Killer Smog Claims Elderly Victims - 10/29/1948

US History |


Today in 1948, a killer fog hovers over Donora, Pennsylvania for five days killing about 20 people and leaving thousands sick. The Donora Smog disaster remains to this day one of the worst air borne pollution that caused disasters in the history of United States.

Donora was a small, industrial town of 14,000 inhabitants situated forty miles from Pittsburgh. It was a town on the Monongahela River within a valley and surrounded by hills. Donora housed steel mills and zinc melting plant that has been releasing excessive amounts of harmful substance like carbon monoxide for years before the disaster. Most inhabitants of the community work in the plants and are used to early morning smog, which disappears within few hours. This been one of the reasons why inhabitants of Donora failed to realize the severity of their situation that fateful morning. It was reported that during the early 1920s, zinc plant owners paid off workers for damages caused by the pollution but failed to find a long-lasting solution to the problem neither was there any government-regulated policies to control the pollution.

The day looks normal on October 26 (the day the fog started), just as every other day that begins with fog in the early hours of the morning. However, on this day, the fog had trapped the airborne emissions of the zinc plant and steel mills closed to the ground making it hard to be released into the atmosphere like before, and had been inhaled by the residents of Donora. Afterwards, calls began flooding the hospitals. Dr. Williams Rongaus, a physician and head of the local board of advised everyone with pre-existing respiratory problems to leave town immediately. Unfortunately, 11 people aging people that have heart problems or asthma were already dead.

Following the news, most resident tried evacuating the town, however, the heavy fog and increased traffic made leaving difficult. The hospitals were overcrowded with people complaining they have problem breathing. Five days later, zinc plants shut downs operations, the same day, rain fell and cleared the pollutants, but another nine people had already lost their lives to the incident.

The disaster received national attention when Walter Winchell reported about the incident on his radio show, making the air pollution issue a matter of public concern, which eventually led to the 1955 Clean Air Act bill that was passed into law.

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission plaque in honor of those that lost their life to the Donora Killer Smog was placed in Donora by a local high-school student's research and activism group. 

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