The 1948 Donora Smog
Meldon Avenue (PA 837) at Fifth Street
October 28, 1995
-From the ballad "Death in Donora," recorded by folklorist Dan Hoffman
I have felt the fog in my throat
The misty hand of Death caresses my face;
I have wrestled with a frightful foe
Who strangled me with wisps of gray fog-lace.
Now in my eyes since I have died.
The bleak, bare hills rise in stupid might
With scars of its slavery imbedded deep;
And the people still live - still live - in the poisonous night.
Folks in Pittsburgh, Johnstown, Connellsville and the other steel and mining towns of western Pennsylvania were used to smog. Smog meant that the mills were running and the coke ovens burning. Smog meant men were working and families fed. Sure, it could be a nuisance. It stunted the growth of crops and trees, soiled curtains and caused asthma and hacking coughs, but that was the price of progress and prosperity.
No one was prepared for the black cloud that swallowed Donora, a Monongahela mill town, just a short drive south from Pittsburgh, on Tuesday, October 26, 1948. By Friday, folks were crowding into local hospitals, but that didn't stop the Halloween parade that same evening, when costumed children appeared "like shadows moving through the gloom," or the high school football game the next day, when no passes were thrown because no one could see the ball. Seventeen people died on Saturday, and thousands were gasping for air. But the zinc works and steel mill stayed open, their stacks pouring an acrid gray smoke into the suffocating sky.
On Sunday morning the bosses at American Steel and Wire finally closed the plant. By the time fresh winds finally swept through the valley and blew away the smog on Monday, 7,000 people had become ill - nearly half the town's population. In all, twenty would die from acute fluoride poisoning and asphyxiation. In the days that followed, state and federal investigators descended on Donora to find out what - or who - was to blame. Donora became a national "scientific test tube" for the study of air pollution.
American Steel and Wire insisted that a freakish weather pattern had trapped an accumulation of fume-ridden effluents from many sources under a cold pocket of air in what meteorologists called a "temperature inversion." Many residents and investigators blamed the Zinc Works. The smog, the researchers pointed out, was a poisonous mix of sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and heavy metal dusts that came from the smokestacks of the local zinc smelter where most of the town worked.
The company's experts disagreed, and they made sure the official report exonerated the Zinc Works. But a lot of folks weren't convinced. "You didn't need science to identify the culprit," wrote one local newspaper reporter, "all you needed was a pair of reasonably good eyes." Soon before his death in 1996, industry consultant Philip Sadler agreed. "It was murder.... The directors of US Steel should have gone to jail for killing people."
The Zinc Works reopened the next week, but business in Pennsylvania and the nation did not return to normal. A pollution disaster unprecedented in American history, the "Donora Death Fog," made air pollution a national concern. The next year, President Harry Truman called for the first national air pollution conference. In 1955 Congress finally passed the nation's first Clean Air Act.
By the end of the twentieth century, the state and the nation had established a whole array of laws and agencies to improve air quality and made significant strides towards that goal. Air pollution in Pennsylvania, however, remained a problem. The burning of fossil fuels by automobiles, industries and others released huge volumes of sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide and other acidic gases into the air, which precipitated down upon the state as acid rain and snow.
With deposits of an average of forty-three pounds of sulfate and nitrate per acre per year, Pennsylvania had the worst acid rain problem in the country. The state was also second in toxic emissions from coal mining and processing, and third in toxic air emissions from coal, oil and electrical utilities. The struggle for clean air remains far from won.
Lynne Page Snyder, "The Death-Dealing Smog over Donora, Pennsylvania: Industrial Air Polution, Public Health Policy, and the Politics of Expertise, 1948-1949," Environmental History Review (Spring 1994): 117-139.
California University of Pennsylvania, The Donora Digital Collection: Donora, PA from its Origins to the Case for Clean Air http://www.cup.edu/education/aam/artexhibit.jsp?pageId=158083001042122...