November 03, 1995


David Hess
Dept. of Environmental Protection

A high school student's research led to the placement of a marker dedicated Oct. 28 by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in memory of the victims of the tragic air pollution incident of 1948 in the Washington County community of Donora. Between Oct. 26 and 31, 1948, 20 people were asphyxiated and over 7,000 were hospitalized or became ill as the result of severe air pollution in the Monongahela River town of 14,000.

The investigation of this incident by state and federal health officials resulted in the first meaningful federal and state laws to control air pollution and marked the beginning of modern efforts to assess and deal with the health threats from air pollution. To commemorate what has become known as the "Donora Smog," the Historical and Museum Commission dedicated a special historic marker in Donora Oct. 28.

Justin Shawley, the high school student who researched the incident and promoted placing a commemorative plaque, joined a number of officials in the ceremony.

Speakers included Betsy Mallison, DEP Southwest Regional community relations coordinator; U.S. Rep. Frank R. Mascara (D-Pa); Sen. J. Barry Stout (D-Washington); Washington County Commissioner Metro Petrosky and Donora Mayor John Lignelli.

A 1994 paper by Lynne Page Snyder of the University of Pennsylvania titled, "The Death-Dealing Smog Over Donora, Pennsylvania: Industrial Air Pollution, Public Health Policy and the Politics of Expertise, 1948-1949," describes the event and the response to the disaster and is quoted below. The paper was published in the Spring issue of the journal Environmental History Review.

"Pollution from the Donora Zinc Works smelting operation and other sources containing sulfur, carbon monoxide and heavy metal dusts, was trapped by weather conditions in the narrow river valley in and around Donora and neighboring Webster. Air pollution problems were recognized from the facility as early as 1918, when the plant owner paid off the legal claims for causing pollution that affected the health of nearby residents. In the 1920s, residents and farmers in Webster took legal action again against the company for loss of crops and livestock. Regular sampling of the air was begun in 1926 and stopped in 1935."

From local accounts of the time, Ms. Snyder provided this description of the 1948 disaster. "By Friday evening (Oct. 2), local residents were crowding into nearby hospitals and dozens of calls were made to the area's eight physicians. While Fire Department volunteers administered oxygen to those unable to breathe, Board of Health member Dr. William Rongaus led an ambulance by foot through darkened streets to ferry the dead and dying to hospitals or on to a temporary morgue. On Rongaus's advice, those with chronic heart or respiratory ailments began to leave town late Friday evening, but before noon on Saturday, 11 people died. Conditions had not improved by Saturday night, and with roads congested by smog and traffic, evacuation became impossible. The company operating the Donora Zinc Works finally ordered the plant shut down at 6 a.m. Sunday morning. By mid- day Sunday, rain had dispersed the smog.

"Pittsburgh itself escaped the episode primarily because it had just begun to enforce a smoke control ordinance and was cutting back on the use of bituminous coal as a fuel source. The Donora Smog gained national attention when Walter Winchell broadcast news of the disaster on his national radio show.

"The Pennsylvania Department of Health, United Steelworkers, Donora's Borough Council and the U.S. Public Health Service all participated in the investigation of the air pollution incident. The investigation was the first time there was an organized effort to document the health impacts of air pollution in the United States. Commenting on the studies of the incident, the Monessen Daily Independent wrote that damage from air pollution from the Zinc Works was 'something no scientific investigation is necessary to prove. All you need is a pair of reasonably good eyes.'

"Before the Donora smog, neither manufacturers nor public health professionals considered air pollution an urgent issue. At the annual meeting of the Smoke Prevention Association in May 1949, a leading industrial physician and consultant to insurance companies dismissed air pollution as a threat, except 'on rare occasions [when] Mother Nature has played us false.' The studies of the Donora Smog did not fix blame and could not document levels of pollution beyond workplace limits set at the time. The Public Health Service recommended a warning system tied to weather forecasts and an air sampling system be installed to avoid future incidents. The lessons learned at Donora resulted in the passage of the 1955 Clean Air Act and began modern air pollution control efforts in the Commonwealth.

"When the Zinc Works finally closed in 1957 the Monessen Daily Independent editorialized: '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.'"

Note: The "Donora Smog" is not the same "smog" or ozone of concern today in Pennsylvania. Today's smog is made from nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compound emissions. While today's air pollution problems do not approach the severity of the 1948 Donora Smog and are less visible to the "reasonably good" eye, Pennsylvania still has an ozone pollution problem. In 1995, air pollution is much less visible, but it is no less a threat to public health, particularly to the same people that were vulnerable to the Donora Smog - those with respiratory diseases like asthma, children, older people and people with chronic heart and lung conditions.