The American Lung Association (ALA) recently released a report on air pollution throughout the United States, and despite Pennsylvania’s history in dealing with air pollution — starting in Donora, of course — there remain areas in the state still showing up on the ALA’s Most [Air] Polluted list. The Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton area ranks eighth, in fact, in annual particle pollution out of 187 metropolitan areas and tenth in 24-hour particle pollution.
Certainly there have been strides made in the nation’s ability to combat air pollution. The greater Pittsburgh area, which once served basically as “Air Pollution Central” due to the many steel plants there, has seen continued progress (right) for many years, as have most cities throughout the U.S. We need to remain fully committed to this path to attain truly clean air.
“A clean and healthy environment is the single most important precondition for ensuring good health. By cleaning up the air we breathe, we can prevent or at least reduce some of the greatest health risks.”
— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, MD, Director General, World Health Organization
Susan Gnora, known by most as Susie, got up that morning and ironed. What she ironed is unknown, though most likely she ironed her husband’s white work shirts. Perhaps she ironed shirts most mornings, like other Donora wives whose husbands worked at one of the mills along the Monongahela River. That particular morning, Friday, October 29, 1948, was extremely foggy. Looking back we recognize the 29th as the fourth day of what we now call the Donora Death Fog, but at the time it was just another foggy day in Donora.
Susan was having trouble breathing that morning, but she kept ironing nonetheless. She also had a headache that wouldn’t go away. She had never had a health problem before, aside from a twisted ankle when she was young, and she had no history of asthma or other lung disease. Yet on this foggy day a woman who had survived the births of 14 children struggled for breath. Her family gathered at her home throughout the day. Susan’s husband John worked all day at a coal mine in Monessen and didn’t get home until about five o’clock. He found his wife painfully short of breath. She told him, “I no feel good.”
Neither Susan nor John spoke English well. John couldn’t read nor write, and in all likelihood Susan couldn’t either. John depended on his energetic wife for everything, from fixing his lunch everyday to using his every-two-week paycheck to manage the family’s finances. She paid all the bills, and when one of her children needed cash, she gave them whatever the couple could afford.
Throughout the day Friday Susan had found herself so weak that she couldn’t complete even the simplest tasks. Her alarming weakness stemmed partly from the lack of oxygen in the air and partly from the dangerous effects of pollutants she had been breathing. The air in Donora that week had become increasingly thick with noxious gases, including carbon monoxide, ozone, and sulfur dioxide, all menacing gases in high concentrations.
The air also contained tiny particles, or nanoparticles, of such metals as zinc, lead, and cadmium. Those nanoparticles had been blown into the air from the steel and zinc mills along the river, particles that joined the coal dust already in Susan’s home from the family’s coal-fired Heatrola. The coal dust, plus the various types of nanoparticles in the Donora air, were breathed in not just by Susan but by everyone else who entered the house or who lived in Donora. The nanoparticles found their way into the deepest parts of the lungs and then into the tiny air sacs, or alveoli, there. Alveoli allow inhaled oxygen to pass into the bloodstream and carbon dioxide in the bloodstream to be exhaled.
When a person is at rest, about ten ounces of oxygen, and about the same amount of carbon dioxide, pass into and out of the bloodstream through the alveoli every minute. During exercise that amount can double. In Donora that horrible weekend, those ten ounces or so contained an unhealthy amount of noxious gases and harmful nanoparticles. On entering the lungs, all those pollutants caused an inflammation of the alveoli, which prevented the normal amount of oxygen from passing into the bloodstream and the normal amount of carbon dioxide from passing out through the lungs.
The lack of oxygen in the blood is most likely what caused Susan to become weak, and a buildup of carbon dioxide in the blood most likely prompted her headache. Other cells in the body also became inflamed and couldn’t perform their own particular functions as well as they should have. As a result Susan’s heart rate increased, trying to push more oxygen to the brain and other organs that needed it most. Her kidneys couldn’t get rid of as much waste as they should have, and so poisons began building up in her bloodstream. All of her body’s energy was being used to keep her heart, brain, and lungs working, and unless Susan was taken to a smog-free area right then, and given oxygen, she would die.
Her family had no idea how serious her condition was, though, until it was too late. Her son, George, said, “I didn’t realize it was that bad. I thought it was just one of those things that would blow over.”
