Articles

SMOG

Polluted city air wastes millions in fuel and laundry bills. But that’s not all. The fumes corrode stone, cloth — and lungs. There’s poison in every breath of

FRED BODSWORTH April 15 1949
Articles

SMOG

Polluted city air wastes millions in fuel and laundry bills. But that’s not all. The fumes corrode stone, cloth — and lungs. There’s poison in every breath of

FRED BODSWORTH April 15 1949

SMOG

Polluted city air wastes millions in fuel and laundry bills. But that’s not all. The fumes corrode stone, cloth — and lungs. There’s poison in every breath of

Articles

FRED BODSWORTH

FOR three sunless, windless days a greasy, sootpeppered fog had lain over the little industrial city of Donora, Pa. (pop. 13,000). The

smoke and fumes of Donora’s many smelter smokestacks were trapped beneath a stifling groundhugging blanket that grew denser with every hour. On the third night residents went to bed praying that a wind would clear the air before morning.

But no wind came. The polluted air grew more stagnant. People woke in their beds choking for breath, throats throbbing with pain. The strain of 72 hours of breathing oxygen-rare and poisonladen air began to tell on the overburdened hearts of elderly people and asthmatics. Doctors went down streets administering adrenalin as fast as they could sterilize their needles. Emergency calls went out for more adrenalin, for oxygen tents.

By the end of the following day, when a faltering breeze began to loosen Donora’s fog and smoke blanket, 400 citizens had been stricken, 19 had died. A few weeks and several autopsies later, doctors isolated the causefluorine poisoning from the stacks of Donora’s big zinc smelter. Cried a horror-stricken board of health official: "These

people were murdered by the air they had to breathe.”

This tragedy last November was an extreme illustration of a deadly yet rarely recognized menace that hangs over practically every industrial city. Smoke, combustion dusts and fumes, known collectively to engineers as "smog,” doesn’t often strike as ruthlessly as a warfare gas attack—as it did at Donora and as it has done in even worse tragedies in the past. But in all except a few cities which have house cleaned their air, smog is a slow, stealthy poison. It weakens hearts through oxygen starvation. It makes the lungs of millions more susceptible to pneumonia and tuberculosis. And— its deadliest threat—it is now believed to induce lung cancer.

Smog is more than a silent murderer. It also despoils buildings, vegetation and goods, even the clothes on our backs, with its greasy, sooty acids, and it is evidence of a needless waste of fuel (for smoke is merely un burned fuel). Several investigators have worked out the U. S. smoke damage and fuel loss at half a billion dollars a year. In Britain the cost was recently put at $400 millions a year.

Toronto, the only Canadian city that has looked at its smog pall with a very scientific eye, discovered a few years ago that at one downtown point (University Avenue and King Street) there were

610 tons of soot and ash and 32 tons of gaseous acids raining down per square mile per year. Experts estimated that this black rain was costing Toronto $15 millions a year, about $20 per person, in extra laundering costs, house painting, window cleaning, car washing, fuel waste and building renovations.

Exactly what is smoke? Soft or bituminous coal, the leading smoke-generating culprit, may contain up to 35% volatile matter; hard or anthracite coal 20%: or less. This is the portion that transforms easily into a gas and burns. When a shovelful of soft coal lands on a hot fire it gasifies so rapidly that the oxygen of the air inside the furnace is insufficient to burn it all. Unburned gases are swept up the chimney where they condense into solid particles of carbon and sticky coal tar—smoke.

Much of the carbon, however, may have been "half burned,” becoming carbon monoxide instead of the carbon dioxide it would be if the burning was complete. All of this, then, is merely good coal that w'asn’t given an opportunity to burn.

The Smoke Prevention Association of America says one fifth of all the fuel used in the U. S. is wasted as smoke. Some plants, after remodeling furnaces to allow complete combustion, have cut fuel costs 25%. The Ontario Research Foundation once said that Ontario

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soft-coal burners were letting $1 million worth of coal fly out their chimneys every year (at present prices, close to $2 millions).

But this is only half of smoke’s pedigree. Coal used in Canada averages 1 Vz% sulphur and when sulphur burns it becomes sulphur trioxide, a gas which unites with moisture in the air to become minute droplets of sulphuric acid (according to the Ontario Research Foundation 45 tons of acid for every 1,000 tons of coal burned).

