October 30, 1948
The first of 20 victims of the Donora smog dies
An ominous thick, yellow cloud descended on the town of Donora on October 27, 1948. The mist was comprised of a lethal mixture of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and metal dust from the nearby zinc plant and steel mill, and was trapped over the city by a pocket of cold air which pressed the gasses down. Charles Stacey, a high school senior at the time of the deadly fog, later recounted the air “created a burning sensation in your throat and eyes and nose.” Attempts were made to evacuate those with compromised health conditions, such as those with chronic heart problems, but the dense smog made traveling the roads impossible.
The first death occurred on October 30. The fog lifted the following day, but ultimately claimed 20 lives, targeting the elderly and those with heart conditions.
Government investigations were launched to establish a cause, though such investigations were hesitant to name the industrial plants as the sole cause of the illnesses and deaths in the town. Other factors were listed as well, including coal from home heaters and traffic from nearby riverboats, as well as the aforementioned pocket of cold air suppressing the toxic air.
The number of victims killed by the smog is considered much higher than the original 20, with the town experiencing elevated levels of deaths resulting from cardiovascular disease and cancer from 1948 to 1957. Some 5,900 people were affected by the smog, 43% of the town’s total population.
The incident launched the dangers of air pollution into the forefront of American minds. In the 1950s, President Truman held the first national air pollution conference, though the Clean Air Act was not enacted until 1963. By 1970, President Nixon formed the Environmental Protection Agency. And today, the town of Donora displays a sign reading “Clean Air Started Here” as a reminder of the deadly smog which paved the way for a more serious look into air pollution.
Boissoneault, Lorraine. “The Deadly Donora Smog of 1948 Spurred Environmental Protection—But Have We Forgotten the Lesson?” Smithsonian. October 26, 2018. Accessed: October 30, 2019. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/deadly-donora-smog-1948-spurred-environmental-protection-have-we-forgotten-lesson-180970533/
Jacobs, Elizabeth T., Burgess, Jeffrey L., Abbott, Mark B. “The Donora Smog Revisited: 70 Years After the Event That Inspired the Clean Air Act.” American Journal of Public Health. April, 2018. Accessed: October 30, 2019. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5922205/
“Killer smog claims elderly victims.” History. November 13, 2009. Updated: October 28, 2019. Accessed: October 30, 2019. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/killer-smog-claims-elderly-victims
“Smog Deaths In 1948 Led To Clean Air Laws.” NPR. April 22, 2009. Accessed: October 30, 2019. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=103359330