Seventy-five years ago, on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 1948, a cold air cap formed above the Monongahela River Valley. The trapped warm air — unable to rise — dropped emissions from the Donora steel mill and zinc works to the town below and held the toxic smoke like stagnant water, killing 20 residents within days and countless more afterward.
For many, the smog is a curiosity — a one-off historic event.
That perspective is short-sighted, says Andy McPhee, author of the new book “The Donora Death Fog: Clean Air and the Tragedy of a Pennsylvania Mill Town.”
“I learned very quickly … that you have to understand the people of Donora before you can really understand the reaction to those six days of smog,” McPhee adds.
To McPhee, the 75-year span between the air quality emergency and now has left conversations about Donora equally stagnant.
Brian Charlton, curator and archivist for the Donora Smog Museum, says the biggest challenge of telling the story is people’s willingness to listen.
“As a teacher for over 30 years, I discovered that we can’t make people learn,” Charlton says. “Something that we deal with around here in the mid-Mon Valley, and I think all over Pennsylvania — probably all over the United States — is this willful ignorance attitude that people have. That there is no problem with the smog.”
As McPhee alluded to, the reactions of Donora residents — or lack thereof — to the smog was deeply rooted in the economic and social structure of the town.
Donora, along its bent bank of the Monongahela River, was born solely to support the burgeoning plan for a steel mill. The town was named after William Henry Donner and the wife of Andrew Mellon, Nora — its industrialist founders.
Donora’s residents were natives of the region and immigrants — from out of state and county — all hedging bets on wealth against their health. Charlton says that for a mill worker, believing the smoke was an “act of god” and remaining willfully ignorant ensured they maintained a paycheck at Donora’s primary employer.
Alternatively, McPhee quotes the late Harry Loftus, a longtime Donora resident: “Remember, these guys stormed the beaches of Normandy. Do you think a little smoke is going to bother them?”
While mills are not as prevalent an employer in the region today — and, certainly, no current steel worker stormed Normandy — willful ignorance persists.
The smog from the former American Steel and Wire Co. and Donora Zinc Works plants was full of toxic chemicals, metals and gasses, the same pollutants still found across the Pittsburgh region near steel and coke mills.
Donora native Devra Davis is the founder and president of the Environmental Health Trust, an epidemiologist and the author of “When Smoke Ran Like Water: Tales Of Environmental Deception And the Battle Against Pollution.”
Davis says that while there have been great strides in air quality regulation and improvement since 1948, more permanent pollutant sources make the progress — especially in Pittsburgh — far from enough.
“We’ve known for seven decades about the Clairton coke ovens and they’re still there. These things are accepted in poor communities as just the price of living there,” Davis says. “We would never, never, never be permitting coke ovens and steel plants to be as close to major urban areas as they are now. If there was a proposal now to build these factories, it would not succeed.”
An extraneous factor contributing to air pollution-related deaths is wood fire smoke, Davis says, citing 1997 research that suggested there would be 8 million deaths if emissions were to continue under “business as usual” until 2020.
The true number of deaths is about double since wood smoke — which produces carcinogens directly inside homes — went unaccounted for, Davis says.
Wood smoke produced by recent wildfires brought Donora Smog-esque conditions across the nation. Over the summer, Canadian wildfire smoke painted New York City an eerie orange. The same smoke drifted down the East Coast and across Pittsburgh like a gray curtain.
Davis says there is good reason to believe the effects of both the Donora Smog and wildfire smoke are similar.
“There are acute effects and there are chronic effects,” Davis says. “The most obvious acute effect is death, but also difficulty breathing, eye irritation, a cough.”
One chronic effect is lung development issues in children. Davis attributes her asthma to her childhood spent in Donora.
Davis’ belief that pollutants caused her asthma is a sentiment echoed throughout the Mon Valley. Earlier this summer, a University of Pittsburgh study found that children who live near fracking wells are more likely to develop asthma. When the study was released in August, audience members pushed researchers to continue examining the effects of other sources of pollution.
While studies persist, Davis, McPhee and Charlton all agree that there is no easy solution.
“The study of air pollution is more robust than ever,” Davis says, “but the bad news is, the challenges of public policy remain. If you have governments that turn a blind eye, which we have had, then the whole thing starts to unravel.
“We have become really good at studying the problem and lousy at fixing it.”
To McPhee, the most advantageous step forward reflects the impetus of his book: Telling the stories of mill workers.
“By taking more care of them, you automatically take care of the environment, because you’re doing things better — not as dangerous,” McPhee says. “I’ve got a couple of chapters in the book about the dangers these men faced every single day, and they’re just horrendous conditions. You fix those conditions for the workers, now you’ve basically fixed the environmental impact.
“I think [the moral of Donora] is very personal: Care for one another, be aware of what’s going on and then do something about it.”