Prove your humanity

A new book looks at an environmental disaster that happened 75 years ago and still resonates today. Donora Death Fog: Clean Air and the Tragedy of a Pennsylvania Mill Town chronicles the events that led to the 1948 smog event that sickened thousands and killed 21 people, according to author Andy McPhee.

He writes that the small town of Donora, Pennsylvania, was founded at the turn of the 20th century expressly for industry. An entire town–stores, schools, churches, and bars–rose up to support the complex of furnaces, mills and plants that made products like steel wire and zinc to galvanize nails. Fog wasn’t unusual in the town, built along a horseshoe curve in the Monongahela River, south of Pittsburgh, but The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple talked with McPhee about what made it deadly this time.

Listen to the interview:

Kara Holsopple: The geography of the river valley there made fog likely. Why was it deadly in 1948?

Andy McPhee: Temperature inversions. We’re accustomed to those. We have those in the fall. It’s when a layer of warm air sits over a layer of cool air closer to the ground. Normally that blows off. The sun heats the air, and the cool air rises up, and the fog blows off. That didn’t happen here for a couple of reasons. One, the fog was very thick to begin with because of all the smoke from the mills.

book jacket

Book jacket, University of Pittsburgh Press

But secondly, there was no wind. There was hardly a breath of fresh air anywhere in the entire region from Virginia all the way up to New York. The mills kept pumping out effluents, and those effluents contain a wide variety of what we know now are deadly chemicals. As the mills kept working, that lid kept all of those chemicals in the air, getting more and more concentrated. We’re talking about millions of pounds of effluents over a period of time. Once that six days of smog hit, it was like breathing in the chemicals through a gas mask.

Holsopple: The fog formed on a Tuesday. It settled down in Donora on Wednesday, and people went about their business. When do people start to realize that this wasn’t a typical fog event that they were kind of used to?

McPhee: The physicians began to become aware. The firefighters began to become aware. Certainly, Rudolph Schwerha, who was one of the funeral directors in town, realized fairly early on. He had three deaths in the span of an hour and a half. They didn’t know what it was.

But the regular people? They said, “Yeah, that’s the smog.” I mean, it was a fog. Smog wasn’t really a term used then. It was a fog, and they’d been living through fog for years. So they just went about their daily lives. They had a Halloween parade. They had the Smog Bowl, which is a big game between Monongahela and Donora. 

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Holsopple: A big football game. 

McPhee: Yes, a big football game. And hundreds of people went to the game at the top of the hill in Donora.

Holsopple: Eight doctors rushed around town in the smog, and they could hardly see where they were going. The fire department tried to help people in their homes with oxygen. Some people made it to the hospital. 6,000 people became ill, it’s estimated, and 21 died. And it was a really scary experience for the people who were sick and those who died. Can you say a little bit about what they went through and what it was like to breathe in that kind of air?

McPhee: Yes, I was a nurse for a long time and I took care of patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema and asthma, so I have a sense of what these people must have been going through and what happens in a situation like that. They basically become asphyxiated. There’s nowhere near enough oxygen that they’re getting to support their body. And a number of them had weak hearts.

The sequence of events that occurs as the body begins to shut down is, initially, there’s rapid breathing, and rapid pulse rate, which is the body trying to get enough oxygen to its cells, particularly the brain cells, and the heart cells. And eventually, the body just kind of runs out of steam and slowly the kidneys start to fail, the liver starts to fail, the lungs start to fail, and then the pulse rate drops and the breathing slows. Eventually, there’s just silence. The very end is peaceful, but the part to get there is terrifying. 

Holsopple: The people who died were all over 50 years old, many over 60. Many of the people who died were immigrants who had already retired from the industries that they came here to work for. How did their age and their health play into the story about the smog? 

McPhee: The most common myth, I think, and certainly it is a rationalization of a number of residents that I spoke with, is that these were sickly people anyway. They were really all older. Well, 55 was one of the youngest — that’s not that old. They had a hard life because of where they worked in the mills, but these were not aged people. Once you get up in the 60s and 70s, at that time, now you’ve got a different ballgame. Now you have heart issues hitting people, but they’ve been breathing the smoke for so long. So that was part of it. Absolutely. 

But there were other people who had not been sick. It’s an individual thing how people respond to pollutants and these toxins. And we know way more about that now than we used to. There was also a denial of the root cause. They didn’t blame the mills. Some of them absolutely did, and held a grudge until the last days of their life. And their sons and daughters hold grudges as well. But many of them never faulted the mills because that was their livelihood. That was how they survived.

Holsopple: What did the mill owners and operators do during the smog event? 

McPhee: The owners were in Pittsburgh. The supervisors were hearing stuff from other people and they would go out to check on things. The main person for the zinc mill was a guy named Milton Mercer Neale. He went around the zinc works looking at the dispersion of smoke from the smokestacks, and he didn’t see anything wrong with the dispersion. He was expecting, I think, to see it fall from the smokestacks or not move. And he said it just went up like it normally did, which could not have happened. There was pressure on him not to shut the mills down. 

And let me clear up something because some people think they should have just shut the furnaces down. You can’t shut the furnaces down without the furnaces basically either exploding or breaking down completely. But what they did was they bank the furnaces. That is, they slowed down the amount of raw ore that they were putting in so that it brought the temperature down and it brought the amount of pollution and smoke going out of it. But they didn’t bank those until Sunday morning, which by then was too late.

Holsopple: How did the 1948 Donora smog lead to air pollution action or protections in the U.S.?

McPhee: It was really good timing because it happened on Halloween weekend. The presidential election was held the following week and Harry Truman won in a surprise victory. So this was one of the first things that landed on his desk. Within a couple of years, he had called for the first conference on air pollution, and that conference was the first time the government said, listen, this is something we need to study, so get going.

Three years later came the first Clean Air Act as we know it is called the Anti-Pollution Control Act of 1955. It didn’t have many teeth. It really said you need to start studying this, public health. You need to start doing that, industrial hygiene officials, you need to start looking into this. It was a first step. There were a few revisions of that bill in the 1960s, but the teeth really didn’t get into it until Richard Nixon signed the bill in 1970 called the Clean Air Act. 

Holsopple: What’s the lesson for us today from what happened there in Donora? 

McPhee: The lesson, I think, is to pay attention sooner to issues and to fix things when you see them wrong, not to wait. You know, we have a tendency in this country not to make any changes until something really bad happens, and then you get an Ohio train derailment. We have to pay attention to these environmental disasters, and environmental issues, and work diligently to address them. 

Holsopple: Before they become a disaster.

McPhee: Yes.

Andy McPhee has written three books for young adults, is a health and science writer and editor, a retired nurse, and the author of the new book, Donora Death Fog: Clean Air and the Tragedy of a Pennsylvania Milltown, from the University of Pittsburgh Press.