Today in 1948: Suffocation by Smog

“Hey kid, want a smog?”
“No thanks, I quit in January. That stuff is bad for your lungs.”


In Donora, Pennsylvania during the last week of October 1948, a combination of fog and smoke blanketed the town and trapped air.  Days passed. Air pollutants increased and the smog got worse, causing a decrease in visibility….

Smog progression over Donora

Smog progression over Donora

No red flags here. Citizens continued to go on with their lives driving, walking around, celebrating Halloween with a parade and many even attended a football game… although seeing the game was incredibly difficult.

Elderly and seriously ill people began to have difficulty breathing. Community physicians were flooded with calls. Nurses, volunteers, police and firefighters went door-to-door administering oxygen. According to some reports, low-visibility due to smog conditions made it hard to find the homes of people in need.

After the whole ordeal, this environmental disaster left 20 dead and about 6,000 sick.

That Sunday, Donora Zinc Works’ American Steel and Wire Company shut down its smelters in efforts to eliminate as much industrial fumes and smoke as possible. Soon after, Mother Earth helped with cleansing Donora as rain dispersed the smog and skies cleared.

Donora, Pennsylvania: Nurse making pedestrian rounds on smog filled street. Donora, PA, USA

Donora, Pennsylvania: Nurse making pedestrian rounds on smog filled street. Donora, PA, USA

Hey now! Time is money! Did you think Zinc Works would stop operations completely?
Ha Ha. Nice try. They resumed operations the next day.

The causes of the incident are difficult to identify conclusively, nevertheless, there are several obvious possibilities. Residents, such as Mrs. Lois Bainbridge, who wrote to Governor James T. Duff about the situation, stated that people in the area had complained for years about the industrial pollutants that “eats the paint off your houses” and prevents fish from living in the river. Indeed, an investigation supervised by the director of the state government’s Bureau of Industrial Hygiene revealed an extraordinarily high level of sulfur dioxide, soluble sulphants [sic], and fluorides in the air on October 30 and 31. According to the agency’s report and complaints by residents, such contamination of the atmosphere was caused by the zinc smelting plant, steel mills’ open hearth furnaces, a sulphuric [sic] acid plant, with slag dumps, coal-burning steam locomotives, and river boats also contributing to the problem. An unusually dense fog, the likes of which even long-time residents could not remember, may have been held in the valley by the surrounding hills. The fog probably kept the pollutants close to the earth’s surface where the residents inhaled them.” – Pennsylvania State Archives. Letter of Mrs. Lois Bainbridge of Webster, PA, to the Governor


Investigations were done by the state and PA’s federal government. A  million-dollar suit was filed against Zinc Works’ operator but it seems [dead]fishy to me that it was settled out of court for $250,000. Those big men in companies sure know how to keep mouths shut with minimal monetary efforts. Zinc Works denied any responsibility for the disaster despite government finding that the disaster was marked by a number of sources, including smoke from the industrial plants. Instead, like any “good” company would do, Zinc Works installed a weather station and air pollution devices for precautionary measures.

Nine years after the smog incident, Donora Zinc Works was closed. Ten years after that closure, U.S. Steel Corp. closed all its Donora facilities. A total loss of nearly 5,000 jobs… being alive is more important than being employed.

A good thing that came from this disaster is the academic studies that resulted in major federal clean air laws. It began America’s environmental movement by bringing attention to the effects from air, especially industrial, pollution’s harmful and occasionally fatal side effects on life and the environment.

The 1948 Donora Smog Incident led to the implementing the Clean Air Act of 1955 and the birth of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Sometimes people need to experience suffering to make positive change for the future. Do you think its possible to change things without suffering, or is it the only way we, as a society learn?

Castaldo, Nancy F. Keeping Our Earth Green: Over 100 Hands-on Ways to Help save the Earth.
Nashville, TN: Williamson, 2008. Print.


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