This week, Men’s Health magazine put Saint Louis dead last in its rankings of a hundred American cities. The companion periodical, Women’s Health magazine, was only slightly better, with its ranking of Saint Louis as the 97th city on its list. This puts Saint Louis at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to picking a healthy place to live.
Saint Louisans are naturally skeptical of these dubious rankings. We have been routinely pelted with the titles of America’s most dangerous city and murder capital of the U.S. These ranking come to us not through lies, or even damn lies, but through statistics, the mathematical equivalent of a falsehood. These crime statistics have been discredited by the FBI, but still they persist and once again this year Saint Louis is so crowned.
It is easier to dispute Saint Louis’ poor crime rankings, because the underlying data is available for review. These two health magazines have not been so forthcoming with their research. A skeptic is left to wonder if darts were involved with the selection process, but that would make Saint Louis the worst dart playing city too. It is easy to dismiss this ranking as some statistical sleight-of-hand or demographic gerrymandering, but doing so would mean also dismissing Saint Louis’ documented health history.
The first year that Anne and I moved to Saint Louis, we experienced the hottest weather that we have ever had here. In 1980, that summer’s killer heat wave killed 113 people. In the 1980s red air quality days were all too common. In recent years these red days have faded to orange, but that is as likely due to politically motivated relaxing of the standards as it is to Saint Louis rising to the challenge and cleaning up its air. The nadir of Saint Louis health quality came some seventy-one years ago, on “Black Tuesday”.
On November 28, 1939, Saint Louis’ air pollution problem reached crisis proportions. This so-called “Black Tuesday” galvanized civic leaders to pass air pollution laws to help clean up Saint Louis’ atmosphere. Women’s rights groups were instrumental in getting these laws passed. The Missouri History Museum’s Homelands: How Women Made the West exhibit touched upon this problem and how women worked to solve it. The two pictures with this post and the accompanying quoted text come from this exhibit.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, air pollution was especially bad in Saint Louis because the fuel available locally was soft bituminous coal. As these images from “Black Tuesday” in 1939 show, soft coal produced so much smoke that it sometimes blocked out the sun. Soot falling on the city drove suburbanization by lowering city property values, ruining merchandise in stores and threatening the health and well-being of the population.
Our house was built in 1937. It has a coal chute door on the front corner of the building. In the center of that cast iron door a hole has been cut and a heating oil pipe sticks out from its center. The oil tank still resides in the basement. We heat with natural gas now. So this building has gone from coal to oil to gas. Our gas furnace is old, almost ancient and long overdue for replacement. A new high efficiency gas furnace should pay for itself quickly. Its lower carbon footprint should also help make Saint Louis a healthier town to live in. Saving money and living longer too, sounds like a winner to me.