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A Cloud With a Silver Lining: The Killer Smog in Donora, 1948

Spring 2009
Noon in the Donora Smog of 1948
NOAA Oceanservice Education
Taken at noon on October 29, 1948, this picture shows the deadly smog blanketing Donora.

A murderous villain terrorized the town of Donora during the last week of October 1948. The silent killer took the lives of 20 people and left thousands of others in its wake. The killer came in without warning and vanished in a puff of smoke.

On the western bank of the Monongahela River lies the small town of Donora. In 1948, the town was home to 14,000 residents, 6,500 whom worked for the area's two mills, the American Steel & Wire Co. and Donora Zinc Works. Unbeknownst to the majority of the residents, the factories that sustained their livelihood would also be the cause for illness in a large majority of the town's population and even death for some.

On October 27, 1948, thick, opaque smog began to cover the small, flat river town. "You couldn't see your hand in front of your face," said resident Bill Schempp in a 1998 Tribune-Review article by Lynne Glover. Schempp described the scene as something "out of this world." He would recall to David Templeton in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that "if you chewed [the air] hard enough, you could swallow it."

Within 24-hours of the smog's arrival, police began to receive an alarming number of calls about residents who were having trouble breathing. As time progressed, the calls got more serious. Soon, those with existing respiratory problems began to die and those who were not sick began to feel the effects of the unusual fog.

The town's hospitals started to fill up and soon began to overflow with the sick and dying. Both the Monongahela Memorial and Charleroi-Monessen Hospitals became too crowded, and the town had to convert its community center into a morgue.

Those who tried to escape found their attempts futile. Devra Davis, author of When Smoke Ran Like Water and epidemiologist, toxicologist and air pollution expert, said that those who tried to escape could not because they could not see through the smog while driving. This occurred even when the town kept its streetlights on during the day in an effort to combat the problem. The dense fog had the residents trapped in the small town, and they had no choice but to ride it out.

Schempp was a firefighter during the incident. He responded to the calls that were being placed, but said it took him an hour to get to a house five blocks away because visibility was so poor. When Schempp did arrive with his 135-pound oxygen tank, he was unable to give the wheezing all of the oxygen they desired. He had to keep moving in order to help other residents.

Cemetery in Donora
Devra Davis, When Smoke Ran Like Water, 2002
A cemetery overlooks the ominous clouds created by the steel mills.

Schempp was able to help many, but he could not stop the effects of the killer cloud. The deadly smog took the lives of 20 citizens and left a third of the town's population ill. Of those who were killed, all were between the ages of 52 and 85 years-old and had a history of health problems. The sickened 6,000 others faced headaches, stomach pains, and vomiting.

Luckily, the smog was stopped from causing any more harm when two things occurred. First, the factory was ordered to shut down. Those on the city council and those who ran the steel mills both initially refused to shut down the mills because they did not believe the mills were responsible for the sudden deaths of many of the residents. Due to much pleading by many of the town's doctors and residents, the mill gave in. The second reason the smog retreated was due to a storm that rolled into town on Halloween, October 31, 1948. The storm is said to have saved the town because it broke the temperature inversion that had started during the last week in October. Temperature inversion, said to be one of the causes of the incident, is unusual because the temperature of air will increase with height. This means that cold is trapped close to the ground, and warm air is lying above that. In a Weather Channel documentary, Meteorologist Joe DeNardo said that temperature inversion is like putting a lit cigarette in a bowl and then placing a blanket on top of that; the smoke continually fills up the bowl and has no way of escaping. Temperature inversions were not unusual for Donora, but this one was different because it lasted for five days.

While the temperature inversion is blamed for being one cause of the Donora disaster, emissions from the city's mills is said to be another. The exact amounts of toxins in the air during the incident are unknown. In "The Donora Fluoride Fog: A Secret History of America's Worst Air Pollution Disaster," Chris Bryson explains that the records containing that information are missing from the U.S. Public Health Service's archives, and that U.S. Steel is blocking records similar in nature. To this day, the Public Health Service has concluded that the deaths in Donora were due to a temperature inversion.

Smokestacks Over Donora
Donora Smog Museum
Donora’s mills belch forth smoke and other substances in a picture from the Donora Smog Museum.

While during that last week in October the town seemed to be in chaos from the outside, reports from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from November 1, 1948 said otherwise. The article titled "Donora Residents Calm In Spite of Fatal Smog," said that on the streets of Donora "youngsters continued their games of touch football and rode their bikes. People went to church as usual and filling stations and drugstores kept open for trade. There was no talk of quarantining or of closing public meeting places."

The incident at Donora was tragic, but should not have been completely unexpected. There had been claims settled against the mill in the early 1900s. The first claim came from Mamie C. Burkhardt and her husband, Frank, after they started to see the health and environmental effects of the steel mills. The mills' nine smokestacks blew copper-colored dust towards the Burkhardt house. Mamie complained of headaches, lethargy, and trouble breathing that she began to feel when the mill opened in 1915. She went on to say that the emissions from the mills were responsible for the disintegration of her blinds and curtains. At the trial, Mrs. Burkhardt testified that the window dressings would "just fall to pieces."

