Monday, October 29, 2012

October 29: "Killer Smog"

On this date in History .... 1948:

“Killer Smog” kills 20 in the town of Donora, PA, a small town of 14,000 and home to steel mills and a zinc smelting plant.  The town was located in a valley and around Oct 26, a fog moved into the valley, effectively creating a ceiling that blocked the factory pollutants in the valley.

photo courtesy of:

Hospitals and doctors began receiving hundreds of calls. About two dozen people died from the concentrated pollution. The elderly and those with respiratory problems were told to leave town but the mass evacuation made leaving difficult.

It was not until Oct 31 that the zinc plant shut down. A rain came in that night, disbursing the pollutants. Walter Winchell reported the story on his radio show, bringing the incident to national attention. The incident led to the passage of the 1955 Clean Air Act and eventually the 1970 federal Clean Air Act. .

This air pollution disaster is what convinced people that air pollution could kill people.  The fog came about due to what is known as a temperature conversion when a layer of warm air trapped the cooled coal smoke and other pollutants including sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide, fluorine and other poisonous gases under it, not allowing the poisoned air to escape away from the town and its residents.  Fluorine is a highly toxic component which attacks the eyes, respiratory, lungs, liver and kidneys.  Autopsies of those who didn’t survived  the smog were found to have levels of fluorine 20 times more than normal.

This is a photo of the town of Donora at high noon. 

About one-third of the 14,000 residents were affected and made ill from the killer smog.  “A decade later the town's mortality rate remained significantly higher  than that of neighboring communities.”  (quote source:   )

The town was torn between needing a resolution to the problem and needing the 5000 jobs provided by the factories, American Steel  & Wire Company and Donora Zinc Works, both owned by U.S. Steel.

"U.S. Steel would not accept blame for the pollution that resulted in the deaths, and many workers, worried that the mills could close, agreed at the time.” A settlement was finally reached but it was so small that after paying for attorney fees, “most people had enough to buy a television set.” (quote source: [D4] )

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