Sulphuric acid, mixed with coal tars which make the acids stick wherever they fall, corrodes metals, paints and practically all building stones, withers vegetation and rots fabrics. A Toronto minister, once a missionary, lias reported that shirts which lasted him five years in India are threadbare rags after two years in Toronto.

Smoke also contains large amounts of invisible ash particles, sharp-edged grains of silica and a host of other chemicals—nitric acid, hydrochloric acid, chlorine, ammonia and fluorine— all of them deadly when sufficiently concentrated.

If this stuff can crumble skyscrapers, what is it doing to delicate lungs? In a city like Toronto, on a quiet humid day when this aerial debris is not being dispersed, an authority estimates that the average person inhales in 24 hours about 500 billion minute particles of

soot, coal tar and ash, enough sulphur gas and carbon monoxide to kill him three or four times over if he got it all in one hour instead of in 24, and about eight billion particles of traffic byproducts like tire rubber, asphalt, stone, glass and dried horse manure.

Fortunately, only a small percentage of this floating garbage remains in our lungs; but what does, remains for life.

Are Your Lungs Clean?

Dr. Eugene Poitevin, chief mineralogist in the Dominion Department of Mines and Resources, has spent almost 20 years analyzing the dust deposits in human respiratory organs, and he says a person’s life history is written in the dust, color and texture of his lungs. “I can tell you what a man has done for a living, usually where he has done it, if I get a lung sample after he dies,” he says. “The method is so certain it could be used for legal identification in accident cases.”

The lifelong rural resident carries to his grave lungs as clean, smooth and pink as a baby’s cheek, the city dweller’s are blackened and crusted by soot.

Dirty lungs alone do not cause illness. But the deposits block and scar the minute channels through which oxygen is absorbed by the blood, making the heart work overtime to pick up the required oxygen and leaving the tissues less resistant to bacteria.

In 1933 Pittsburgh, Boston, Baltij more and St. Louis, then the four ¡

smokiest U. S. cities, ranked first, second, fourth and fifth in pneumonia deaths. (New Orleans, No. 3, was well down on the air-pollution scale but had a high pneumonia-susceptible Negro population.)

In laboratories researchers are producing experimental cancers on mice simply by rubbing any one of several chemicals on a spot of bare skin. Practically every one of these chemicals is a derivative of coal tar.

Smog irritation causes many of our eye and sinus troubles, headaches, asthma, and may be a contributory cause in rheumatic fever. Germs that can travel only a few feet through clear air hitchhike miles on soot particles, and the smoke pall overhead is an umbrella protecting them from their greatest enemy—the sun’s ultra-violet rays.

Ultra-violet rays, which kill bacteria and produce vitamin D in the human skin, are knocked out first by smog because they are shortest and most easily deflected. Nutritionists say the ultra-violet light reaching city streets is practically nil. As a result the city child has to get his vitamin D out of a cod-liver oil bottle.

Smog Can Be Stopped

The average person takes into his body three quarts of food and drink daily and a whopping 10,000 to 12,000 quarts of whatever atmosphere happens to be around. We spend millions to assure that our food and drink are pure, but ignore the filth in the life-giving air that shuttles in and out our lungs 30,000 times a day.

Most of our smog is avoidable; it’s cheaper to get rid of smoke than tolerate it. Several U. S. cities have proved that science can cut smoke to a dribble. Outstanding examples are Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Hudson County, N.J. They have done it by training boilermen in methods of smokeless firing, by demanding they use a coal suitable for their furnaces and by insisting that outmoded furnaces be replaced.

Chief smoke inspector John Neilson, Toronto, recently investigated a factory fogging the neighborhood with smoke blacker than a pickaninny’s ears. He found the coal suitable, and automatic stokers of a type that should eliminate most smoke. (Stokers force coal into furnaces from beneath so that gases must pass up through the fire and burn instead of escaping.) Neilson couldn’t explain the smoke. Then, when leaving, he noticed a fireman shoveling coal onto the top of the fire. The mystery was solved.

The furnace was too small to maintain the required steam pressure unless forced with overfire stoking, a practice which invariably creates smoke. Neilson found the management aware of the trouble, but to economize they were making the old equipment do, and turning a deaf ear to the complaints of smoke-smothered neighbors. Neilson told them the fuel wasted would pay for a new furnace in about four years. Today that new furnace is being installed.

An army of glib promoters is selling a host of smoke-eating devices which, so they claim, will squeeze every smoke particle out of a chimney.

