WE’RE BREATHING IN THE CHEMICAL GARBAGE OF A COMPLEX CIVILIZATION
Smog is already killing thousands every year and it’s getting worse-
APPROACHING TORONTO on Highway 400 any clear dark night you will see a spectral glimmer in the sky — the city’s lights reflecting off urban haze. Its eerie mushroom shape is prophetic. The haze that shrouds our cities, twinkling romantically at night, softening the outlines of buildings by day, contains, like The Bomb, the elements of destruction.
Into the vast receptacle of the sky we spew the garbage of a chemically complex, machine-powered civilization, with effects that a 1957 Ontario air pollution committee reported ‘"may range from mental depression ... to cancer and death.” The pollution of the air we dwell in “has grown from an inconvenience to a nuisance to a menace,” says Dr. Haldon Leedy of the Armour Research Foun-
dation, of Chicago. The smoky manmade fog we call smog, now our permanent city atmosphere, may already be man’s greatest single killer. Smog is the unburned fuel that our homes and factories, ships and trains belch into the air as soot and sulphur dioxide. It's partly burned gasoline from cars, trucks and buses. It’s waste gases from cheniical processes, airborne refuse from dumps and incinerators. It’s pulverized rubber, asphalt and coal swirled skyward off roads and coalyards. It’s moisture that condenses around a nucleus of dust. And into every cubic foot of air, which contains at the Pole only 300 to 400 dust particles, the average city dumps 4,000,000 to 5,000,000 particles.
Since 1872, when
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“The pollution of the air has grown from an inconvenience to a menace, with effects that may range from mental depression to cancer and death "
Montreal passed and then disregarded the continent's first anti-smoke law, the smog of our cities has grown steadily thicker. We draw thirty pounds of this compound through our lungs every day. Its long-range effects are largely unknown. hut we had our first intimations of danger eight years ago in Windsor.
It was a Tuesday. September 9. People drove to work through a light haze. By evening the air fell heavy, slightly acrid. People dabbed at their watering eyes, coughed to clear their throats.
By Thursday, with no wind stirring, smog was so thick that two ore carriers ran aground in the Detroit River. Hedges turned brown. Flow-ers wilted. Tempers frayed. People complained of chest constrictions. diarrhoea, nausea. In those three days thirty-five infants died in the Windsor-Detroit area, twice the normal number. Twenty-five people died from cancer, two and a half times normal.
No one in Windsor realized the smog was poisonous. It was only by coincidence that the International Joint Commission. which surveys boundary waterways. had a team in the area studying smoke from ships. The results of their ten-year smog investigation have just become known.
Windsor had had a temperature inver-
sion. A layer of warm air had moved in over the colder air near the earth, keeping it from rising as it warmed. There was no wind to disperse it. The air stagnated. a giant vat into which the city poured its chemical rubbish — solid particles. liquids, vapors, gases. As the chemicals built up, they reacted.
This reaction was first suspected in 1930. when a prolonged inversion imprisoned airborne wastes over Belgium's Meuse Valley. Thousands fell ill and 63 persons died. But little enlightening research was done until 1948.
I hat year, during an inversion over Donora. a little zinc-smelting town in Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh. 5.910 people sickened and twenty died. That same year, in London, an inversion brought death in its wake to three hundred persons suffering from cardiac and respiratory diseases. This was only a foretaste. For four horrifying days in late 1952 a lung-searing pall of dirty grey air pressed down upon Londoners, killing 4.000.
Studies by Britain s Beaver Committee and the U. S. Public Health Service Pointed suspicion at sulphur dioxide, present in smoke. The notoriously sooty cities of Pittsburgh. Chicago and St. Louis campaigned to persuade businessmen that a dark plume of smoke meant wasted fuel dollars. They cut sootfall in half, and homeowners in St. Louis saved $25.000.000 a year in house painting. dry cleaning and laundry.
