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In the 1987 Mel Brooks masterpiece Spaceballs, planet Spaceball has totally wrecked its environment, turning a once-green planet into a solid steel sphere with no atmosphere. Clean air is sold in cans of Perri-Air, a wonderfully Brooks-esque spoof of the famous French sparkling water brand. To replenish the planet’s air supply, President Skroob (played by Mel Brooks) orders the military to kidnap Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) of the pristine planet Druidia and hold her hostage in exchange for the planet’s air. Spaceballs military leader Dark Helmet (played by Rick Moranis) is in charge of the mission, but is eventually thwarted by the rogue space pilot Lone Starr (played by the amazing Bill Pullman).

I won’t give too much away, but there’s also a giant vacuum cleaner wielded by the robotic Mega Maid, and a whole lot of poking fun at the Star Wars franchise.

Spaceballs is riot of a comedy, but it’s also a not-at-all veiled metaphor for atmospheric pollution. Remember, it was made in 1987, right around the time the world was coming to grips with a giant hole in the ozone layer. And while that hole didn’t let our atmosphere leak out into space, it certainly gave Brooks the basis for the Spaceballs story.

And air pollution was a huge deal in Los Angeles, and Hollywood. Many of us never got to experience it, but the air quality in LA in the ’40s ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s was deadly. Smog hung in the air like a thick fog and many residents actually said that it hurt to breathe. It sounds like present-day China, which has famously terrible air quality. In fact, the air in parts of China is so bad that some crafty entrepreneurs are actually selling cans of fresh air, just like Spaceballs.

I’m not making it up. Canadian company Vitality Air is selling cans of compressed air from across Canada for about 28 bucks a pop. Each can contains eight liters of air from Canadian natural wonderlands like Banff national park and Lake Louise. Now, that’s absurd enough, but they also sell a diamond-encrusted bottle signed by (rapper?) 2Chainz for $18k. The company actually started as a joke with a single eBay listing of some fresh air sealed in a Ziploc. The bag sold, and then another, and before they knew it the company founders were making good money selling fresh air in cans to China.

And another company called Aethaer in the United Kingdom is selling jars of air from the English countryside for $130 a pop. They also sell posh particulate filter masks with neat designs on them. They also make a very useful app to help people track air quality around the globe. Aethaer was founded to raise awareness of poor air quality around the world.
We’d probably be buying canned air here in the US if we hadn’t dealt with our own smog.

In the early ’50s scientists figured out that the Los Angeles smog was came from car exhaust. Before that, it wasn’t obvious. Sure, anyone who’s been around a classic car knows that exhaust stinks, but it’s transparent. Smog, on the other hand, is brownish. It wasn’t clear (pun intended) that the two were related. Caltech biochemist Dr. Arie Haagen-Smit discovered that smog forms when airborne hydrocarbons from gasoline and nitrogen oxide (NOx) react with sunlight.

In Los Angeles, there were (and still are) millions of cars, and the air tends to stagnate in the warm, sun-drenched valleys. All of this made the air in LA the worst in the nation.

After the discovery, Haagen-Smit spent the next decade or so trying to convince politicians, the auto industry, and the public that cars cause smog. It wasn’t easy. The auto and oil industries pushed back immediately, and even sent a researcher from the nearby oil-industry-funded Stanford Research Institute to discredit his findings. The Stanford scientist failed, and Haagen-Smit was vindicated.

Still, the oil and automobile industries were in denial, claiming that smog was only a quirk of LA’s unique geography. They were reluctant to spend money researching how to make cleaner engines, or to spend money adding extra equipment to cars. In short, they didn’t want anything to cut into their precious profits — Southern California’s health be damned.

But LA residents weren’t having any of it. As the evidence mounted, and more people became aware of and convinced by Haagen-Smit’s research, they began to pressure politicians to make laws to improve air quality. I mean, things were bad. The air was unbreathable more than 200 days of the year. Parents were keeping their kids out of school, athletic events were frequently canceled, and emergency rooms overflowed with people having respiratory problems. Haagen-Smit and his colleagues also put on several big stunts for the media to make their point. The head of the LA Air Quality board volunteered to sit in a plexiglass chamber filled with ozone and smog to prove its danger. He got bronchitis.

Around the same time, Rachel Carson released her book Silent Spring, which launched the environmental movement.

Finally, politicians began to notice and take action. Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1963. Two years later it called for national emissions standards for cars. In 1966 California established the first tailpipe emissions standards in the nation. The California Clean Air Resources Board, or CARB, was founded in 1967. Still, automakers resisted until 1969, when the Justice Department sued them for conspiring to delay anti-smog devices.

By 1970 the air in LA was improving, but it was still pretty nasty. But the regulations had pushed the oil industry and auto manufacturers to invest in clean gasoline tech. Oil refineries had to be overhauled to make cleaner-burning fuel, and engines had to change to burn that fuel more efficiently. Catalytic converters, along with new gas formulations, really improved emissions from gasoline cars by the early ’80s and the air in LA finally began to clear up. And, of course, air quality across the country improved greatly with the introduction of emissions controls and smog devices on cars.

To be fair, the oil and auto industries really did clean up their acts. The technological transformation was nothing short of miraculous. The gasoline cars of today are many times more powerful, efficient, and cleaner than the cars of the ’50s. But both industries probably wouldn’t have done anything if it weren’t for Haagen-Smit’s whistle blowing and clear air regulations.

And the air has continued to improve. A recent study published in the Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Journal states that air quality regulations have saved tens of thousands of lives in the US since the 1990s. They say that deaths related to particulate matter dropped more than 50 percent across the country between 1990 and 2010, saving 40,000 lives in 2010 alone.

The study was conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina, the EPA, and the Department of Energy. They created a computer model to simulate particulate matter and ozone concentrations in the US over the last 21 years. Then they layered mortality rates for people older than 25 who died from diseases that likely result from this pollution. They also accounted for the relative risk people face from those diseases.

There’s a great write-up on the Gizmodo Earther site about the study by reporter Yessenia Funes. It’s so good, in fact, that the last two sentences of that last paragraph were ripped straight from the article. I tried to rework them, but I couldn’t make them any clearer. That’s exceedingly rare when it comes to online reporting. It’s well written, folks. Very well written. Go check it out, I’ll link to it in the show notes.

Which, finally, brings us to the latest and greatest emissions scandal: Dieselgate. I felt it was necessary to talk about how and why we got clean air regulations in the first place before we started talking about VW’s recent debacle. It’s easy to forget how bad the air was right here in the United States before we forced industry to clean up its act. And remembering it will help you understand why dieselgate was such a big deal.

In the next episode I’ll talk about what VW did that almost bankrupt the company, how they did it, and why. Then I’ll go into the science of NOX — nitrous oxide — the thing that makes diesel dirty.

Until then, breathe easy. And thank those brave scientists like Dr. Arie Haagen-Smit for standing up to industry and demanding regulations that helped clean up our air.

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