Just south of Careopolis, Pennsylvania, the Ohio River splits at the northernmost tip of a long skinny island and joins together again about five miles later. The island, Neville Island, contained at its southernmost tip the Shenango Coke Works, a sprawling industrial complex built around 1930. Shenango processed coal for steel mills and had been spewing benzene, hydrogen cyanide, and hydrogen sulfide for decades.
Having finally outlived its usefulness Shenango ceased operations in 2016, its buildings imploded in 2018. Five years later researchers made a stunning, unbelievable, completely and utterly unexpected discovery.
The research team from New York Univeersity discovered pretty much what they expected to, that the closure of the coke works would lead to decrease in air pollution in the area and a significant reduction in the number of emergency room visits. Wuyue Yu, one of the NYU researchers, said of the study, “It was a natural experiment. The only factor that has changed in their life is the closure of this complex.”
The study found that sulphur pollution dropped an astounding 90 percent. Meanwhile emergency room visits for cardiovascular issues dropped more than 60 percent, and the rate is still dropping.
Scientists equate the improved health in the area to someone who quits smoking. George Thurston, professor of Environmental Medicine and Population Health at NYU’s School of Medicine, explains, “Immediately, they (experience) less coughing and hacking. But then over the long term, you know, their lungs get healthier.”
The findings didn’t surprise scientists. Lucas Henneman, an environmental engineering professor at George Mason University, said, “We’ve established evidence going back decades that emissions influence air quality, air quality influences health,” said Henneman, who was not involved in the study. “When we can show..there are clear benefits when we reduce air pollution to health. I think that sends a pretty powerful message that these interventions that we’ve taken on polluting facilities work.”
And it’s all due to the after effects of the Donora Death Fog in 1948, which spurred the first clean air act, the Air Pollution Control Act of 1955. The twenty-one people who perished in the smog did not die in vain. To learn more about the smog, the worst air pollution disaster in US history, check out my book, Donora Death Fog: Clean Air and the Tragedy of a Pennsylvania Mill Town.