Imagine living in a town dominated by polluted air. A place where dirty air has been described as “a way of life.” Where you could reach your hand out and not be able to see your fingertips because of smog. Where you could trip over a curb since you weren’t able to see it.
Such was the case with Donora, Pennsylvania, a small town just a few miles from Pittsburgh in the 1940s. Large clouds of smoke sent into the sky from metalworking mills caused everything to be covered in red dust from iron ore. Smog, smoke, and dust were the norm, though residents acknowledge it was normally blown away by the wind by lunchtime.
Starting on October 27, 1948, conditions began to get worse. Donora was being affected by a temperature inversion, where due to weather conditions, a layer of warmer air traps cooler air beneath it. That’s what happened in Donora, and the cooler air was loaded with sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide, and fluorine. Unfortunately for humans, those chemicals are poisonous.
And they had an effect. During the next few days, 20 people died from the toxic fumes, and nearly 7000 people in the town became ill from the air they were breathing. Reading quotes from residents at the time, it sounds like a war zone or natural disaster area. They remember emergency hospitals set up in hotels, with the lower levels turned to morgues because the funeral homes couldn’t handle all the fatalities. Within a month, another 50 residents had died.
The smog in Donora during those few days has been described as the worst air pollution disaster in the history of the United States, yet I’d never heard about it until recently. Thinking about those people who died and their families has brought home to me that clean air does matter. I’ve been writing how it matters for quality of life, and how it matters for what future generations will experience. But this kind of disaster goes much deeper. Imagine someone you love not being there strictly because of breathing air that wasn’t safe.
Consider too the people who actually worked inside and around those mills. While perhaps not breathing concentrations of those chemicals that led to acute distress or death, is it not reasonable to conclude that they suffered from being constantly exposed to lesser levels?
Perhaps the silver lining to the Donora incident is how it moved others to ask these questions, to try and prevent similar occurrences in the future. Indeed, what happened during those few days in Pennsylvania triggered the clean-air movement, leading eventually to the Clean Air Act of 1970, which required the EPA to create and enforce laws that keep such disasters from happening again.
An unsettling aspect of researching this incident has been the role of industry and how employer-employee relationships played a part in the aftermath. The mills refused to shut down for several days, and in the end, only ceased operations for one day. Lawsuits filed against U.S. Steel, the owner of the mills, resulted in little restitution to those who’d been affected. Some feel that in the years after, residents were hesitant to speak out about the incident or the company’s response, since their livelihood depended on continued employment at one of the mills.
Which brings me to what I feel is the most valuable thing to learn from Donora. For many years, people worked in close proximity to pollutants that had a damaging effect on their health. Apparently, these conditions were borne without any kind of outcry, simply so workers could support their families without fear of reprisals from their employer. I’ve written recently about our current state of talking about the need for clean the air, yet doing nothing about it. Before Donora, it seems that people weren’t even talking about air pollution.
All that talk has made things better, yet problems remain. Pennsylvania, for example, has average deposits of forty-three pounds of sulfate and nitrate for every acre of ground per year due to acid rain. Almost 70 years after what happened in Donora, whether we know it or not, we’re exposed to substances that harm our health.
Where do we go from here?
We often point to learning from the past as the true value of history. The idea is that we learn from the missteps of those who came before us, and avoid repeating them. If you look at Donora in that light, it’s a bittersweet result. Tougher air regulations have improved quality of life and worker safety in many developed countries. Yet we have a long way to go before everyone has the clean air in their lungs that is their right.
Let’s learn from what has happened in Donora. If we’re working in unsafe conditions, we need to talk to someone about it. If we’re involved in the management of a facility that pollutes the air, let’s do whatever’s needed to put a stop to it. If we like to breathe, may we do what we need to every day so that we, and everyone around us, can enjoy clean air.