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The Following tape recorded program is distributed through the pathologies of the National Association of educational broadcasters. [rimshot] Just hold your breath. [drums and cymbals start playing] Hold your breath as long as you can and you'll soon discover how vital this natural resource is. Yes, air is the most precious substance we have when it's clean it's healthy and useful. When it's polluted it's costly and it kills. Air pollution is a threat to our way of life and you should know more about it. In these radio programs produced by Michigan State University under a grant from United States Public Health Service. Every aspect of this national problem from health effects to economic considerations will be discussed Air pollution will be viewed by legislators, scientists, public health officials, representatives of industry housewives we challenge you to draw some logical and responsible conclusions.
In the preceding programs we have attempted to create for you an awareness of the problem of air pollution. Scientific and lay testimony has shown that there are important health and economic considerations in this area. Today we think we can bring this problem closer to home by introducing you to a private citizen for whom air pollution has had special significance. We first heard about Mrs. Margaret Sorenson from officials at the United States Public Health Service in Washington and later from the people of the Chicago Department of air pollution control. They were very aware of Mrs. Sorenson because in her attempt to clean the air in her community she had created quite a stir. We want you to meet her because her case will illustrate many of the things we have talked about in past programs. It is important for you to remember that Mrs. Margaret Sorenson has been fighting air pollution for over 20 years and that her approach is entirely colored by her strong feelings toward the problem. Our interviewer Dr. Albert Houstus gave her every opportunity to tell her story
just as she experienced it. Mrs. Sorenson can you tell us just a little bit about yourself and how long you lived in Chicago and what you've been interested in over the years and your family a little bit. My family came from Pennsylvania to Chicago in 1902, that's my parents with my family and of course we moved into Englewood. And we lived in one homestead there for almost 40 years. And 28 years ago my husband and I moved out into this neighborhood. Because he secured a job at Wisconsin Steel and we felt, uh it was better for him to be closer to work 'cause I always had a car and could go and come as I pleased. So we moved right into the heart of the steel mill district. What was it like then when you moved out here? Was this the first house or among the first houses? No, there were, um
In this block there were all but about, uh, all the houses towards the, uh, north end were built and, uh, there were some of the houses still over on Burley 'course all these new bungalows around here we've- I would say we've had an addition of over 5,000 homes [mhm] in this district since I've lived here. How far are the steel mills, um, from you right here? In my backyard [laughs] right- right- right- right in your own backyard. Right in my backyard. I have the federal furnace of- a block and a half and, uh, west of me. Republic Steel is about a half of mile south of me then we have, uh, a Wisconsin steel is a mile west of here. That's where my husband was employed. So we have, oh, mostly all the steel mills right here in this district. But with the things that you first noticed that kind of bothered you with- that had to do with air pollution. The dirt that your body would, uh, uh, I don't know how I'm going to say this, uh. The dirt that would stick to your body or adhere to your body if
you were working out in the yard or if we would be sitting out on the front porch of an evening. You'd go out there in maybe a nice, clean house dress, husband would have on a nice white, uh, shirt. We'd come in and that was the end of that it couldn't be worn the second time if you sat outside in the air any length of time. How long has this been going on? Ever since we lived here, but in 1942 was the first time I ever called the Air Pollution Department on it. And then the war broke out. And they told us there wasn't anything they could do. Then of course we just went along I mean, with it, until Republic Steel started this furnace business bec-. What did- what did they do? I don't know, but they sure messed everybody in this neighborhood up. How- how- Can you be a little more explicit how did- how did they mess up the neighborhood? Well 'bout- um, I would say in- about five years ago it was the first time
um, after we had painted our home- our home was painted maybe two weeks. And we got up one morning and went out and looked at it and everything was just as though someone had taken a squirt gun with oil and sprayed all the paint work on the home. What color was this deposit? Just like a dirty, gray oil. I see. Like you would take the oil from your crankcase after it's been through and just spray it at somebody and I imagine that's what, uh, that oil would look like. What- what happened then? We didn't know where it came from or what to do, so we just took brushes and water and soap and scrubbed it. We had to, um,- we just painted, and, so then that went along again for about another year and a half and then we had another spray like that. But that wasn't such a serious one. And then in November of 1960 I think there were about 500 homes in this neighborhood sprayed with this same grit. You couldn't wash it off, you couldn't scrub it off, you couldn't do
anything with it until you wou- washed with such a terrible solution or such a strong solution that you washed the paint with it. And what? You had to start from scratch and repaint. What did you do then? Called our insurance companies, they told us they weren't responsible; it was the industries in the neighborhood [mhm] that were responsible for it and that's where we would have to look for damages. Did you try the industries? We wrote- I wrote 42 letters to the different industries in this neighborhood and put the case before him and told 'em to come out if they were interested, and look at some of the homes that had been damaged and ask them if they wouldn't do something about trying to clear up the air condition and the pollution condition in this neighborhood. I called a Chicago air pollution department and they came out and after... plain monkeying around for about three months, nothing was done.
