recording elevated levels of air pollution. It's a combination of the everyday pollution in new york city. There's the garbage. There is to car traffic factories. There is the paul plans And there is a weather situation. That kreps these pollution's closest and inversion all this combines to create a deadly smog bubble over new york city the day before a million people are about to flood the streets. You look tired. I take it the caffeine toothpaste and adrenaline face serum aren't working. Well maybe you should ask santa for a nectar mattress this year. And if the big guy brings you another unicorn finger. Puppet don't worry because mattresses start at just four hundred ninety nine dollars and she gets three hundred and ninety nine dollars in accessories thrown in as well as three hundred and sixty-five night home trial and forever warranty go to nick. Sleep dot com today. This episode is supported by candy crush saga candy crush. Saga is the all time favorite match. Three game it's fun and challenging and there are thousands of levels to play through celebrate thanksgiving with candy crush saga with three new missions and in game challenges available starting monday november twenty third lasting until november twenty ninth and remember the more missions you complete the greater the rewards like color bombs and lollipop hammers play candy crush saga now and celebrate your thanksgiving with them. Download from the app store. Google play or window store terms and conditions apply one of the first people to be notified about the high air pollution. Readings in new york is a man named austin heller. He's the city commissioner of control and he has to decide whether to declare a smog alert. There is a such threshold that people look at very closely but is the decision that is taken cautiously shutting down. A city is no small measure. Plus it's thanksgiving the macy's day. Parade is a national spectacle. People are expecting the show to go on the added complication. The mayor of new city is not in town east vacationing in bermuda. So he's far away and second generation is offering this big decision. Heller talks to the deputy mayor various medical experts and scientists and decides. The levels are just low enough that the parade can go on as scheduled. They do take some precautions. Color spends wednesday on the phone with con edison. The city's fewer provider and get them to switch temporarily from fuel oil to cleaner natural gas. All the city owned garbage incinerators get turned off garbage. Incineration is a huge source of pollution. But still new yorkers are starting to notice that something is off it becomes a bodily phenomena people can actually feel they breathe it whenever they go outside even breathe it in their own homes the air dirty to watch my elven today. They never think they claim and how cold after an optical on thanksgiving day a million parade goers plus dancers and to the players and people holding the strings of giant superman balloons. They all come out for the macy's day parade and as the day goes by the air. Quality gets worse that night. Commissioner heller calls inspectors away from their thanksgiving dinners to go around the city and tried to crack down on any pollution violations and around one. Am the city finally issues. A smog alert. Nothing every episode. It's a warning that issued rebound kosher switch off garbage incinerators. Some hospitals are reporting increased numbers of patients coming in with asthma and other lung problems. Doctors tell people not to wear their contact lenses outside. An allergist says that kids under two should stay at home. The new york times reports on a site that in the age of coronavirus is totally commonplace. But in that woman it was novel. A woman was walking through midtown manhattan in a surgical mask on saturday. Finally the weather changes this cold front coming that ends this up normal inversion layer and finding the air can disperse in the end. A task force calculates that the death toll from the smog was one hundred sixty eight people so not nearly as high as the london smog. Or as deadly per. Capita as the nora smog. But this happens in a major. Us city during a major holiday it gets a ton of press coverage and by this point nine hundred sixty six. The dangers of air pollution are better understood. So it's becoming clear to the public that the current approach to pollution just isn't working much city every state finding its own system and often under the control off paul industries in new york. There's pretty quick action. at the city. Level they strengthen the pollution guidelines in the city administrative that lab in harlem gets an upgrade and the city announces that they plan to open thirty six more locations to monitor air quality. They buy fancy new computer system. So that all those labs can communicate with each other but it's still just local. You need tougher action. You need action. That targets at our region or the entire nation president lyndon johnson is also under pressure. He sends a message to congress in which he talks at length about the new york smog of nineteen sixty six. He says the country needs legislative action and nineteen sixty seven. He gets it. He signs the clean air act into law but it ends up not being bad. Effective regulation is still left up to the states and some of them. Don't do all that much a few years later. And a supreme court decision chief justice rehnquist calls state response to the law quote disappointing but in one thousand nine hundred seventy under the nixon administration. A new version of the clean air act passes and eat moves pollution protections more fully under the control of the federal government. So it's a shift from a patchwork of local and state regulations to us. Let's say halfway uniform. National approach to boost problems the environmental protection agency. The epa is founded in december of the same year among other things it helps implement the requirements of the clean air act and finally almost seventy years after the term was coined across the pond. Smog in the us starts to significantly decrease. There are a lot of things that led to this big moment of environmental action in nineteen seventy but one of them is this flashpoint in nineteen sixty six when smog was so visible and deadly a lot of people. Watch the macy's day parade on tv. A lot more people read about it and that helped spur action or do you realize what catches the public imagination to ease is asked the acute showed something you can see something you can respond directly and something that you can quantify in precise number something that is very important to the soul of modern people doctor. You could have reminded us over and over the story. That one big disaster spurs one big law. That fixes everything. That just isn't right. After nineteen seventy there are still lots of court bottles and wrangling back and forth over these regulations scientific progress please a big role in bringing air pollution down and that takes time and the regulation that we've been talking about is mostly in the. Us there are other cities around the world. That continue to have major smog. Problems up to the present day solutions. Just don't come all at once. There's always this kind of consoling narrative that comes into place with each disaster. Now we will learn from this disaster notes more disasters or any more like it opens political correctness for some time. But the moment passes swell sooner than you wish. We are forgetful people when it comes to the disastrous and we be wary about these kind of smooth narrative. There is no silver bullet for any of these pollution province anymore. Thanks for listening to history this week for moments throughout history that are also worth watching. Check your local tv listings to find out. What's on the history channel today and for history anytime anywhere sign up for a seven-day free trial of history vault where you can stream over two thousand award. Winning documentaries and series from your favorite ice with new videos added every week start your free trial visit. History vault dot com forward slash podcast. Today this episode was produced by mckanie. Lynn history this week is also produced by julia mcgruder bendix teen and meet sally helm ar- editor and sound designer is dan rizzo and our researcher. Is emma fredericks are executive producers are jesse cats and ted butler. Don't forget to subscribe rate and review history this week. Where ever you get your podcasts and we will see you next week looking for a new podcast to listen to. Here's what we love. Courtesy of a-cash recommends pay their. This is pete lang stanton and the audio team at vice news. And i want to tell you about a new podcast that we've been working on. It's called source material from vice news. This show is trying something. A little different from other news podcasts. Instead of having a host or reporter tell you the story source material presents global stories through the recordings of the who were there on the ground filling our team vice news for this show. 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