- The anniversary of the worst recorded industrial air
pollution accident in US historyñ which occurred 50 years ago this
October in Donora, Pennsylvania ñ 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.
- 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
- Fifty years later, Earth Island Journal has learned,
vital records of the Donora investigation are missing from PHS archives.
Fifty years later, US Steel continues to block access to their records
of the Donora disaster, including a crucial air chemical analysis taken
on the final night of the tragedy.
- 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. Fumes from US Steel's smelting plants
blanketed the town for four days, and crept murderously into the citizens'
- 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
[see "Fluoride and the A- Bomb," 1997-98 EIJ].
- 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."
- A 50-Year Cover-up 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,
ëPhil, come on in.' Very friendly. He says, ëI 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
- 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.
[first name] Wideline (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.
- Looking Back on Donora Today, 50 years later, researchers
examining the Donora disaster face two troubling obstacle: (1) vital records
are missing from the PHS archives and (2) US Steel's records are closed
to reporters, researchers and investigators.
- In her 1994 doctoral dissertation ("The Death-Dealing
Smog Over Donora, Pennsylvania: Industrial Air Pollution, Public Health
Policy and the Politics of Expertise, 1948-1949"), Lynne Page Snyder
of the University of Pennsylvania, described the response to the disaster.
- The following excerpts were published in the Spring 1994
issue of the Environmental History Review.
- "Pollution from the Donora Zinc Works smelting operation
and other sources containing sulfur, carbon monoxide and heavy metal dusts,
was trapped by weather conditions in the narrow river valley in and around
Donora and neighboring Webster.
- "Air pollution problems were recognized from the
facility as early as 1918, when the plant owner paid off the legal claims
for causing pollution that affected the health of nearby residents.
- "In the 1920s, residents and farmers in Webster
took legal action again against the company for loss of crops and livestock.
Regular sampling of the air was begun in 1926 and stopped in 1935."
- From local accounts of the time, Snyder provided this
description of the 1948 disaster. "By Friday evening (October 2),
local residents were crowding into nearby hospitals and dozens of calls
were made to the area's eight physicians. While Fire Department volunteers
administered oxygen to those unable to breathe, Board of Health member
Dr. William Rongaus led an ambulance by foot through darkened streets to
ferry the dead and dying to hospitals or on to a temporary morgue."
- "On Rongaus' advice, those with chronic heart or
respiratory ailments began to leave town late Friday evening, but before
noon on Saturday, 11 people died. Conditions had not improved by Saturday
night, and with roads congested by smog and traffic, evacuation became
impossible. The company operating the Donora Zinc Works finally ordered
the plant shut down at 6 a.m. Sunday morning. By mid-day Sunday, rain had
dispersed the smog."
- "Pittsburgh itself escaped the episode primarily
because it had just begun to enforce a smoke control ordinance and was
cutting back on the use of bituminous coal as a fuel source. The Donora
Smog gained national attention when Walter Winchell broadcast news of the
disaster on his national radio show."
- "The Pennsylvania Department of Health, United Steelworkers,
Donora's Borough Council and the US Public Health Service all participated
in the investigation of the air pollution incident. The investigation was
the first time there was an organized effort to document the health impacts
of air pollution in the United States. Commenting on the studies of the
incident, the Monessen Daily Independent wrote that damage from air pollution
from the Zinc Works was ësomething no scientific investigation is
necessary to prove. All you need is a pair of reasonably good eyes."
- "Before the Donora smog, neither manufacturers nor
public health professionals considered air pollution an urgent issue. At
the annual meeting of the Smoke Prevention Association in May 1949, a leading
industrial physician and consultant to insurance companies dismissed air
pollution as a threat, except ëon rare occasions [when] Mother Nature
has played us false."
- "The studies of the Donora Smog did not fix blame
and could not document levels of pollution beyond workplace limits set
at the time. The Public Health Service recommended a warning system tied
to weather forecasts and an air sampling system be installed to avoid future
incidents. The lessons learned at Donora resulted in the passage of the
1955 Clean Air Act and began modern air pollution control efforts in the
- Snyder learned that US Steel had conducted an air analysis
on the final night of the smog. But despite her numerous requests for the
Donora records, Synder recalls, US Steel officials finally informed her
that they didn't "have anything for me."
- Equally frustrating to Snyder was the missing PHS records.
At the time, Donora was the largest environmental investigation the government
agency ever had mounted. "The kinds of papers I would expect to find
are the correspondence files, the original and carbon copies of responses
sent out, typed-up site visits, typed-up telephone conversations, maps,
rough drafts of reports, photos," Snyder explained. But all these
records have vanished.
- "You have to suspect the worst. Not only of US Steel,
but of the Public Health Service," Snyder says. Now herself a PHS
historian, she concludes of the Donora records, "Someone may have
decided they were too hot to handle and got rid of them. I'm open to that
- [Transcripts of Philip Sadtler's historic full interview
are available from Earth Island Journal.] Chris Bryson is a New York-based
investigative reporter and co-author with Joel Griffiths of Fluoride and
the A-Bomb (Winter 97-98 EIJ). This report was compiled with reseasrcvh
assistance by Ellie Rudolph. Sidebar: Death in Donora Ballad Sidebar: Fluoride
and the Mohawks
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