Photos of Smoggy 1970s America


Beijing’s dismal air quality is once again in the spotlight. The city has been shrouded in a thick cloud of smog on and off for the past month and is now in an “air quality crisis,” according to an environmental official quoted in the Wall Street Journal.  

Beijing, near the CCTV Headquarters: ??/FlickrBeijing, near the CCTV Headquarters, December 4, 2011: ??/Flickr

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Before wagging a finger at Beijing, perhaps now is a good time to recall when many US cities were also cloaked in haze. Back in the 1970s, when the Clean Air Act (signed by Nixon in 1970) was just getting on a roll, the nascent EPA commissioned a series of photographs for the Documerica project to record pollution in America. The project, which ran from 1971-1977, amassed 20,000 images of our environmental sins, many of which can be accessed through the National Archives Environmental Studies Gallery.

Manhattan Skyline enveloped in heavy smog in May 1973.: Chester Higgins/NARAManhattan skyline enveloped in heavy smog, May 1973: Chester Higgins/NARA

 

Los Angeles in Heavy Smog in September 1973: Gene Daniels/NARALos Angeles in heavy smog, September 1973: Gene Daniels/NARA

 

Smoke from the burning of discarded auto batteries from a factory near Houston Texas in April 1972: Marc St. Gil/NARASmoke from the burning of discarded auto batteries from a factory near Houston Texas, April 1972: Marc St. Gil/NARA

 

Day becomes night in North Birmingham, adjacent to U.S. pipe plant and the most heavily polluted part of the city, in July 1972: LeRoy Woodson/NARADay becomes night in North Birmingham, adjacent to US pipe plant and the most heavily polluted part of the city, July 1972: LeRoy Woodson/NARA

 

Clark Avenue Bridge in Cleveland, Ohio, July 1973: Frank Aleksandrowicz/NARAClark Avenue Bridge in Cleveland, Ohio, July 1973: Frank Aleksandrowicz/NARA

Precise comparisons between air quality in China and the US are difficult. Monitoring of PM 2.5–tiny particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter that pose the greatest health risk because they can enter deep into the lungs–wasn’t widely implemented in the US until the late 1990s. China only recently announced plans to report PM 2.5 measurements, though the US embassy has maintained a very popular Twitter feed that posts PM 2.5 readings obtained from it’s own EPA-approved air quality monitor since 2009.

Pollution in Beijing has returned to new highs since the government spent $3.6 billion on radical measures to cleanse the capital in preparation for the 2008 Olympics. Will this latest attack of smog spur China to clean up it’s act for good?

More MotherJones reporting on Climate Desk

THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.