Susan spent most of Friday night sitting on the edge of the bed, her head bent to her chest, her breathing becoming ever more labored. Speaking became too difficult, and sleep was out of the question. Her daughter, Elizabeth, called every Donora physician in the phone book, but they were all busy, out on house calls. She was finally able to reach Dr. William Rongaus, who arrived sometime between 9:30 PM and midnight. Rongaus drove to the Gnora home in extraordinarily thick, black fog. He gave Susan “a hypodermic,” probably epinephrine, to help open Susan’s airways and improve her breathing. He also left a few pills, most likely theophylline, a drug used to treat asthma and other breathing conditions. Susan didn’t want any of the pills, and the prescription Rongaus left behind was never filled.
When Rongaus left the Gnora home, Susan’s son-in-law, Rudolph Crafton, told him, “Any man who would drive a car [in that fog] would have to be a magician.” To which Rongaus replied, “I’ll manage somehow.”
Susan’s condition worsened overnight, and by 8:30 the following morning, Susan Gnora, a 62-year-old, five-foot, previously healthy, hard-working, Hungarian housewife “a little on the plump side,” with only a fourth-grade education, was dead. Susan became the ninth person to die from the smog. At least ten more souls would perish before rain and a bit of wind arrived that Sunday morning to clear away the fog and let the people of Donora breathe again.
I am by no means an etymologist, but I do find word origins fascinating. Take the word smog, for example.
Smog itself — a combination of smoke and fog — has afflicted humankind for thousands of years, but the word describing it seems to have begun in London in 1905. According to an article in Journal of the American Medical Association that year, a health expert, possibly Dr. H.A. des Voeux, treasurer of London”s Coal Smoke Abatement Society, used the term “to indicate a frequent London condition, the black fog, which is not unknown in other large cities and which has been the cause of a great deal of bad language in the past. The word thus coined is a contraction of smoke and fog — ‘smog’ — and its introduction was received with applause as being eminently expressive and appropriate. It is not exactly a pretty word, but it fits very well the thing it represents, and it has only to become known to be popular.”
The word smog is a portmanteau, a word that blends the sound of two different words. Lewis Carroll, famed author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderlandand Through the Looking-Glass, coined the word portmanteau to describe the kinds of words he invented for his delicious poem, “Jabberwocky.”
Aside from rare use among scientists, the word smog virtually never appears in print until the 1940s, when its use spikes, almost certainly as a result of the Donora tragedy in 1948. Interestingly there was no such spike in the 1930s, when 60 people were killed in a smog event in the Meuse Valley in Belgium. There is no separate word for smog in Dutch, nor in French or German, the three most prominent languages used in Belgium. The greatest likelihood of smog not peaking in the 1930s is because the word hadn’t been in use enough even in scientific literature until that time. For instance, the word fails to appear in a 1937 article in The Journal of Industrial Hygiene and Toxicology, called “The Fog Disaster in the Meuse Valley, 1930: A Fluorine Intoxication.” The article uses instead “fog,” “smoke,” and “thick mist.”
The word begins to register, but barely so, in the late 1930s, climbs a bit in the early 1940s, and really begins to soar from 1948 through the 1960s. (See chart, below.)
The word climbed steadily in use until 1966, when suddenly its use skyrocketed. During six days in late November that year, Manhattan was flooded with smog, leading to the death of an average 24 people per day. Like the Donora smog, the Manhattan smog was caused by pollutants trapped near earth’s surface by an extended temperature inversion.
The word smog kept rising until its peak in 1972, two years after Congress passed the Clean Air Act of 1970, the most comprehensive anti-pollution measure to that date. Since then use of the word has trailed off, but smog itself remains a common and important topic of conversation, even — and perhaps especially — today.
Looking back on those dark, horridly smoggy days in Donora in 1948, one tends to think first of the smoke, the dirty, dusty, sooty smoke, with all of its toxins, pouring out of the smokestacks of the zinc, steel, and wire mills that dominated the valley back then. One tends not to think much or often of the other elements involved, those that, together, set up so perfectly the tragedy that befell the town. Among those elements was the wind, of which there was virtually none.
If even a slight breeze had strolled through the Donora valley that week the smoke would have broken up, giving residents some respite. But no, there was no breeze to be had, not in Donora, nor in Monessen to the south, nor in Monongahela to the north. There was, in fact, nary a breeze to be had throughout the entire Northeast that week.
The image below is part of a national weather map from September 29, 1948, a month before the Donora tragedy. The black lines, marked here by orange arrows, indicate general wind speeds. The closer the lines, the greater the wind speed. On this day the wind was pretty much normal, with light breezes along the eastern U.S.