We went and hired our own chemist. Took palings from my porch and window sills from garages in the neighborhood out to this chemist, took sweepings from our porches and after a period of about five weeks he called us and told us that it was hydrogen sulfide and the different contents of all this stuff that they had- that had damaged our homes. So then I called the Air- Chicago Air Pollution Department. And three days later then, they came out in the papers and said it was hydrogen sulfide, but before that they said they couldn't find out what it was. I see. So as a result of the test that you made, why then... That's right. Well, did you start to get some some action then, or not? Yes and no. Well, tell us about it. Then we decided we were gonna have a drive on
to the mayor we were going to hire about four or five buses and fill it up with people in the neighborhood and storm city hall. And, uh, at one of our meetings one of the men from the east side, um, Chamber of Commerce got up and spoke and said he didn't think we should go over our Alderman's head that he thought we should talk to our Alderman first before we stormed City Hall so then we went out to Mr. Purcini's office on a Tuesday night. He's the Alderman? Yeah. Of the 10th Ward. Came up to see me and, uh, he told us that he would make an appointment with the mayor. And, uh so we kept the date at the mayor's office: December 28th 1960. The mayor at that time I took a paling from my porch with me. He wanted to know what it was and I told him his guess was as good as ours but that's what had-
That's the way our homes had been damaged three or four times in the past three years and we felt we had taken just about everything any neighbor should stand even though we were in a steel mill district. So he told us at the time he the, um, Mr. Kerry from the air pollution, Mr. Monson, Mr Kurshner are all, uh, men at the Chicago air pollution department. There were about nine of them at this meeting and he told them that there would be a lot of young graduates, uh, the end of January for my IT and Armor Institute and they should hire about 50 or 60 of them and put two or three in each plant. And find the source, the cause, and the reason of this pollution which they never did. Well, this is a matter of money isn't it, I mean is this-. He told us there was plenty of money in the city treasury to take care of it. I see but nothing happened. But nothing happened. What'd you do then? Well what was there to do? We just stormed every time. Republic
Steel would sha- the chimneys would start poppin' off. Everybody in the neighborhood would call them. Asked for Mr. Northrup or Mr. Pisaller, one of the men and talk to him. Did you-. They say go out and look at it. Did you help organize all this calling or was all this spontaneous? Oh no, no, we had regular forms made, we had, um, mimeographed forms that, uh, pinpointed each, um, discharge from those chimneys, uh, now like one neighbor would get it. I hear- I didn't get it so much because I had a very sick husband at the time and, uh,- but the other neighbors would get it and they would call me and say, "Sorenson they're poppin' off now," and I'd say, "Well don't tell me, write it down. Call the air pollution Department, call the mayor's office, call Republic steel, call any one of them. Call everybody you can" And that way, through that kind of an effort I think, uh, they got so tired of these calls that they decided to really do something.
Then the air poll- then we went down and, um, our Alderman again went to the mayor- er, to the mayor's office and then they put these boxes in different garages that started accumulating. I don't know, there was a sort of a box that had a reel that this dirt would come onto it and it would, um, come in brown spots and-. It would collect a specimen of- yeah- the material that was there. Was it your thinking that, that maybe if the community got together that you could be more effective than people just working individually? I thought if I could get enough of the neighbors together. I had talked to a Dr. Saltenstein at McChrom Associates and he said to take a case like ours and pinpoint the cause- what it is and fight it through a court. It would cost us about $5000 so I thought well, if I could get everyone here in the neighborhood just to donate a dollar maybe we could accumulate and get them started on it. But when we took our
collection we collected $84. Instead of $5000? Yeah. What did you finally have to do in order to get some action? We didn't get any action until Mr. Fitzpatrick took over the air- Chicago Air Pollution Department. What happened then? He came out here and I insulted him. I just made him so mad that he just made up his mind he was going to show me that he could clean up this district and it took him three months and he did. Oh, good. Did you have to write to Washington or did you write to Washington along the line here too? When we found out through our- when we, uh, hired this private chemist, what he had discovered was in this smear on our homes homes, and in this dirt and grit, he told us at the time at the time he said to me, "Mrs. Sorenson, you started something that will take 20 to 25 years to clean up; you'll never live long enough to do it."
