Still Fighting for Clean Air Today

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.

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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.

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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.

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Donora: The Birthplace of Clean Air

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

Temperature Inversions and Deadly Smog

Donora, Pennsylvania.

Meuse Valley, Belgium.

London, England.

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.

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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.

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Death in Donora

The Monongahela River meanders from the West Virginia coal country to the middle of Pittsburgh, where it joins the Ohio and Allegheny rivers in a famous confluence called Three Rivers. Along the way the river curls around this hill and that, forming elbows and horseshoes that can make travel between towns along its banks long and lonely.

Along one of those curves, a large horseshoe about 30 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, lies a a town called Donora, an old mill town that would largely be forgotten now were it not for an unusually long patch of unlucky weather that led to the deaths of hundreds of people and ultimately prompted the creation of the Clean Air Act. For it was at that horseshoe curve that at the turn of the 20th century a wealthy Indiana industrialist, William H. Donner, had decided to build a series of zinc and steel plants to supply the growing needs of a flowering America.

The plants employed thousands of Donora residents, supplied steel and wiring for hundreds of buildings, bridges, and highways, and spewed untold tons of respiratory pollutants and irritants into the air. In the fall of 1948 Mr. Donner’s plants gave grave notice to the town that all was not well.

On Tuesday October 26, the air over Donora became foggy from cool air being trapped beneath warmer air above in what meteorologists term a temperature inversion. Normally inversions last less than a day, but this one lasted a devastating five days. Within two days the fog had turned into a stinging, yellowish-gray shroud so thick that many people couldn’t drive, couldn’t even walk without stumbling. “It was so bad,” said one resident, “that I’d accidentally step off the curb and turn my ankle because I couldn’t see my feet.”

On the worst day, Saturday the 30th, volunteer firefighter Bill Schempp worked his way around town, feeling the way from house to house to deliver oxygen to residents with respiratory problems. Each visit lasted only a few minutes and happened the same way. Schempp placed a mask on someone struggling to breathe and turned the oxygen on for just a few seconds, what he called a “shot of oxygen.” Just as the person began to breathe more easily, Schempp then moved to the next house. The residents needed continuous oxygen but there simply weren’t enough oxygen tanks to go around. “These people were just desperate for air,” said historian Brian Charlton, curator of the Donora Smog Museum and active member of the Donora Historical Society.

So it was that Schempp, a man who had lived and worked with the people of Donora for years, who had fought fires, transported the sick and injured to local hospitals, and plucked frightened cats from raging storm drains, had to decide how much oxygen to give each resident. He had to say over and over, No, I’m sorry, as he shut off the oxygen and removed the mask. He had to listen to those desperately ill people plead with them, begging for their life, and then walk away knowing he might never see his friend alive again.

All told 20 people would die over that five-day period, at least 50 more the following month, and hundreds more over the following years. The event spurred an investigation by the Division of Industrial Hygiene, then part of the U.S. Department of Public Health and now part of the Environmental Protection Agency. After numerous states, including Pennsylvania, enacted their own clean air acts, the Government decided that clean air should be a national priority and in 1955 passed the first national air pollution law, initially called the Air Pollution Control Act of 1955 (public law 84–159), later renamed the Clean Air Act.

Today Donora residents maintain a sense of pride about the tragic events of that dark October 68 years ago. In a 2009 interview with NPR, long-time Donora resident Don Pavelko said, “We here in Donora say this episode was the beginning of the environmental movement. These folks gave their lives so we could have clean air.”