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Smog Is a Four-Letter Word

April 10, 2007 |  6:46 am

Paul V. Coates
Confidential File

April 10, 1957

And it is a comparatively new word in the American vocabulary.

The 1953 Webster in my office defines smog as "a fog made heavier and darker by the smoke of a city."

But already it's an outdated definition.

Because every day we're learning more about it--it's moving that fast.

It has reached a point today where "smog" jokes here have lost their funny flavor.

And technically worded newspaper articles--with a hundred accused causes and a thousand questionable cures--have become painfully required reading to the man on the street.

He's read quotes, optimistic and pessimistic, from doctors, manufacturers, incinerator salesmen and weather experts.

And he, if he's anything like me, must get a little confused by all the double talk and plain nonsense being circulated.

I did, however, read a couple stories in the past week which sounded authentic.

One quoted Dr. Francis M. Pottenger Jr., chairman of the county medical association's smog committee.

The other quoted Dr. Leroy E. Burney, our nation's surgeon general.


If these two men know what they're talking about--and I assume they do--their remarks add up to a singularly terrifying story.

Dr. Pottenger revealed the results of a county medical association survey stating that more than 90% of 1,181 surveyed doctors have detected symptoms of a smog complex in their patients here.

He said 40.7% of the doctors stated that they had recommended to certain patients that they leave the so-called smog belt.

These statistics are unpleasant but the doctor's next comment was thoroughly frightening.

He said that physicians closely associated with neoplastic (cancer) diseases were overwhelmingly of the opinion that air pollution contributes to malignancies.

In the simplest, most awful terms, that means smog causes cancer.

This is the belief of pathologists (83%) X-ray men (81%) and physicians specializing in cancer treatment (80%).

An appalling conclusion such as that would immediately make you think that we're running out of time.

That we have to mobilize the forces of scientific research to end the menace in our atmosphere. That we have to do it quick. And that we have to do it at any cost.

But yesterday, Dr. Burney's statement was released to the press.

If the people of Los Angeles think they can get rid of smog, he implied, they're just kidding themselves.

He added that in his opinion there was no immediate hope of even partial relief.

And when you tally those two stories up, they equal this:

"If you want to live a few years longer, get out of town."

The surgeon general's direct quote, from a letter to congressman Joe Holt, was:

"To be realistic, the people of Los Angeles should be candidly informed that there is no practical way to eliminate smog. There is little probability of alleviation in the immediate future."

These are cold-blooded words.

The only hope we have is in continued research until we find the antidote for this posion.

But the good doctor seems to suggest that we give up trying to hard and reconcile ourselves to existing in a filthy haze.

I think it's a lousy suggestion.

If we take it, if we give up the battle against smog, then the findings of the county medical association's committee are too awesome to contemplate.

Note: Dr. Francis M. Pottenger, an Ohio physician, moved to Monrovia after his wife developed tuberculosis and he dedicated his life to finding a cure after she died in 1898.  He  founded the Pottenger Sanatorium and was president of the American College of Physicians. He died in 1961 at the age of 91.

His son, Dr. Francis M. Pottenger Jr., who also worked at the sanatorium, died in 1967 at the age of 65. Shortly before his death, he wrote a letter to The Times advocating electric autos.

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