But he said, "Gee I hope when you get started you keep at it." He didn't even charge us for his services and the work he did on it. But he told me then, it was a health hazard to everyone that lived in this neighborhood. Chemist told you this? Yes. Mhmm.. And, uh he suggested that I write to, um, I forget what the name was now, someplace in Cincinnati. anyway it was your- the government branch in Cincinnati. The The- the, um, Taft Environmental Center was at the place? And instead of me writing to Cincinnati I wrote to Cleveland (Mhmm) so I- ?inaudible? got that letter back, so then I addressed a letter to Washington DC. And asked if they're- as long as we were getting noplace with the Chicago Air Pollution Bureau, if we could demand help from the government. And he wrote back and said, no, as individuals, we couldn't. Mr. Williams I'm talking
about now. Mr.- Mr. Williams of the United States Public Health Service. That's right. Mhmm. He wrote back and said no, we couldn't. The only way they would step in is if the Chicago Air Pollution Department would demand help from 'em. Then they would But in his reply, and with his reply to my letter, he enclosed enclosed about, uh 15 or 20 pamphlets printed printed in Washington D.C. So hence we had a little meeting of about a dozen neighbors in my home here, and we were all reading these different all reading these different pamphlets, and one was reading this, and one got more excited, the more we read the more excited we got because all they talked about was cancer of the lung, and cancer of the throat, and cancer this, and the health, uh conditions to sinus conditions, and bronchial conditions. Then we decided, well it was about time we did something, and we got real active about it, then I finally did get in contact with Taft, uh, Research and they sent me all kinds of bulletins. Then in, um, one of the
letters from Taft Research they told me about Mr. Nelson down in our new Post Office Divi-, uh, Department and he is the Chicago representative of the government Public Welfare and Health Department. And we went down there, and I think of what we had down to Mr. Nelson, I think that was the best step we made was the best step we made, because he never bothered us, he never left us know what he had done, on our Chicago Air Pollution Department started to take action too. too. Has the situation been clarified to your satisfaction today? No. What-what-what remains to be done? Well, we get just as much, uh, not this, I didn't know what they called it? What did they call it?.. wasn't smoke. That's how we lost our case in court. We were in court about five times with this and because
they called it smoke they threw it out of court. Emission. That's a real fancy word. Yeah. From the open hearth furnaces at Republic Steel. Those are cleaned up. Mhm. But now they have a 'cinerating plant that they built right back here at 109th an' Burley and that was never to have any kind of an emission and somedays it never stops. Do you think there's any, any possibility of folks that are as close as you are to the steel mill ever being freed from-from-from these emission little particles that come from the steel mill? I don't see how it could be possible. It would cost millions and millions of dollars. And yet in 1952 my husband and I drove through Pittsburgh, and when we hit the outskirts of Pittsburgh I said to him, "We better hole up for the night, it's dark." And then about five years later we
drove over the turnpike into Pittsburgh again and I said to him, "You better take and start looking for a place to hole up before we get to Pittsburgh." And he said to me, "We passed Pittsburgh about a half hour ago." We didn't even know we went through it. So I do think it could be done. Just like Pittsburgh. Just like Pittsburgh. And then Dr. Sal- er, yeah, Dr. Saltenstein from McChrom Associates showed us pictures of the Kaiser plant in Los Angeles County, in California and, uh, they cleaned that up. You certainly did a lot of work in the neighborhood to get people organized and so forth. I worked with about 12, 15 neighbors and that's all. Did the 12 or the 15 they-they really- That's right- provided the nucleus for this whole thing? That's right if I-I think if I hadn't had the backing of about those... men and women, there were about five men and about seven women, I think I would have quit.
