The story so far: On November 28, 1939, 75 years ago, a thick, black smoke covered St. Louis, turning day into night, snarling traffic and angering and shocking residents. Coal dealers and producers had fought changes in the past, a December 5 gathering of 52 citizens declared change was necessary and the new Smoke Elimination Committee met for the first time on December 13 and realized that task would be daunting. Through January and into February the committee continued to meet.
By Bob Wyss
In 1758 Benjamin Franklin was in London working in behalf of the American colonies when he wrote his wife back in Philadelphia and described the atmosphere.
Literally, the atmosphere.
“The whole town is one great smoky house, and every street a chimney, the air floating sea-coal soot, and you never get a sweet breath of what is pure without riding some miles for it into the country.”
St. Louis residents, suffering through a winter choked by coal smoke 75 years ago, could relate to Franklin’s lament. But so could virtually every major city in North America and Europe at the time.
As Henry Obermeyer reported in his 1933 book “Stop That Smoke,” coal consumption in the U.S. between 1810 and 1910 had increased from 20 tons a year to 447,852,909. The result was smoke that lingered especially in the winter blocking the sun. According to one study, New York on average lost 35 percent of its sunlight because of the coal smoke. On some days that level increased to as much as 73 percent.
Similar findings were reported elsewhere.
“An eclipse of the sun lasting only a few seconds is a startling phenomenon that gets into the headlines,” wrote Obermeyer. “Why can’t we get equally excited over an 80 percent eclipse that lasts for days and is often a monthly occurrence?”
The smoke contained particulates, known even then to be deadly. Today we know even about the health risks from particulates and the findings have been even worse than what was suspected at the time.
Particulate levels were estimated at 1,212,000 to 3,444,000 per cubic inch in cities. In comparison, only 100,000 particulates per cubic inch could be found in open country air.
“More than 6 percent of the air which the individual breathes in the average community is loaded with the soot of coal,” said Obermeyer. “In one day you may be inhaling as much as two and three-fifths pounds of soot out of the air.”
St. Louis had once figured out the overall costs of the smoke, taking in everything from washing buildings to the added laundry expenses. So had others, and the national figure, just for the cleaning, was $140 million. When one adjusts that number for inflation, the figure in today’s dollars would be $2.5 trillion. For just one year.
The costs per individual ranged from a more manageable $15 to $20 (today, $263 to $374).
New York city estimated its losses at $96 million a year. Elsewhere the toll was $17 million in Chicago, $16 million in Philadelphia, $8 million in Cincinnati and $2 million in Knoxville.
And why was all of this being tolerated 75 years ago?
For the same reason that carbon emissions from coal and other sources continued to poison the earth’s atmosphere today.
Coal smoke, said Obermeyer, was a symbol of prosperity, of economic wellbeing, a hedge towards high employment.
And yet, said Obermeyer, “we are paying a terrible price in wasted health, wasted resources and ceaseless destruction.”
Beyond St. Louis, others were also beginning to also fight, but just as in St. Louis it was unclear how successful their efforts would be.