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. A Smoke Elimination Committee was created and it met through January and into February sorting out its limited options for finagling cleaning the city’s air. As February continued, the city waited for the committee’s report.
By Bob Wyss
In Pittsburgh it was the Boy Scouts who came to the rescue.
Until St. Louis took the lead in the 1930s the city with the foulest air pollution in America had been Pittsburgh. But a public campaign of education and a legion of smoke inspectors had been having an impact by 1940. The Boy Scouts were junior smoke inspectors in Pittsburgh.
They would tap on the door of a house or building where black smoke was billowing out of the chimney. They would offer to find a city smoke inspector to help the resident burn his fuel more efficiently. “It is said that the Pittsburgh householder has taken kindly to these tactful admonitions and that smoking chimneys have been considerately reduced by this method,” wrote Henry Obermeyer in his book Stop That Smoke.
Pittsburgh for more than a century had been infamous for how black the city could turn it’s air. A visitor in 1818 had written that “even the complexion of the people is affected by smoke.” Vaudeville comedians often made Pittsburgh’s air the butt of their gags and jokes.
Steel and other heavy industries had made Pittsburgh home, foundries depended on the nearby rich veins of coal, and the black smoke was another sign of prosperity for most. But the numbers detailing the problems from the air pollution were foul. About 107,272,000 pounds of soot fell within the city every year, which was 986.5 tons per mile and 157 pounds per person.
The weight of the soot actually exceeded the estimated weight of the entire population of Pittsburgh by 700,000 pounds.
But those figures were compiled in the 1920s. By the 1930s the situation had improved and while far larger cities such as New York and Chicago expressed concern about Pittsburgh’s air, their’s was actually no cleaner. Cities such as St. Louis and Cincinnati had a far greater air pollution problem.
Like most communities, the efforts to reduce the smoke went back decades, in Pittsburgh’s case the first law was passed in 1804. None were effective, including one in the 19th Century that suggested that taller chimneys were the answer.
But in the 1890s, under pressure from the Ladies’ Health Association, the city finally passed an ordinance banning soft coal that had a high sulfur content in residential areas of the city. This was a prohibition that St. Louis refused to make, and industrial processes across the country would continue to fight into the 21st Century.
What finally pushed Pittsburgh to get serious was a study in 1912-13 by the Mellon Institute which showed that 40 percent of the city’s smoke stacks were violating the current lenient city ordinance and producing far too much smoke.
Smoke inspectors were hired and a massive educational program began to teach both businesses and residents how to better fire their boilers and industrial equipment. The Mellon Institute continued to produce studies every few years and by 1923-24 significant reductions in both smoke and pollutants could be measured. These became a point of civic pride and motivating more and more people to do what they could. Besides burning better fuel, better combustion techniques began to be adopted.
The Boy Scouts were soon added to the education campaign and other communities, including London, began sending delegations to Pittsburgh to study what they had accomplished.
Despite the gains, air experts warned that what people could not see in the air might be just as dangerous as the smoke. A 1929 survey found that there had been a 36 percent increase in solid deposits, primarily solid particles too small to see, but which still were a respiratory danger. As the number of automobiles increased these emissions would rise and lead to ground-level ozone and other current air pollution hazards of the late 20th and early 21 Century.
Fighting air pollution has never been simple, even with the aid of Boy Scouts.