What kind of advice would you have to give to, uh, uh, oh, another housewife such as yourself, that thought that she was being bothered by a problem on air pollution? What would you advise her to do? Move out of the neighborhood. [laughs] Well, no, that's-that-not [laughs] Not everybody can move out of the neighborhood. That- that's how we were situated. We couldn't move either, but that would be the advice I would give anyone. Alright, now what's- what's the second best advice, other than to move out of the neighborhood? Burden yourself with a 24 hour a day problem I had telephone calls here I had telephone calls here at 3:30 in the morning, "Mrs. Sorenson," 12 degrees below zero, "Go look out your back door. Look at the smoke that's coming out of such and such a chimney." And I don't think everybody else- uh, other people can take it like I can, I don't know. Well, uh, back up just a little bit now. Supposing now this- this other housewife is-is-is- has a
problem. She thinks she has a problem, and she wants to do something about it. Can you give her any advice, uh, from your own experience as to how does she go about to- to get this problem corrected? Oh, mm, well if she went about it like I did, she just, uh, devoted 24 hours a day of her time until she made a little bit of headway. And what did she do? Who did she get in touch with?- Who would she get in touch with? I mean, from your experience. Well of course I got in touch with the Air Pollution Department, that didn't do me much good. Then of course, when we talked to Alderman Pesini he did go to the front for us. Then we went down to the mayor's office; we didn't think we had gotten so much cooperation from him. So we just kept it, uh, ?Batton? at the industries; calling him up. Letting them know what the problem was?- Just pestering them to the extent that their switchboard was so busy from early morning to late at night that they had to
take and pay attention to us. Did anybody lose their jobs that you know of because of this? Not that I know of. I lost a lot of friends. Mhm. I had church members of mine that when I walked into church, wouldn't talk to me. They were afraid of their husbands jobs? The husbands that I knew from the time they were babies, that I knew before I moved into this neighborhood, and the husbands asking what I was trying to do make a big show of myself, make a name for myself, an old bag like me doing this and doing that. Didn't I have anything else to do but bother the neighbors and have the men lose their jobs and so forth... did I want all the steel mills in the district to close down. But nobody lost their job that you know of? Not that I know of no, no. Now, you- lot of these folks- you say you lost a lot of friends. Have you gained these friends back now since the problem has been-? Some. Some of- some of them. Yeah. Some. Are these- are these folks, uh happy with what you've done to make conditions a little better to live in this area?
Yes, there is one employee of Republic Steel- goes to the same hair dresser I do and I said to her, "Come on, sign a petition for me." "Not me," she says, "That's gold coming out of them there chimneys. That's my paycheck." But, now that it's cleaned up and we meet in the hairdresser's she always says to me, "Sorenson, I could kiss you!" and I always say "Yeah." That's it. But she didn't sign the petition. No. I don't want the people in the neighborhood, I didn't want Republic Steel to feel that we had just picked them out as one individual to pick on. We didn't. Through, uh, our observations and through our chemist and through this we found out that the worst part was coming from Republic Sk- Steel, so we felt if we'd clean them up first, Do you think that the..that the present Do you think that the- that the present framework with the, with the, uh,
Department of Air Pollution in, in the city and so forth; do they have sufficient strength and regulations to do the job that you think ought to be done? Now, with Mr. Fitzpatrick at the head of it. He accomplished for us in three months what we had been fighting for, for 16 months. What remains to be done? Oh, clean up the whole city [chuckles] of Chicago. Well, how can- how can- how can, uh, people like you help the air pollution- folks in the city of Chicago? Well I grew up out here we still- I still have about- I would say about seven or eight women in the group that, uh, when they see a chimney smoking, emission, whatever you want to call it, they'll call up
the plant that's doing it. and they'll call the Chicago Air Pollution. If it gets a little bit too bad they call the mayor's office. This is kind of a-a-a citizen's reporting committee? That's right. This- would you- would you think this would be a good thing for people to do that were concerned with air pollution? You've got to make yourself- You've got to make them, uh, pollution conscious before they'll, uh, do anything about it. 'K, what- what else can they do other than call the mayor when they watch for the pollution- is there anything that, uh- that they can do to help-? I don't know what else you can do. This is the principal thing that you think of to-. That's right. To observe and- and- and- and. We just make a nuisance of ourselves. Well, is it really a nuisance, or is it just observing and-and reporting what you observe. And if you keep at them then-then-they. Then they'll do something about it. I didn't call down in the air pollution office for about three months until last week and, uh, the 'cinerating plant was- oh it was just coming and-
No it wasn't it's- it's longer than that. I painted my back porch and I finished painting it about ten after 6:00 in the evening and, uh, it was in September, beginning of October. And I got up the next morning to take the ladder down that I had laid across the steps so no one would use it and there was about an eighth of an inch of grit on this new paint. So I called the Air Pollution, Chicago Air Pollution: Mr. Monson answered and he said to me, "Why Mrs. Sorenson, we haven't heard from you for three months." I have to take you off the payroll. He said, "What happened?" I said, "I haven't had a real cause, but today you send somebody out here and get him out here in a hurry, I want to show you a porch I painted yesterday." So he sent one of the district from the Air Pollution. And when he came, I said to him "you know when I got out here this morning came I said to him, you know when I got out here this morning, looked at this porch I just stood here and cried. And this man said, "Well," he said, "I think if this would have been my porch I'd have done the same thing."