Now look at this map from October 29, in the thick of the smog that killed so many in Donora and Webster. Note how far apart the lines are. Wind bands are almost non-existent, and in the Donora valley along the Monongahela, there was no wind whatsoever.
With conditions like that, air in the valley stagnated, collecting pollutants and sickening thousands. That morning Ralph Koehler, one of Donora’s eight physicians, looked out his bathroom window over the rooftops below, toward the mills. A glint of light caught his eye as he watched a train plodding along the tracks. Normally smoke would have risen from the smokestacks into the air, but that day something odd happened. “The smoke was belching out,” said Koehler, “but it didn’t rise. I mean, it didn’t go up at all. It just spilled over the lip of the stack like a black liquid, like ink or oil, and rolled down to the ground and lay there. My God, it just lay there!”
The absence of wind at ground level prevented the natural upward movement of smoke not just from the train but also from the nearly dozen 200-foot-tall smokestacks of the various mills. It wasn’t for another two days, on Sunday — Halloween — that Donorans felt their first puffs of wind in six days. That Sunday a cold front (blue arrow, below) moved in from the west and brought with it a slight breeze, light showers toward midday, and then a steady rain later. Between the wind stirring the lifeless air and water droplets washing the soot away, the fog lifted and the air returned to what Donorans considered rather more normal.
As I continue to research the Donora smog tragedy of 1948, I am continually disgusted by the anti-environment rhetoric of and actions taken by the current administration. The President, as I write this, is expected to sign an executive order tomorrow that would roll back President Obama’s clean power plan to reduce carbon emissions and curb global warming.
The residents of Donora didn’t know much about smog in the 1940s. They didn’t know how deadly that rancid fog they breathed every day could be. To them, it was simply part of life. Devra Davis, an environmental epidemiologist and author of When Smoke Ran Like Water: Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution, grew up in Donora. “Well, if you lived here it smelled just fine,” she writes. “People would come to the town, and they would say, ‘What’s that smell?’ And people who lived here would say, ‘What smell?’ And my grandpa would say, ‘Well, it smells like money.'”
Donorans feared for their jobs, so they quietly and, at the time quite reasonably, buried their head in the steel mill sand. It was just fog, they thought. What’s the big deal?
We now know how big a deal that fog was. We now know a number of things we didn’t know much about then:
Air pollution from factories, cars, trucks, wood-burning stoves, and the like cause heart and lung diseases and disorders.
Carbon dioxide and other pollutants break down Earth’s ozone layer and cause global warming.
Global warming is real, regardless of what the current administration might say. There is no debate about it among environmental scientists. None.
Scott Pruitt, the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency– the very agency that came about partly due to the Donora tragedy and its aftermath — has said he doesn’t believe that the release of carbon dioxide is responsible for global warming. “I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do,” he has said, “and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact.”
No, Mr. Pruitt, you are wrong. Utterly and completely wrong.
I wonder how Ivan Ceh would feel about Mr. Pruitt’s comments and the current anti-environment agenda now in play in our nation’s capital. Mr. Ceh was the first victim of the Donora tragedy, succumbing at 1:30 in the morning on Saturday, the worst day of the smog.
Or how Ignace Hollowiti would feel. Ms. Hollowiti died sometime that Saturday morning before anyone could reach her with oxygen.
Or how firefighter Bill Schempp would feel. Mr. Schempp and fellow firefighter, Jim Glaros, worked around the clock, creeping from house to house in the black fog, to deliver oxygen to desperately ill residents.
I think they might feel betrayed. I think Mr. Ceh and Ms. Hollowiti might feel as if they had died in vain, and that Mr. Schempp’s and Mr. Glaros’ efforts weren’t as valiant as they certainly were.
I think they might feel as if the nation, which had been given such a tragic wake-up call, might be going back to sleep, going back to a time when the burning odor of polluted air was just a fact of life.
Stay awake, America. The people of Donora — and you — deserve it.
It took the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 for the U.S. to join England and the other allies in World War II. It took the assassination of President James Garfield in 1881 and the assassination plot on Grover Cleveland in 1894 for the Secret Service to beef up its presidential protection force. And it took a tragedy in little Donora, Pennsylvania, for the nation to legislate for clean air.
Donora, a riverside mill town in southwest Pennsylvania, suffered a prolonged bout of concentrated, toxic smog in late October 1948, during which at least 20 people died and thousands more became ill. The word smog had been coined in 1905 to describe London’s frequent “black fog,” but it didn’t come into use with any frequency until the Donora event. By the time the first clean air bill was passed in 1955 smog had become part of the common lexicon.