The defense offered little rebuttal and was ordered to pay the Burkhardt's $500 in damages. (That amount would be roughly equivalent to $10,000 today.) The company did try to appeal the order, but was unable to do so because they could not present evidence suggesting that they were not responsible for the damages. The company continued to operate years after the Donora Smog of 1948. In fact, Donora Zinc Works did not close until 1956. All of the U.S. Steel Corp.'s factories did not close until 1966.

The mills continued to stay open in Donora because they employed half of the town's residents. Devra Davis explains that no one wanted to talk about the lethal fog because "they could not afford to." However, three months after the incident, the U.S. Public Health Service launched an investigation to determine how smog could have killed and harmed those in Donora. Local residents were also investigating the smog on their own. The Society for Better Living, a town group, believed that the mills were at fault and filed many lawsuits against the companies. The lawsuits claimed the Zinc Works was responsible for the deaths and illness during the last week of October 1948. Each of these suits was settled for $250,000 with the agreement that the Zinc Works was not responsible for anything that happened to the residents. The lawsuits had little impact and the town moved on.

The federal investigation yielded little results as well. The Public Health Service released its findings in 1949. The results said that the temperature inversion was the cause for the incident. The report called the incident a "freak of nature" and an "act of God."

The Killer London Fog
Devra Davis, When Smoke Ran Like Water, 2002
London’s famous double decker buses disappear into the Killer Fog of 1952.

Four years after Donora, in December 1952, a strange fog took over the city of London, England. The week-long fog, caused by coal ovens, is said to have killed 4,000 people. These two incidents caused the United States to make drastic changes to its laws concerning air pollution. The Weather Channel documentary called the incidents "catalysts for change." In 1955, Congress passed the Air Pollution Control Act, the first federal legislation that recognized pollution as a problem.

In 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Clean Air Act, the first federal law to set standards for air quality and to control emissions. In 1967, the Donora steel mills close amid multiple worker strikes and the newly passed Clear Air Act. Many of those who still remained packed up and left because of the lack of jobs and weakened economy.

Then, in December 1970, Richard Nixon boldly signed a tougher Clean Air Act. The act required that standards concerning air quality be rigid. The act also established the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce the standards for ozone (smog), carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, lead, and particulate soot levels.

According to an article on Pennsylvania's Department for Environmental Protection, the act has established an 80 micrograms per cubic meter average limit to the amount of sulfur dioxide allowed in the air. At the time of the Donora incident, the "emissions of sulfur dioxide were estimated to be somewhere around 1,500 to 5,500 micrograms per cubic meter."

Surveying the Air Quality at Donora
Public Health Service, National Institutes of Health
Public Health Service engineer George Clayton looks down at a mill emitting pollution while getting ready to survey the emission levels.

The Clean Air Act has prevented another incident like that of the Donora Smog of 1948 and the London Fog of 1952. In fact, since the act's inception, emissions of toxic lead in the United States have dropped 98 percent. Also, sulfur dioxide emissions have dropped 35 percent and carbon monoxide levels have fallen 32 percent.

Donora is said to have started the movement towards clean air. In a 2009 story for National Public Radio, Ann Murray quotes long-time Donora resident Don Pavelko as saying, "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." To commemorate the tragedy, a museum was erected in the small town. Outside of the museum is a "flaming orange sign" that displays the words "Clean Air Started Here," explains Murray.

Historic Marker
Donora Public Library
Pennsylvania’s Historic and Museum Commission commemorated the Donora Smog with an historic marker.

On the 50th anniversary of the incident at Donora, the town held a commemoration ceremony. Keynote speaker Marcia Spink, the EPA's associate director for air programs in Region III based in Philadelphia, gave a speech about "the debt of gratitude that the people of the United States owe Donora and the event that led to the federal Clean Air Act of 1970." She said, "It is definitely tied to the ability of this country to wake up and realize that air pollution isn't just a nuisance but something that makes things so dirty that it can kill people."

Today, Donora's population has dwindled from 14,000 in 1948 to only 5,000 residents, says Lynne Glover in her 1998 article. Many of the former residents, including the Burkhardt family, evacuated to save themselves from being further harmed by the mills. Some evacuated because their jobs at the factories were lost. After the Zinc Works closed in 1957, the Monessen Daily Independent released an editorial that stated, "The Zinc Works may have cost the valley more jobs than it ever supplied, and the cost to the Donora-Webster area in terms of general community welfare is probably incalculable. We hope the people of the Valley, particularly those in the Donora vicinity, will not receive the announcement about the Zinc Works with hand-wringing despondency. We think there is definitely a silver lining to this cloud."

Names of those Deceased from Donora

Taylor G. Circle, 82
Jeannie Kirkwood, 70
William Gardner, 63
Neilson Hill, 52
Ivan Ceh, 70
Peter Starkovich, 67
Andrew Odelga, 69
Ignatz Hollowiti, 64
Mrs. Susan Gnora, 62
Marcel Kraska, 67
Michael Dorone, 70
Bernardo Di Sanzi, 67
Mrs. Barbara Chinchar, 58
Mrs. Ida Orr, 55
John Cunningham, 63
Perry Stevens, 55
Emma Hobbs, 55
John West, 56
Sowka Trubalis, 66?
Gustine Polchak, 60