And the paint wasn't dry yet. Are they making any progress in overcoming this yet or not? Mr. Fitzpatrick told me today when I mentioned the 'cinerating plant that they were st- working on it there. Working on it. Yeah. Yeah, well it's been a real pleasure to talk with you and to have you share some of these things with us that I'm sure will be interesting to other women that live close to industry there. We were, uh, through this work and through my advertising in the paper, and through this, well this notoriety and publicity that I had, there was a group out in the, uh, north suburd- suburbs that got in touch with me. There was another group in the 51st in Kenwood district that got in touch with me. Their complaint was burning all the refuse from the buildings that they had demolished. The group out in the north suburbs were the, uh, damage to the trees and, uh, that they were killing off the elms and the birds and this and that. They- these folks have gotten in touch with you to ask you for advice as to how to go about things? Well, and how we were working our problem out.
Well thank you very much, it's been real nice to talk with you. That was Mrs. Margaret Sorenson of Chicago. Mrs. Sorenson has been fighting air pollution in Chicago for 20 years and her feelings are quite obviously colored by the duration of her almost single handed effort. There are those, of course, who feel that Mrs. Sorenson and other private citizens who complain of air pollution problems are oversimplifying the causes and effects and don't really understand the nature of the problem. One of these is Dr. Alan Brandt, manager of industrial health engineering for the Bethlehem Steel Company. "In the light of present knowledge, air pollution is primarily a nuisance problem. How far, and by what means we proceed, uh, in controlling the nuisance is quite another matter. However, in the area of health effects, with the many unknowns existing with respect to the health implications it is imperative that much more research be done in that area in order to establish whether there is in fact a real relationship between chronic illness and the air
pollution in the air." Next program in this series, you'll hear more from Dr. Brandt as we discuss air pollution and the industries. [drums and cymbals start] Hold Your Breath was produced by Patrick Ford at Michigan State University under a grant from the Division of Air Pollution, Bureau of State Services, United States Public Health Service. Our interviewer was Dr. Albert E. Houstous Commissioner of Health, state of Michigan. Programs are distributed through the facilities of the National Association of Educational Broadcasters. This is the NOAA E.B. Radio Network.
Hold your breath
Pollution in your backyard
Producing Organization
Michigan State University
WKAR (Radio/television station : East Lansing, Mich.)
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University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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Episode Description
This program seeks to personalize the impact of air pollution by focusing on a woman who has been fighting air pollution in Chicago for twenty years.
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This series focuses on air pollution and its impact on America.
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Social Issues
Public Affairs
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Interviewee: Brandt, Alan
Interviewee: Sorenson, Margaret
Interviewer: Heustis, Albert E.
Producer: Ford, Patrick
Producing Organization: Michigan State University
Producing Organization: WKAR (Radio/television station : East Lansing, Mich.)
AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 63-36-6 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:29:14
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Chicago: “Hold your breath; Pollution in your backyard,” 1963-10-16, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed March 2, 2024,
MLA: “Hold your breath; Pollution in your backyard.” 1963-10-16. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. March 2, 2024. <>.
APA: Hold your breath; Pollution in your backyard. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from