Smog Deaths In 1948 Led To Clean Air Laws On Oct. 27, 1948, the people of Donora, Pa., awoke to a thick yellow blanket of smog. They soon learned that 20 people were dead and half the town was sick. A museum has opened to commemorate an event that many say was the genesis of clean air laws.
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Smog Deaths In 1948 Led To Clean Air Laws

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Smog Deaths In 1948 Led To Clean Air Laws

Smog Deaths In 1948 Led To Clean Air Laws

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

Sixty years ago, an environmental disaster in southwestern Pennsylvania shocked the nation.

(Soundbite of archive recording)

Unidentified Man #1: The deadly cloud over Donora, Pennsylvania, but nobody knows what the poisonous vapor is in the smog. There have been a score of deaths.

NORRIS: The events in that small mill town forever changed the way Americans think about industrial pollution and their health.

Reporter Ann Murray has the story.

ANN MURRAY: On October 27th, 1948, the people of Donora, Pennsylvania, woke up to a thick, yellow blanket of smog. Charles Stacey was a senior at the local high school. He remembers his walk to class that day.

Mr. CHARLES STACEY (Member, Donora Smog Committee): The smog created a burning sensation in your throat, in your eyes and nose and so forth, but we still thought that that was just normal for Donora.

MURRAY: Back then, smog often hung on until late morning in Donora, a small mill town about 25 miles south of Pittsburgh. The town's zinc plant and steel mill belched out endless streams of toxic smoke.

But this smog was different. It darkened the valley for five straight days. That week, Stacey listened to the radio and discovered that the ever-thickening smog had turned lethal. Twenty people were dead, half the town was sick. He says everyone was overwhelmed by the havoc.

Mr. STACEY: Right two blocks down the street here was the Donora Hotel, and on one level they had an emergency hospital set up because the two local hospitals couldn't handle all the people. And unfortunately in the lower level, they had a morgue because the funeral directors were overwhelmed with bodies at that time.

MURRAY: Donorans later learned that a cold layer of air had trapped a poisonous mixture of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and metal dust. Stacey's father asked the owners of the zinc plant to shut down during the deadly smog. The plant kept operating despite the request, though operators did reduce emissions for a couple of days. For years, no one in town wanted to talk about what had happened.

Mr. DON PAVELKO (Councilman, Donora, Pennsylvania): It was sort of a black eye to Donora. I always heard, let it die. Let it die.

MURRAY: That's Don Pavelko. He says today, he and other townspeople want the world to remember. They recently opened the Donora Smog Museum to commemorate a tragedy they believe gave rise to something positive.

To make the point, Pavelko walks outside the small storefront museum. The sun glistens off a flaming orange sign that reads: Clean Air Started Here.

Mr. PAVELKO: We here in Donora say that this episode was the beginning of the environmental movement. These folks gave their lives so we can have clean air.

MURRAY: The Donora smog event, the worst air pollution disaster in U.S. history, let the public know that industrial pollution could kill. It eventually led to the Clean Air Act and state and federal agencies that regulate pollution. Don Pavelko is proud of that legacy.

Mr. PAVELKO: Okay, young man. You see this here?

MURRAY: Back inside the museum, he shows an 11-year-old visitor photographs and artifacts. An old oxygen tank catches the boy's eye, the same tank a firefighter carried through the dark streets of Donora to help citizens survive the smog that put pollution control on the map.

For NPR News, I'm Ann Murray.

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