That first bill, the Air Pollution Control Act of 1955, kicked things off with funding for Government-led research into the causes of air pollution. The bill didn’t address preventing pollution, just finding out more about it. Even so, the bill, signed by President Dwight Eisenhower on July 14, 1955, came about as a direct result of the Donora event, as well as a similar event in London — the Big Smoke of 1952, which had led to the death of more than 4,000 Londoners. The 1955 act was amended in 1960 to extend funding and again in 1962 to require the U.S. Surgeon General to investigate the health effects of motor vehicle exhaust.
In early July 1963 Congressman Kenneth Roberts (D, Ala.) proposed H.R. 6518, the Clean Air Act of 1963, the first piece of legislation to attack prevention at the source. The resolution was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on December 17, 1963, not quite a month after he was sworn in as President on the tarmac of Love Field in Dallas.
The bill we know today as the Clean Air Act 1970 was signed into law by President Richard Nixon, who laid out a 37-point environmental plan during his 1970 State of the Union address. Later that year Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, a single agency made up of sections of several different departments, including the Department of Health, Education and Welfare; National Air Pollution Control Administration; Water Quality Administration; and even the Food and Drug Administration, which gave control over tolerance levels of pesticides to the new agency.
As a result of all the work done in the latter half of the 20th century the air we breathe today is infinitely cleaner than the air that sickened Donora. And that work came about chiefly due to the sacrifice made by the 27 men and women who perished that dark weekend in October so many years ago.
Post updated November 9, 2018
ONE MORE FACT
The first clean air czar was the impressive former Assistant Attorney General William Ruckelshaus, who later famously joined his boss, Attorney General Elliott Richardson, in resigning his position rather than fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox in what came to be known as the “Saturday Night Massacre” of 1973.
Environmentalists will recognize those names as sites of deadly smog events in the mid-1900s. In Donora, in October 1948, 27 people died and hundreds became sick. In the Meuse Valley incident, back in 1930, 60 people died and thousands developed severe breathing problems. In London, just four years after Donora, a staggering 4,074 people died and tens of thousands of people became seriously ill.
Common to all three tragedies were two key elements. First, large factories in each area had been spewing enormous amounts of pollutants into the air, the most deadly being sulfur dioxide. And second, Mother Nature came calling in the form of something called a temperature inversion.
On most days the air is coolest higher in the atmosphere and warmest nearest the ground. Air isn’t a terribly good conductor of heat energy, so most of the sun’s energy warms Earth’s surface. Sometimes, though, air in higher elevations becomes warmer than air at the surface. That layer of warm air then traps the cooler air below, putting a kind of lid on the area. Temperature inversions happen with some regularity throughout the world and are particularly common in valleys. When moisture clings to the air during an inversion, you’ll see fog. Typically fog “burns off” during the morning, dissipating when surface air warms.
Sometimes, though, fog lingers. Combine that with pollutants also being held down by the layer of warmer air above and you’ve got the makings of a tragedy. People begin breathing air with increasingly higher concentrations of sulfur dioxide, fluorine, and other toxins from factory fumes. When sulfur dioxide combines with water vapor, the result is sulfur trioxide, a dangerous toxin and the primary component of what we know today as acid rain. That chemical change also begins robbing the air of oxygen and increasing the potential that humans, farm animals, and pets will suffocate and die. The longer the inversion lasts, the more deadly the effects.
Donora’s inversion lasted six days before rain finally broke it up. In London and the Meuse Valley, the inversion lasted five days. In all cases the death toll mounted quickly. One undertaker in Donora, Rudolph Schwerha, talked not long after the event with journalist Berton Roueché of The New Yorker about his return home after an arduous 2-mile journey in dense, black fog to pick up a body.
My wife was standing at the door. Before she spoke, I knew what she would say. I thought, Oh, my God — another! I knew it by her face. And after that came another. Then another. There seemed to be no end. By 10 o’clock in the morning I had nine bodies waiting here. Then I heard that DeRienzo and Lawson, the other morticians, each had one. Eleven people dead! My driver and I kept looking at each other. What was happening? We didn’t know. I thought probably the fog was the reason. It had the smell of poison. But we didn’t know.
We know now, of course, and today our air is significantly cleaner than it was then. It’s not perfect, not by a long shot, but it is much improved from the last century. Let’s hope the air becomes even cleaner this century.