As to what ‘smog’ is, really, record should be set straight

“Random House Webster’s College Dictionary” defines “smog”1 as follows: “smoke or other atmospheric pollutant combined with fog in an unhealthy or irritating mixture.”

As originally conceived? I’ll accept that.

Oh, and as for ozone?

Webster defines “ozone”2 as (are you ready for this?): “1. a form of oxygen, O3, produced when an electric spark or ultraviolet light passes through air or oxygen, that in the upper atmosphere absorbs ultraviolet rays, thereby preventing them from reaching the earth’s surface, but that near the earth’s surface is a harmful irritant and pollutant: used commercially for bleaching, oxidizing, sterilizing, etc. 2. OZONE LAYER. 3. clear, fresh, invigorating air.”

Ozone as air that is invigorating, fresh and clear even? A bit of a stretch, don’t you think?

At any rate, an issue I have is with the way some in the media use the “s” word. That the word smog is, at times, used much too loosely, well, this is to understate things. That is to say, for me to see smog expressed as being a wintertime phenomenon consisting of fine particulate matter pollution, this is quite common. (Check out the second sentence in this story).

Notice in the Webster definition, no mention whatsoever as to it being a hot- or cold-weather occurrence.

A smoggy New York

Okay, so could it be that the word “smog” has become the preferred term in terms of identifying air pollution in general?

When I see what I understand smog to be, such is always at times during which temperatures are on the warm side. In my way of thinking, smog should not be confused with the visible haze, for example, hanging in the air at colder times of the year.

Periodically, I hear reference made to pea-soup-thick pollution in places like Beijing, China, as smog. Such was the case regarding the 2008 Summer Olympic Games held there, so much emphasis it seems placed on getting the air cleaned up there as much as possible during the time the games were conducted. It seemed like a really big deal.

In “Polluted air: The heart of the problem” back on Dec. 8, 2012, I wrote: “Furthermore, prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games being held, nearby factories shut down and area traffic was restricted.

“That action had a direct influence on air quality improvement as emissions dropped a full 60 percent.”

The pollution being referred to in this instance is what I picture in my mind to be smog.

Now, in getting back to ozone, this substance, as it has been explained, is one of smog’s main ingredients and hence the connection between the former and latter. Ozone is what smog isn’t, that is, a colorless, odorless gas.

All things considered and in the grand scheme of things, when it comes to smog and definitions/descriptions is this a case of my making much ado about nothing? In my heart of hearts I don’t think so or I wouldn’t have brought up the matter in the first place. Besides, I’m thoroughly convinced that by having a set definition, this would eliminate a good bit of the confusion which, I have to believe there is much.

Oh, and so you know, prior to my seeing smog (the term) on Wikipedia and my reading about it in the introductory section, to see “smog” and “odor” (“odour,” if I’m going to be precise) used in the same sentence?! I had no idea.

Imagine that!


  1. Random House Webster’s College Dictionary, 1991, p. 1264
  2. Ibid. p. 969

Image above: Dr. Edwin P. Ewing, Jr.; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

5 thoughts on “As to what ‘smog’ is, really, record should be set straight

  1. The word SMOG is a combination of the words smoke and fog. Smoke is visible impurities in the air and fog is fine water particles also in the air, which have the significant property that they condense on the smoke particles. There should be no confusion here and so far no relationship with ozone, which is simply a chemical gas containing 3 molecules of oxygen in their myriads.

    When there is dense smog our breathing is affected by it and for people with prior difficulty in breathing it can be fatal. To reduce this danger in our cities (where the air is most polluted), a control of these particles is vital since we cannot really stop the condensation of the water particles onto them.

    The burning of fossil fuels is a significant cause of this pollution and its inefficient combustion has the result of producing more particles of soot (sulfur and carbon), on which the smog largely is based. Unfortunately to burn these fuels efficiently on a large scale is very difficult, but unless some other more natural means for the generation of power is contrived and used, we will be unable to reduce the amount of pollution that results.

    That is to say: until we cease using gasoline in cars and coal in power plants and the petroleum oil that is used to make electricity is properly burnt and its exhaust flows completely filtered for particles our lives will be shortened due to air pollution by smog. Today the balance between public health and the generation of power for productive and transport largely favors the latter. Until our governments cease to allow the wasteful use of these fuels, and impose restrictions on the damage caused by their apparent profit, will the scales be biased towards shorter lives and unhealthy environments.

    • You bring up a very good – and, I believe, a very important – point, and that is that smog results from the combining of fine particles of water and smoke. Almost all pollution from the burning of fossil fuels that I can think of produces smoke. As an aside, there is only one type of fossil-fuel combustion I can think of not producing smoke and that is the burning of petroleum coke (used as a fuel to generate power).

      Still, having a set, established definition I believe would help clear up the ambiguity surrounding smog.

      Incidentally (or maybe coincidentally), my very first post on the Air Quality Matters blog, is titled: “Smog more than an eyesore – it’s a wake-up call.”

  2. Well. Combine smog with pollen with agriculture dust and odor, the San Joaquin Valley indeed has a breathing problem, don’t you think?

  3. “Ozone is what smog isn’t, that is, a colorless, odorless gas.” ~ It’s a pale blue gas with a distinct odor – what we think of as the smell of electricity.

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