Little Bits of History

Cloud of Death

Posted in History by patriciahysell on October 26, 2011

Taken at noon on October 29, 1948, this picture shows the deadly smog blanketing Donora. (NOAA Oceanservice Education)

October 26, 1948: Skies over Donora, Pennsylvania darken as fog settles onto the small river valley town. Donora of the 1940s was a thriving town with a population of about 14,000. Today, as part of the Rust Belt, that population is dwindling along with job opportunities and there are fewer than 2,500 households in the town that is 20 miles south of Pittsburgh and located on the Monongahela River.

For five days, beginning on October 26 and ending not a moment too soon on October 31, weather conditions conspired to trap air pollution over the town. The smog was a combination of noxious gases from the American Steel and Wire Plant, owned by US Steel, and Donora Zinc Works. By the time the smog lifted, 20 were dead and between 6,000 and 7,000 were ill, some suffered lifelong disabilities. A local doctor, Dr. Rongaus, claimed that the death toll would have reached 1,000 if the smog had lasted another day.

The horror did not end there.USSteel is said to have conspired with the US Public Health Service (PHS) to cover up their role in the disaster. Fifty years later, crucial PHS records are missing and US Steel continues to block access to records. The Pennsylvania State Bureau of Industrial Hygiene on October 31, 1948 conducted tests on the foul air and found excessively high contents of sulfur dioxide, soluble sulphants, and fluorides.

The steel and zinc plants did have help in creating the fluoride fog. There was also a sulfuric acid plant nearby and coal burning trains and river boats added their fetid fumes to the mix as well. A highly unusual fog held the effluvium close to ground level and the air seeped into houses and blanketed the streets. People with a history of respiratory or heart disease were the first to succumb. US Steel eventually paid an undisclosed amount to the survivors of the tragedy. The country responded by passing the Clean Air Act of 1955.

“On (Dr.) Rongaus’ advice, those with chronic heart or respiratory ailments began to leave town late Friday evening, but before noon on Saturday, 11 people died.” – from the Environmental History Review

“Before the Donora smog, neither manufacturers nor public health professionals considered air pollution an urgent issue.” – from the Environmental History Review

” I have felt the fog in my throat —
The misty hand of Death caress my face;
I have wrestled with a frightful foe
Who strangled me with wisps of gray fog-lace.” – John P. Clark

“It would have complicated things enormously for them if the public had been alerted to (the dangers of) fluoride.” – Philip Sadtler

Also on this day:
Tombstone, Arizona – In 1881, the gunfight at the OK Corral took place.
Whoa! – In 1861, Pony Express service officially ended.

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