Long before Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1970, 20 people in a Pennsylvania town died due to air pollution. About 2-in-5 people in community of 14,000 got sick. It was 1948.
The place: Donora, a mill town on the Monongahela River about 25 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The primary culprits: two manufacturing plants, American Steel and Wire and the Donora Zinc Works. Also at play, “voluminous river traffic” as well as coal-burning furnaces used to heat homes.
On October 26th and 27th, a temperature inversion caused the omnipresent smog to settle and stay.
Effluent from the local coke ovens, coal stoves, and plants’ smokestacks lingered for five days within this geographical bowl, trapped by the inversion at 150 feet—an altitude below which numerous people lived.
According to the Smithsonian, “the 1948 Donora smog was the worst air pollution disaster in U.S. history.” Notice that the Associated Press put “smog” in quotation marks in the first national news story that the New York Times published about the tragedy.
The 26th was a Tuesday. By Friday, a “worker staggered in, gasping,” according to a former nurse at the American Steel & Wire Company. “I had him lie down and gave him oxygen. Then another man came in, and another.”
Although the first death occurred on Friday, the steel mill and zinc plant continued operation. “By Saturday the three funeral homes quickly had more corpses than they could handle”
On Sunday, parent company U.S. Steel directed the zinc works to shut down. The “superintendent disclaimed responsibility, declaring that the zinc works had been safely using the same procedures since 1915.”
The following year, the U.S. Public Health Service reported on its months long investigation, “Air Pollution in Donora, Pa.: Epidemiology of the Unusual Smog Episode of October 1948.” It landed hard on angry eyes and ears.
Critics noted that the permissible emission levels were for healthy young workers in the plants, not older or ill persons in the community; the dead had all been age 52 or over, most with asthma or heart or lung problems. Absolving the zinc works particularly outraged many; you didn’t need science to identify the culprit, a local newspaper declared, “just a pair of reasonably good eyes.” Lawsuits (later settled without assessing blame) were filed against American Steel & Wire; citizens’ groups grew up to demand stiffer smog regulation.
In 1949, the Stanford Research Institute organized the National Air Pollution Symposium. President Truman would organize a national conference in 1950. Congress finally got in on the action, passing the first Clean Air Act in 1963 (research focus) and what we know as the Clean Air Act (CAA) in 1970 (regulatory focus). In 1990, Congress added regulation of acid rain.
Given today’s political climate, it’s worth noting that President Richard M. Nixon (R) signed the 1970 CAA.
In 1999, Marcia Spink, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officer in the Region III (Philadelphia) said that until this catastrophe, “people thought of smog as a nuisance. It made your shirts dirty. The Donora tragedy was a wake-up call. People realized smog could kill.”