Smoke is only that part of the peril that can be seen. In downtown Toronto, Windsor and Hamilton it falls in large Particles, known as rocks to the experts, at the rate of a hundred tons a square mile a month. It slimes windows, discolors paint, begrimes works of art. rots canvas, spoils food, pits masonry, blights vegetation, and cuts the life of metals and fabrics in half. "It costs the people of Canada half a billion dollars a year.” says Morris Katz, air pollution consultant for the National Department of Health and Welfare, "anywhere from $20 to $50 per person."
But for every ton of fallout, a ton of small particles and gases remains suspended in the air. too fine to be screened out by the nose, unseen, insidious. Under a bright sun these chemicals breed a new kind of smog, an evil so vague that the public is scarcely aware it exists.
It was noted first in the late 1940s in Los Angeles. Eye irritations became epidemic. But sunny, oil-burning Los
Angeles was relatively free of smoke. Little was done till doctors began listing smog as a cause of death. The city council, aroused, forced oil companies to spend $18.000,000 removing sulphur from their waste fumes. The tear-gas effect of the smog grew worse.
In 1950 a brilliant biochemist, A. J. Haagen-Smit. of the California Institute of Technology, proved that lethal smog was caused by the photochemical action of sunlight on hydrocarbons and oxides of nitrogen, both discharged from car and bus exhausts. They react to produce
ozone, an unstable kind of oxygen once the boast of ocean resorts and now known to be deadly even in minute quantities.
Haagen-Smit's discovery made it clear that there are two kinds of smog — the London type, caused by incomplete combustion of solid fuels, and the Los Angeles kind, caused by incomplete combustion of liquid fuels. Sulphur dioxide is the chief known poison in the first type, ozone in the second. And. as a kind of curious footnote to the problem. Cincinnati cleared up its smoke — and ex-
perienced a Los Angeles-type smog. Apparently the smoke, by obscuring the sunlight, had kept ozone from forming.
In both smogs a chain reaction takes place. During the London epidemics the sulphur dioxide present was only two parts per million parts of air. while the safety level for factories is ten parts per million. Some scientists think the sulphur is absorbed and concentrated by certain lung-piercing aerosols. Others think they combine with sulphur to make it more toxic. Dr. Mary Amdur of the Harvard School of Public Health
has found that small amounts of sulphur dioxide, which do not affect guinea pigs, become poisonous to them when mixed with fine sulphuric acid mist or sodium chloride, both common in smog.
The effect of ozone was tested by Dr. Hurley Motley of the University of Southern California. He put Air Pollution Control Officer Smith Griswold, a lean and powerful former football player of forty-seven, into a chamber containing two parts of ozone to a million parts of air. In an hour Griswold had chest constrictions. When he came
out after two hours he had lost. Motley said, "thirteen percent of his vital capacity. In a few more hours he might have died.” Ozone in heavy Los Angeles smogs has now reached one part per million.
The factor common to both smogs is the temperature inversion that allows the deadly chemicals to build up. Cities in valleys, or cities ringed by mountains, like Vancouver, are natural outdoor labs for brewing smog if pollution is high. Los Angeles has 260 inversions a year.
"Most inversions don't last more than 24 hours." says Don Thomas, a physicist with Ontario's Air Pollution Control Branch. Recordings for April at Windsor, where conditions are not especially favorable. show ten inversions, each lasting five to ten hours. The U. S. Weather Bureau, studying high-pressure areas east of the Rockies from 1936 to 1956, counted eighteen inversions, mostly in fall, of four days each. What happened at Windsor in 1952 could happen in any industrial city in Canada.
The warning signs arc multiplying. Sarnia, Toronto and twenty-five U. S. cities have reported eye irritations. Toronto has had mysterious outbreaks of runs in nylon stockings, which occur when the sulphur dioxide in the air reaches half a part per million. The Ontario Research Foundation is studying damage to tobacco around Simcoe, near Lake Erie, estimated at a million dollars.
