Lessons From the Past: The Donora Smog of 1948

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As people fight to loosen and even eliminate environmental regulations, let’s remember why we have them. In 1948 a scene from a horror movie descended on a small midwestern town, Donora, Pennsylvania. There were no regulations preventing companies from poisoning the people there.

The town sits by the Monongahela River twenty miles from Pittsburgh. In 1948, the population of 14,000 experienced some of the worst air pollution of its time. The Donora Smog of 1948 caused the evacuation of the town and sickened over one third of the population.
Twenty people died during the air inversion, another fifty died soon after it lifted.

Air inversion happens when warmer air rests over cooler air, trapping it and any air pollution close to the ground. In Donora, the combined hydrogen fluoride and sulfur dioxide from the American Steel and Wire plant and the Donora Zinc Works created a thick, yellowish, acrid smog.

It all began on Wednesday, October 27, 1948. Residents complained of coughing and respiratory distress. At first it was attributed to asthma, but the smog not only sickened people, it blocked out the sun. Visibility was so poor, the only way to drive was by scraping tires against the curb. Most people remained locked in their homes, waiting for house calls from the firefighters and the eight town doctors.

To rescue the residents, the fire department used up all 800 cubic feet of oxygen and tapped into the resources of its neighbors.

It wasn’t until the next Sunday, the 31th when town officials met with the operators of the plants to request temporarily ceasing operations. Rain fell soon after, alleviating the smog. The plants resumed normal operations the next morning.

The fallout from the event lasted long into the future as citizens experienced a higher mortality than those in surrounding towns as the residents suffered with damaged lungs and hearts. The smog killed nearly all vegetation within a half mile radius of the plant.

The companies never accepted responsibility, claiming it was an “Act of God.” While the residents saw very little of the proceeds from a modest settlement, the event did help push forward the clean-air movement that resulted in the Clean Air Act of 1963 which developed regulations to protect the general public from exposure to such events in the future.