If I ever find myself 24 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I will make it a point to visit the Donora Historical Society and Smog Museum. Until then, I’ll have to content myself with visiting the website and watching the fascinating videos there. The museum educates the public about what Wikipedia describes as one of the worst pollution disasters in America’s history.
On October 27, 1948, the yellow smog started settling upon the town of Donora, which had a population of 14,000 at the time. There was a temperature inversion, which was causing warm air higher up to force cold air to remain down below, and the pollutants from the nearby U.S. Steel Donora Zinc Works and the American Steel & Wire plant, which normally disbursed into the upper atmosphere, were trapped. These pollutants included sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide, and fluorine.
The fire department and the town’s medical staff were pushed to their limit during these five days, and an emergency center had to be set up in the town hall by the American Red Cross. Visibility was so limited it was nearly impossible to drive.
By the time the smog disbursed five days later, due to a weather change, 20 people had died, and half the residents had been sickened. An additional 50 people died within the month, and even 10 years later, mortality rates in Donora were a lot higher than in other nearby towns. Research later showed that thousands more would have been killed if the smog had lasted longer than the five days.
U.S. Steel has denied all responsibility for this toxic event, even though the emissions from the zinc plant had killed all the vegetation within a half mile radius of the plant. It made a few paltry settlements of lawsuits, but none of the victims were ever adequately compensated. And to add insult to injury, property values dropped by 10 percent within a year. The current population of Donora is around 6,000.
The one silver lining to the Donora Smog is that it made people start taking pollution seriously, and this resulted, eventually, in the Clean Air act of 1963. It also triggered stricter regulations imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency in the hopes that such a disaster would never happen again.
But unfortunately, it seems that London did not get the memo, or if they did, they chose to ignore it. A little over 4 years later, on December 5, 1952, the people of London experienced the worst pollution event in the history of the United Kingdom. And it was eerily similar to that of Donora. It, too, was the result of a temperature inversion. It, too, lasted 5 days. But 1952’s Great Smog of London was much more deadly.
For London, the pollution sources seem to have been a combination of the poor quality coal that residents were forced to use for heating after WWII, which produced sulphur dioxide. There were also several coal fired power plants within the city limits. The smog contained hydrochloric acid, fluorine and sulphuric acid, similar to the Donora incident. The city was also full of vehicles, steam trains, and diesel buses. And of course there was industry. Lots and lots of industry
The people of London could barely see three feet in front of them in the daytime. Public transportation was shut down, as was the ambulance service. Public events were cancelled as the acrid smog even got indoors. If people had to go anywhere, they were forced to feel their way, one step at a time.
When the weather finally changed, at the time it was estimated that 4,000 people had died and 100,000 were made ill. Current researchers set the number of deaths closer to 12,000, taking into account the many people who continued to die for months afterwards of lung infections and hypoxia.
This smog, too, lead to greater public awareness and increased environmentalism. It, too, led to changes in legislation, including the City of London Act of 1954, and a national Clean Air Act in 1956 and in 1968. At least we are capable of learning from our horrendous mistakes.
Now, if only China and other nations with heavy industry would get the memo and learn from it, too.
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