This tobacco blight, says Dr. C. M. Jephcott. director of Ontario's Air Pollution Control Branch, is similar to leaf damage from ozone in Maryland and Connecticut. Ozone levels near Simcoe, he says, have reached 0.2 parts per million. Foundation researchers think that on hot days Lake Erie, with its lower temperatures, creates an inversion that traps ozone from three possible sources, Hamilton. Cleveland or Detroit.
“A sea of carcinogens”
Some experts contend that inversions aren't dangerous unless they last 48 hours, but federal air consultant Morris Katz points out a disquieting new feature of recent London smogs. In January 1956. smog killed 1.000 Londoners. In December of 1957 it killed at least 763. In both smogs, death occurred on the first day. This suggests, says Katz, that inversions too brief to cause death by themselves are gradually, inevitably, advancing some lung and chest illnesses.
It now seems clear that the death rates for some of these diseases mask the long, slow breakdown of tissue from corrosion by a contaminated átmosphere. Scientists have now isolated some fifty contaminants, many carcinogenic (cancercausing) materials like arsenic, chromite, asbestos; radioactive dust; coal tar and pitch from railway yards and gashouses; the oils of creosote and paraffin; the aromatic hydrocarbons in motor fumes. "Modern man,” says Dr. W. C. Hueper, world-renowned cancer investigator for the U. S. Public Health Service, “is living in a sea of carcinogens.”
Lung cancer is the world’s fastest-growing disease. It kills four times as many Canadians today as it did twenty-five years ago. Britain's lung cancer deaths have doubled since war’s end. and statistical studies in Britain, Germany and Japan link the rise to smog. Its increase in Russia, public health officials there are reported as saying, has accompanied the increase in motor traffic.
Dr. Eugene Houdry, a leading U. S. petroleum chemist, finds that the rise in gasoline consumption between 1914 and 1950 “corresponds exactly to the esti-
mate of a nineteen-fold increase in lung cancer.” Moreover, he points out, when gas was rationed in the 1940s, lung cancer deaths among men dropped thirty-five percent.
In a study for the University of Cincinnati, Dr. Clarence Mills shows that suburbanites who drive to work every day through heavy traffic double and triple their risk of lung cancer. And Mills concludes that a city cab driver who chain-smokes is twenty to forty times more likely to die of cancer than a farmer who doesn’t smoke.
Leroy Burney, the U. S. surgeongeneral, states flatly that smog causes lung cancer. To wait for definite clinical proof, he says, is to invite disaster. The chief of his Air Pollution Medical Program, Richard Prindle, after studying 163 cities last year, found that the smoggiest cities have the most deaths from lung cancer (seventy percent higher in cities with a million or more people than in cities of fifty thousand to ninety thousand), and that this is true for the smoggy areas within cities.
“You get the same kind of picture,’ Prindle says, “for cancer of the stomach and esophagus and for heart disease.’ He thinks the particles our nose-hairs screen and channel down our throats may irritate stomach tissues, impede breathing, and add to heart strain. “We can’t say air pollution causes the heart disease,” he says, “but it seems to hasten the death of those affected by heart disease.”
Cancer from car fumes
At the University of Southern California, Dr. Paul Kotin developed cancer in 38 out of 100 mice by painting their shoulder blades three times a week with an extract of car fumes. The most lethal of these is a substance called 3,4 benzpyrene. A British research team estimates that city dwellers inhale 16 milligrams of it over a lifetime — 40,000 times the amount that produces cancer in mice.
A car, as it picks up speed, also releases oxides of nitrogen, more than 4,000 parts per million, into the air. Fortunately, they disperse quickly; two parts per million damages plants, five is the safety standard for workers. In experiments on animals, low concentrations for four hours a day for ten days induce emphysema, akin to bronchitis.
Bronchitis and emphysema now cost Britain about thirty million working days a year. One Briton in three over fifty years of age suffers from it. Canadian surveys show bronchitis to be more common than is generally supposed. An analysis of mortality figures by the Department of Veterans Affairs reveals that chronic bronchitis and emphysema jointly are the third commonest cause of death, led only by heart disease and neoplasms of the lung.
