Why Sustainable Clean Air Matters For Everyone

Killer Smog in Manhattan - Nov 24, 1966 - Photo by Andy Blair

Killer Smog in Manhattan – Nov 24, 1966 – Photo by Andy Blair

To look at the photo above one might think that it had to be taken in China or some third world country with extremely lax air pollution laws but this is a picture of New York City taken just 39 years ago today when a mysterious smog enveloped the City and took the lives of 144 – 170 people over a six day period.

The Thanksgiving killer smog was essentially a ‘perfect storm’ of weather and pollution that came about as a result of something known as temperature inversion, which is a blanket of stagnent cold air in the lower atmosphere capped by a layer of warm air above it that allows dangerous pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen and carbon monoxide to be trapped close to the ground and cause air pollution to spike to dangerous levels.

The 1966 Thanksgiving NYC smog event was not the first deadly incident of temperature inversion known to cause havoc on a large city as in 1948 Donora, PA – 20 people died and over 7,000 were hospitalized when sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and metal dust from the local zinc smelter was trapped in a blanket of pollution. 1952 London – 12,000 deaths were attributed to a temperature inversion episode that trapped large volumes of sulfur dioxide (Londoners were burning a lot of sulfur-rich coal). And of course smog and unhealthy air quality was a regular occurrence in Los Angeles.

Up until 1966 most people weren’t that interested in getting to the root causes of air pollution, or solving the problem, that is until the ‘dirty’ air literally took their breath away.

The 1966 NYC smog event created public awareness to the dangers of unchecked outputs from cars and factories as well  building density limiting air circulation and the lack of greenscape/plantings in large cities, which are all significant contributing factors to pollution levels and air stagnation.

Avalanche Exhaust - R. Bassett Photo

Vehicles account for nearly 1/2 of the carbon monoxide & nitrogen oxides in the air

1967 ushered in the Air Quality Act, which was an expansion of the 1963 Clean Air Act that didn’t apply to mobile sources of air pollution (cars, trucks…etc), then the Clean Air Act Extension of 1970 was passed, where Congress greatly expanded the federal mandate by requiring comprehensive federal and state regulations for both industrial and mobile sources. The 1970 legislation provided for enforcement and established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The regulatory compliance for clean air and the costs associated with it have been a political hot potato with business and industry throughout the entire existence of the EPA and remains so to this day.

Has the EPA helped? Since 1966 the air quality in the United States has gotten much cleaner as all modern cars are fitted with emission control equipment and factories are subject to strict air pollution limits and there has been a major shift away from burning coal, all of which has helped to improve the quality of air.

The big shift to offshoring/global manufacturing over the past 20 – 30 years has also helped clean up the air (and water…see a sequel coming?) in the United States as heavy industrial polluters have chosen to relocate their plants and their pollution to more ‘regulatory friendly’ countries instead of dealing with the requirements of the EPA.

The World's Population is growing at a rapid rate

The World’s Population is growing at a rapid rate

On the other side of the ledger  and our real modern risk with pollution is the explosive growth in population since 1966. The world’s population is currently 7.3 billion, it was 3.3 billion in 1966, it has more than doubled during the past 39 years. The population in the United States has also grown significantly in this period from 196 million to 326 million.

The increased worldwide population of 4 billion, including 130 million in the US, people means more cars, more products to be produced, more waste to be discarded, more methane, more landfills and on and on. The rapid population growth is putting tremendous strain on all global resources, environments and infrastructures.

In the US we continue operate under the ground rules of the 1960’s and 70’s with minor incremental and hard fought improvements  while the makeup and dynamics of the world have changed significantly since then.


While developed nations such as the US are enjoying cleaner air and water, it is essentially a zero sum global game as other parts of the world are suffocating from and choking on the waste from the production of low-cost goods being produced. Photos of polluted cities like the one above are often taken in places New Delphi, China and other parts of the world where manufacturing costs are low and environmental regulations are lax.

The opportunities going forward are finding creative sustainable global solutions for meeting the consumption, output and living requirements for the 7.3 billion people currenty living on our planet and getting ready for the steadily growing population moving forward.

More to come…..