As we celebrate Earth Day today, it's good to remember our own canaries in the coal mine: The victims of the Donora Smog of 1948.
It's fitting that another old steel town is in the news today as the Post-Gazette reports that, "Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, who is part of the ad campaign and is scheduled to testify at a hearing on the cap and trade issue in Washington, D.C., today before the House Energy and Commerce Committee."
The Donora Smog of 1948 was an historic air inversion pall of smog that killed 20 and sickened 7,000 people in Donora, Pennsylvania, United States, a mill town on the Monongahela River 24 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.
The smog first rolled into Donora on October 27, 1948. By the following day it was causing coughing and other signs of respiratory distress for many residents of the community in the Monongahela River valley. Many of the illnesses and deaths were initially attributed to asthma. The smog continued until it rained on October 31, by which time 20 residents of Donora had died and approximately a third to one half of the town's population of 14,000 residents had been sickened. Sixty years later, the incident was described by The New York Times as "one of the worst air pollution disasters in the nation's history." Even ten years after the incident, mortality rates in Donora were significantly higher than those in other communities nearby.
Sulfur dioxide emissions from U.S. Steel's Donora Zinc Works and its American Steel & Wire plant were frequent occurrences in Donora. What made the 1948 event more severe was a temperature inversion, in which a mass of warm, stagnant air was trapped in the valley, the pollutants in the air mixing with fog to form a thick, yellowish, acrid smog that hung over Donora for five days. The sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide, fluorine and other poisonous gases that usually dispersed into the atmosphere were caught in the inversion and accumulated until the rain ended the weather pattern.
Researchers analyzing the event have focused likely blame on pollutants from the zinc plant, whose emissions had killed almost all vegetation within a half-mile radius of the plant. Dr. Devra L. Davis, director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, has pointed to autopsy results showing fluorine levels in victims in the lethal range, as much as 20 times higher than normal. Fluorine gas generated in the zinc smelting process became trapped by the stagnant air and was the primary cause of the deaths.
Preliminary results of a study performed by Dr. Clarence A. Mills of the University of Cincinnati and released in December 1948 showed that thousands more Donora residents could have been killed if the smog had lasted any longer than it had, in addition to the 20 humans and nearly 800 animals killed during the incident.
The Donora Smog marked one of the incidents where Americans recognized that exposure to large amounts of pollution in a short period of time can result in injuries and fatalities. The event is often credited for helping to trigger the clean-air movement in the United States, whose crowning achievement was the Clean Air Act of 1970, which required the United States Environmental Protection Agency to develop and enforce regulations to protect the general public from exposure to hazardous airborne contaminants.
Fetterman has been appearing in print and TV ads by the the Environmental Defense Action Fund (EDAF). The theme of these ads is "Carbon Caps=Hard Hats" and "is aimed at promoting a cap on carbon emissions by linking such controls to the creation of new jobs in blue-collar industries, like steel."
The TV spots are running from April 12 through May 8 in Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Missouri, New Hampshire, Virginia and the District of Columbia.
You can view the Fetterman ad here if you haven't viewed it already (I've seen it running on the Sunday morning political shows) :
I also am compelled to add how nice it is that under the Obama Administration the Environmental Protection Agency is actually back to working on protecting the environment.