Bronchitis can be induced by formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, two vapors growing common as more diesels ply our roads. On contact with living tissue formaldehyde changes to formic acid, the poison in a bee’s sting. When prolonged for several hours, states Ontario's air pollution report, it results in an irritating dermatitis.
Every weekday cars load the downtown air of Toronto and Montreal with more than 320,000 pounds of carbon monoxide. Colorless, odorless, undetectable. it pervades the atmosphere even twenty-five to fifty feet from the curb in concentrations of twenty to eightythree parts per million of air.
Carbon monoxide replaces blood oxy-
gen. Drivers in traffic, says Morris Katz, may lose from five to fifteen percent, heavy smokers an additional three to seven percent. Tests of cab drivers in New York disclosed losses of eight to twenty percent.
Frederick Evis, medical adviser to the Ontario Air Pollution Committee, says, "Carbon monoxide affects people like alcohol. It makes some happy, others vicious.” A man driving home through traffic, he says, is more likely to quarrel with his wife when he gets there.
The committee suggests that carbon monoxide poisoning may account for the Jekyll-and-Hyde attitude of drivers who quit their office well mannered and change in traffic to reckless boors. They speculate that this "stubbornness, selfishness, and lack of consideration,” along with a slowdown in reactions, might lie behind the mounting death toll on our highways.
Carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide block the sun’s ultraviolet rays, the natural enemy of bacteria and mental depression. They do this by absorption, wiiich, says Morris Katz, “not only makes us warmer but alters the humidity. Us all very well to say that the atmosi> ere is vast, but man’s activities can afiect the climate too.”
Allergies from industrial wastes
The U. S. Public Health Service suspects that air pollutants cause asthma, which broke out in New Orleans and among servicemen in Yokohama whenever the wind carried factory wastes overhead. Dr. J. B. Whaley, of Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, says that dirty air is one cause of tracheitis, a disease of the upper respiratory tract. Charles Couchman of tue Baltimore Health Department suggests that manmade air contaminants cause allergies. And Cincinnati's air-polluted factory areas nave ten times more deaths from pneumonia than its suburbs on cleaner, higher ground.
No one knows what airborne chemicals do to our bodies, and no one in Canada is trying clinically to find out. A few studies are under way — at Scarborough, Windsor, Niagara, Hamilton, Sudbury and Sarnia in Ontario, which alone among provinces is acting on the findings; at Sydney, N.S., Montreal, Winnipeg and Vancouver, and at oil refineries in Alberta. But these simply chart the pollution and, mostly, that part most convenient to chart.
"If we could pinpoint which chemicals do what damage,” says Dr. Jephcott of Ontario's Air Pollution Control Branch, “it would be relatively easy to trace their source and eliminate them.” But thousands arc yet unidentified and many combine to produce more. Two new cancercausing compounds, for example, have just been discovered, the peroxides and epoxides, formed by hydrocarbons reacting with ozone.
Such compounds, inextricably blended in tiny quantities, are hard to trap, hard to isolate, hard to analyze. The air, always in motion, is always in change. The compound, once identified, must undergo several years’ testing to discover its effect on living tissue. No lab in Canada has the funds for such research.
As new plants produce new products, new wastes complicate the problem, and control over new plants is held by the Labor Department’s industrial hygienists, whose job is to keep the air inside the plant pure, often by piping contamination outside.
Public pressure or civic conscience has
spurred some industries to action, notably Sarnia’s petrochemical companies. In Montreal a group of refineries have halved their sulphur dioxide waste by piping it to a nearby chemical company.
But byproduct profits are uncommon. Generally, costs have made industry laggard. For example, it costs Toronto’s St. Lawrence Cement Company $1,250,000 to transform the waste from 120,000 tons of coal to a plume of steam. By comparison, fines for making smoke are $50 to $200.
