GASP Benefit to Feature Donora Book Author
Hotline, Fall 2003
by Rachel Filippini, GASP Executive Assistant
Fifty-five years ago, the first known American deaths from air pollution occurred right here in southwestern Pennsylvania, in the river town of Donora. Donora, located on the western bank of the Monongahela River in Washington County, was named after Nora Mellon, wife of R.B. Mellon, and W.H. Donner. Donner and Mellon purchased the land in which their Union Steel Company would construct a rod mill that later became the American Steel and Wire Works. In 1948, 14,000 people resided in Donora, and many thousands lived in towns in the immediate vicinity.
What Happened in Donora
Beginning the week of October 23rd, 1948, Donora and the entire Pittsburgh area were experiencing foggy weather. A weather phenomenon called an inversion, in which a warm air mass traps cold air near the ground, had also set in over Donora. The inversion contributed to a deadly smog which lingered over Donora from October 28th through the 31st, containing extraordinarily high levels of sulfur dioxide, soluble sulfates, and fluorides. According to the PA Bureau of Industrial Hygiene, such contamination of the atmosphere was caused by a combination of the zinc smelting plant, steel mills’ open hearth furnaces, a sulphuric acid plant, slag dump, and coal burning steam locomotives and river boats. The inversion helped to keep the pollutants close to the ground where people inhaled them. At least 17 people were killed within a 24-hour period, and nearly half the population of Donora experienced varying degrees of illness, such as sore throats, irritation of the eyes, nose, and respiratory tract, headaches, breathlessness, vomiting and nausea. Another 50 residents would perish over the course of the next month from lingering health damage.
Polluted Air Affects Health
The fatal victims of dirty air are often harder to identify than those who died in the Donora catastrophe, because most who succumb to air pollution are elderly or already in ill health. An analysis conducted in 1991 by Joel Schwartz, then at the Environmental Protection Agency, concluded that some 60,000 U.S. residents die from heart attacks and respiratory problems each year because of the effects of airborne dust at concentrations within federal pollution limits.1
State and Federal Regulations
Due in large part to the Donora tragedy, the Pennsylvania state government established the Division of Air Pollution Control in 1949 to study air quality and its effect on human health. Statewide clean air regulations were enacted in 1966, and in 1970, the PA legislature passed an “Environmental Bill of Rights,” stating that, among other things, people had a right to clean air.
Donora was a local tragedy that shocked the nation, and while Pennsylvania was working hard to clear the air, so too was the national government. In 1963, Congress passed the first federal Clean Air Act, then amended it in 1970 to give it teeth. States were then required to come up with plans for reducing pollution to meet federal clean air standards. Since the passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act, we have removed 98% of lead from the air, 79% of soot, 41% of sulfur dioxide, 28% of carbon monoxide, and 25% of ozone.2
The 1970 Clean Air Act gave the newly created Environmental Protection Agency the power to establish national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS). Standards were authorized for particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, ozone, and nitrogen dioxide. In 1977, amendments to the federal Clean Air Act required some companies to install new pollution control equipment or face penalties. The 1990 federal Clean Air Act amendments addressed airborne toxics, acid rain, and the depletion of the ozone layer, and they toughened regulations on vehicles, utilities, and other sources of smog-producing emissions. Using a sophisticated array of computer models and the latest emissions and cost data, an EPA study shows that by 2010, implementation of the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act will save 23,000 people from dying prematurely, and will avoid more than 1.7 million asthma attacks. That is, unless the Bush Administration has its way.
GASP and the Future of Clean Air
We have come a long way since Donora, but our work is not done. America’s skies are no longer black and smokestacks may not be belching thick smoke. Today our air quality problems are more insidious. Sometimes it’s the things we can’t see that are most harmful to our health. We will probably never return to the catastrophic conditions of Donora, but the fight for clean, breathable air still presents major challenges.
GASP hopes to address some of these challenges at this year’s Annual Benefit Dinner, “Becoming a Health Statistic: Clean Air Under Fire,” on Saturday, November 8, 2003. This year our distinguished speakers are Devra Davis, former Donora resident and author of When Smoke Ran Like Water: Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution, and Deputy Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s Air, Recycling and Radiation Protection division, Nicholas DiPasquale. Dr. Davis, a renowned epidemiologist, will highlight scientific and personal sides of the Donora catastrophe that sickened or killed many Donora residents and the relevance now, 55 years later. Deputy Secretary DiPasquale will speak about the increased role being taken by Pennsylvania and other states, in light of federal backsliding, in making progress toward healthier air. These presentations are sure to be educational and enlightening.
GASP will also be offering test drives once again, prior to the benefit dinner, between 5:30 and 6:30 PM, at the second annual “Drive Cleaner, Drive Greener.” Come prepared to try the latest hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles, including the new 2004 Toyota Prius and Honda Civic. Car dealer representatives will be on hand to answer questions about gasoline savings, power, or price. Stroll through the silent auction and bid on some of this year’s wonderful silent auction items. Tickets to the symphony, an overnight stay at a local bed and breakfast, a one-week stay in Clearwater Beach, Florida… these are just a few of the great items you’ll be able to bid on. Last, but not least, you’ll have a chance to chat with Deputy Secretary DiPasquale and Dr. Davis prior to dinner, and an opportunity to have When Smoke Ran Like Water: Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution signed by Dr. Davis herself. GASP hopes you will join us this year at “Becoming a Health Statistic: Clean Air Under Fire.” Be on the lookout for your invitation in the mail. Please post the center page flyer at your workplace, school, library, or anywhere else as appropriate. See you November 8th!
1. Science News Online, Air Sickness, http://www.sciencenews.org/20030802/bob8.asp
2. Donora Disaster Was Crucible For Clean Air, http://www.dep.state.pa.us/dep/Rachel_Carson/crucible.htm