Friday, October 26, 2007

The Donora Death Fog

I have felt the fog in my throat --
The misty hand of Death caress my face;
I have wrestled with a frightful foe
Who strangled me with wisps of gray fog-lace.
Now in my eyes since I have died.
The bleak, bare hills rise in stupid might
With scars of its slavery imbedded deep;
And the people still live -- still live -- in the poisonous night.

The anniversary of the worst recorded industrial air pollution accident in US history - which occurred 59 years ago today in Donora, Pennsylvania (20 miles south of Pittsburgh) -will go virtually unmarked. The Donora incident, which killed 20 and left hundreds seriously injured and dying, was caused by fluoride emissions from the Donora Zinc Works and steel plants owned by the US Steel Corporation. The atmospheric conditions were in place to trap all of the pollutants being spewed by the smokestacks close to the ground. Although this incident took place just to the north of our targeted coverage area of Central Appalachia, it could have easily taken place in Alcoa, Kingsport, Charleston, Roanoke and any other industrial town in our region. The following is an excerpt of a published article on the Donora Death Fog:

The Donora Fluoride Fog:

A Secret History of America's Worst Air Pollution Disaster
This article appears in the Fall 1998 Earth Island Journal, by Chris Bryson

In the aftermath of the accident, US Steel conspired with US Public Health Service (PHS) officials to cover up the role fluoride played in the tragedy. This charge comes from Philip Sadtler, a top industrial chemical consultant who conducted his own research at the scene of the disaster.

The "Donora Death Fog"Horror visited the US Steel company-town of Donora on Halloween night, 1948, when a temperature inversion descended on the town [Inversion occurs when the air near the ground is cooler than the air above it, a reversal of normal atmospheric conditions. When that happens, manmade pollutants are trapped, resulting in smog]. Fumes from US Steel's smelting plants blanketed the town for four days, and crept murderously into the citizens' homes. If the smog had lasted another evening "the casualty list would have been 1,000 instead of 20," said local doctor William Rongaus at the time. Later investigations by Rongaus and others indicated that one-third of the town's 14,000 residents were affected by the smog. Hundreds of residents were evacuated or hospitalized. A decade later, Donora's mortality rate remained significantly higher than neighboring areas.

The "Donora Death Fog", as it became known, spawned numerous angry lawsuits and the first calls for national legislation to protect the public from industrial air pollution.

A PHS report released in 1949 reported that "no single substance" was responsible for the Donora deaths and laid major blame for the tragedy on the temperature inversion. But according to industry consultant Philip Sadtler, in an interview taped shortly before his 1996 death, that report was a whitewash. "It was murder," said Sadtler about Donora. "The directors of US Steel should have gone to jail for killing people." Sadtler charged that the PHS report helped US Steel escape liability for the deaths and spared a host of fluoride- emitting industries the expense of having to control their toxic emissions. (A class-action lawsuit by Donora victims families was later settled out of court.)

In 1948, Sadtler was perhaps the nation's leading expert on fluorine pollution. He had gathered evidence for plaintiffs across the country, including an investigation of the Manhattan Project and the DuPont company's fluoride pollution of New Jersey farmland during World War II.

For giant fluoride emitters such as US Steel and the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa), the cost of a national fluoride clean-up "would certainly have been in the billions," said Sadtler. So concealing the true cause of the Donora accident was vital. "It would have complicated things enormously for them if the public had been alerted to [the dangers of] fluoride."

US industry was well-placed to orchestrate a whitewash of the Donora investigation. The PHS was then a part of the Federal Security Agency. The FSA, in turn, was headed by Oscar R. Ewing, a former top lawyer for Alcoa. Neither his old industry connections, nor the fact that Alcoa had been facing lawsuits around the country for its wartime airborne fluoride pollution was mentioned in Ewing's introduction to the official report on Donora.

Sadtler remembers seeing a PHS van in Donora conducting air testing after the disaster. "I looked in and the chemist said, 'Phil, come on in.' Very friendly. He says, 'I know you are right, but I am not allowed to say so.' He must have been influenced by US Steel."

Sadtler blamed fluoride for the Donora disaster in an account published in the December 13, 1948 issue of Chemical and Engineering News. He reported fluorine blood levels of dead and hospitalized citizens to be 12 to 25 times above normal, with "primary symptoms of acute fluorine poisoning, dyspnea (distressed breathing similar to asthma) ... found in hundreds of cases." He recommended that, "Changes should be made in suspect processes to prevent emission of fluorine-containing fumes."

Industry moved quickly to silence Sadtler, who had been a contributor to Chemical and Engineering News for many years. (C&EN is published by the American Chemical Society.) "I had a call from the editor that I was not to send them any more [articles]," Sadtler said. The editor told Sadtler that the head of the Alcoa and the US Steel-funded Mellon Institute, Dr. Weidline (who also had served as a director of the American Chemical Society) "went to Washington and told the magazine's editors that they were not to publish any more of what I wrote," Sadtler said.

The lessons learned at Donora resulted in the passage of the 1955 Clean Air Act.


kayakdave said...

Hope you don't mind but i copied this and posted at Appalachian Greens.
Nice work!

Anonymous said...

I grew up in Donora (1959-1977)...there is a great blog on "Travel with a Beveridge"...he tells lots of stories and posts pics about this area among other places...might be a good link for you.


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