Society and the Environment: Killer Smog

killer smog

This historical photo captures the town of Donora, Pennsylvania, as it is enveloped in smog at noon on Saturday, October 28, 1948.

For the residents of the small Monongahela Valley town of Donora, Pennsylvania, living with the smoke that billowed from the local zinc smelter was an everyday occurrence— until October 26, 1948. On that night, a temperature inversion and an absence of wind began to trap a deadly mixture of sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and metal dust that would hang in the valley air for five days. Over that period of time, 20 residents lost their lives and 7,000 other residents—about half of the town’s population—suffered some form of respiratory problems.

The Weekend of the Killer Smog
By Saturday afternoon, October 29, 1948, the yellowish smog had become so thick that spectators in the stands at a local high school football game could not see the players on the field. Only the whistles of the referees could be heard. By nightfall, driving was unsafe. This proved to be catastrophic because doctors recommended that any residents who suffered from respiratory ailments be evacuated from town. In an attempt to alleviate the suffering of people who were struggling to breathe, several local firemen carried oxygen tanks through the streets to people’s homes. Because of the low visibility, the firemen had to feel their way along buildings and fences. Because the supply of oxygen was limited, only a few breaths of oxygen could be given to each person. Eleven people died that night. A makeshift morgue was set up in the local community center.

Even as the killer smog choked the valley, the zinc smelter continued production throughout the night. The smelter continued sending more gases and dust into the air over Donora. The smelter was shut down only when the magnitude of the problem became apparent—at 6:00 a.m. on Sunday, October 30, 1948.

Later that day, a drizzling rain began to fall and washed the pollutants from the sky. By the time the rain fell, 20 people were dead. Thousands of other people were at home in bed or were filling the corridors and examining rooms of the two area hospitals. People who were less affected by the smog suffered from nausea and vomiting, headaches, and abdominal cramps. Some victims were choking or coughing up blood. The zinc smelter resumed operation on Monday morning, October 31.

The Aftermath
19 Shortly after the incident, the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the U.S. Public Health Service, and other agencies undertook investigations. This was the first organized attempt to document the effects of air pollution on health in the United States. The knowledge that air pollution could be linked directly to the deaths of individuals resulted in legislation at the local, regional, state, and federal levels. These laws were set to limit emissions of sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, and other pollutants. The greatest legacy of the Donora tragedy was passage of the Clean Air Act of 1970. According to a 2011 report, the direct benefits of amendments to the Clean Air Act of 1990 are estimated to be around $2 trillion and 230,000 fewer deaths by 2020! This is a staggering benefit for the $65 million direct cost of implementation.

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