Not all the gadgets are fakes. One type, proved effective on locomotives and factory furnaces, consists of pressure jets which force extra air over the fire. This permits complete combustion, reduces smoke and cuts fuel consumption. Rut the jets do nothing to control the noncombustible sulphur trioxide, ash and silica.

The Cottrell precipitator, however, a piece of electronic wizardry, sits in a

stack and plucks out dust and fumes like a swallow catching gnats. It has a gridwork of electrified wires shooting off electrons toward surrounding metal plates. The electrons ionize molecules of smoke and fumes and carry them to the plates where they adhere. Periodically the plates are removed and cleaned.

The precipitator not only eliminates smoke, it also recovers thousands of dollars worth of byproducts which previously shot out the chimneys.

Trail, B.C., a famous name in the story of Canada’s smoky skies, has turned its health-sabotaging smoke into a valuable asset. Twenty years ago sulphur fumes from Trail’s smelters eddied down the Columbia Valley into Washington State, 11 miles away, and caused such devastation that farm -ers were put out of business/ Grain fields withered, many areas couldn’t even produce cattle pasture. Farmers complained to the U. S. Government, Uncle Sam complained to Ottawa, a bitter little international incident developed and the International Joint Commission investigated. The Trail company (Consolidated Mining and Smelting) paid $350,000 damages, then started looking to its chimneys.

Today 95% of Trail’s sulphur fumes are captured in the stacks to produce ammonium sulphate which fetches a good price from fertilizer and explosive industries. The company is reputed to make more today from the wastes which once devastated farmlands than from its original smelting products.

Several Canadian cement mills use Cottrells to recover tons of cement which used to go out with smoke. And the U. S. assay office on Wall Street mines 250 ounces of gold from every ton of soot and dust caught in its big stack.

C. E. Baltzer, combustion engineer in the Bureau of Mines, Ottawa, says: “Unfortunately, Canadian smoke control, like the smoke itself, is still very much up in the air.” But Canada is at least starting to sink its teeth into its smoke problem.

Municipalities starting to go after their smokemakers include Vancouver, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, North Bay, Windsor, Hamilton, Niagara Falls, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec and Halifax.

Smog Paints Town Red

Toronto is making the biggest struggle, not without reason, since a few years back it was listed by the Smoke Prevention Association of America as “one of the four or five smokiest cities in North America,” and in the meantime it has moved up a notch or two because Pittsburgh and St. Louis are out of the running. Toronto recently dug out its 1915 antismoke bylaw and rewrote it, closing loopholes. It isn’t law yet, but may be before you read this.

Vancouver has had a smoke law of sorts since 1929, but sawmills continued merrily belching smoke as they stoked their furnaces with softwood waste. Not until last year did Vancouver’s smoke suppression campaign start getting places.

Several years ago the city hired perky little (five-foot-five) John MacGregor as smoke inspector. MacGregor would sit at the window of his sixthfloor office in the hilltop city hall and when he spotted a too black cloud of smoke he would phone the offender. But Vancouver’s smoke law had as many loopholes as a crochet tablecloth.

Two years ago Vancouver’s downwith-smoke crusade picked up momentum. The Vancouver Sun cited a 1935 survey which revealed seven to nine tons of soot being belched daily into

Vancouver skies. The city council started to move and now Vancouver’s skies are growing clearer.

In Montreal 15 years of campaigning have produced little success. A smokeabatement committee has amendments to Montreal’s rather ineffective smoke bylaw now going through the legislative mill. Centre of attack is grimy west-end St. Henri ward, whose smoke made literary history in Gabrielle Roy’s “Tin Flute.”

Hamilton is putting pressure on its big foundries to install smoke-eliminating equipment; Windsor, in co-operation with Detroit, has got passing steamships to cut their smoke; Ottawa used a junior board of trade poster contest to draw attention to its smoke damage; Winnipeg’s sanitation inspec-

tor Fred C. Austin periodically hauls a smoke offender into court.

New Toronto sees red, figuratively and literally, when every once in a while its pigment-factory chimney coats streets with orange dust, and delegations of shouting citizens stamp before town council. Halifax, which has squawked loud and long against locomotive smoke, now has the railways using four smokeless Diesel growlers in the city yards.

It is still a feeble effort, but it’s a start.

And in the meantime authorities warn that there are at least a dozen industrialized centres in Canada where, under the right atmospheric conditions, another Donora tragedy could strike any day. *