True, most of the oil, steel, smelting
and chemical companies building new plants are spending two to five percent of the cost on pollution controls, for to do it later can cost five times as much. But businessmen hesitate to spend more than they have to when half the pollution is caused by homeowners' uncleaned furnaces. untuned cars and burning trash piles. Thus, despite a fivefold increase in industry's effort from ten years ago, smog steadily thickens as homes and products multiply.
Only Hamilton and Toronto among Canadian cities are backing their anti-
smoke laws with court action, and the) are barely holding their own on smoke And with 20,000 more vehicles traveling its streets every year, even Toronto is losing the over-all battle. In Ottawa a smoke control office was set up three years ago, but smoke still stains the capital’s spires and no one has yet been fined. Saskatoon and Yorkton. to avoid garbage collection, have encouraged homeowners to buy gas-fired incinerators, which Ontario’s air pollution report terms “an absolute abomination.”
All officials fighting for fresher air
have their eyes on Los Angeles, where e\ery second person owns a car and the symptoms of poisoning — watery eyes and scratchy throats — are obvious to everyone. Disregarding threats by Detroit to boycott California-made movies, the state passed a law last April that is likely to serve as a model for every state and province on the continent.
The law requires all cars sold in California to have devices that dit hydrocarbon wastes ninety percent and carbon monoxide seventy percent. The law takes effect a year from the state's approval of two such gadgets, and forty companies are racing to be first to meet the stiff standards with an afterburner they hope to sell for around $50.
Most air-pollution experts feel these gadgets will soon be perfected. We could have had them long ago. thinks cancer authority W. C. Hneper, for a fraction of the cost of tail fins and chrome. Toronto is ready with a law like California’s. Once the devices are proved, says Works Commissioner Ross Clark, "it won't take five minutes to enforce it." "If they’re going to put them on ten percent of the cars they might as well put them on them all,” says Dr. Jephcott of Ontario's contiol branch. "There'll be a hue and cry if exhaust fumes are cleaned up in California and not anywhere else."
"It's all a matter of cost,” says Don Thomas, a control branch physicist. "You can clean up the air but you've got to pay out a lot of money.” Morris Katz estimates the cost of control at forty cents per person per year, with research another forty cents — about 2Vi percent of the cost of poisoned air.
“Plant operators lack interest”
But even businessmen apply little business sense to pollution. A Toronto survey last April of 737 heating plants showed only one in fifteen fully efficient. With better equipment, says Works Commissioner Ross Clark. "Metro citizens could save $ 1 (),()()().()()() a year.”
"I could make a very good living on the money in fuel I could save any six medium-sized industrial plants,” says Bill Moroz, an engineer with Ontario's control branch. "Furnace operators can't or won't take time or don't have the interest. It comes back to the attitude of top management."
Farmers ignore the problem, unaware that some airborne poisons stunt crops, cause sterility and blemishes, that some leach the vitamin C from fruit, that others poison livestock by contaminating forage plants and water. Ontario's Air Pollution Control Branch is now investigating damage by industrial wastes to Grimsby peaches, to wheat, corn and oats in Humbcrstone Township.
The fight for fresh air calls for common cause between industries, provinces, nations. Air pollutants have no respect for national boundaries. A 300-mile-wide smoke cloud from Alberta and B. C. forest fires, traveling east in 1950, forced Cleveland and Detroit to turn on floodlights for afternoon sports, and darkened homes across northern Europe. The socalled red snow that fell in Ontario in 1952 was red rock and dust from New Mexico, and a million tons of it fell in Wisconsin. .If air currents can carry such heavy material a thousand miles and more, our light invisible gaseous garbage can come to earth anywhere on the globe.
But the public is apathetic and politicians remain unpressured. Doctors say little; clinical proof of human poisoning is inconclusive. "It's pathetic to think that it takes a disaster to wake people up,” says Morris Katz. ★