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The Donora Fluoride Fog

A Secret History of America's Worst Air Pollution Disaster

This article appears in the Fall 1998 Earth Island Journal, by Chris Bryson

The anniversary of the worst recorded industrial air pollution accident in US history - which occurred 50 years ago this October in Donora, Pennsylvania -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 disaster.

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' homes. 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, 'Phil, come on in.' Very friendly. He says, 'I 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 fumes."

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] Weidline (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 'something 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 'on 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 Commonwealth.

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, Snyder 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 prospect."

Transcripts of Philip Sadtler's historic full interview are available from Earth Island Journal.

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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 research assistance by Ellie Rudolph

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Death in Donora

I have felt the fog in my throat --
The misty hand of Death caress my face;
I have wrestled with a frightful foe
Who strangled me with wisps of gray fog-lace.
Now in my eyes since I have died.
The bleak, bare hills rise in stupid might
With scars of its slavery imbedded deep;
And the people still live -- still live -- in the poisonous night.

Folklorist Dan G. Hoffman reported collecting the ballad "Death in Donora" from area resident John P. Clark

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Sidebar: Fluoride and the Mohawks

Cows crawled around the pasture on their bellies, inching along like giant snails. So crippled by bone disease they could not stand up, this was the only way they could graze. Some died kneeling, after giving birth to stunted calves. Others kept on crawling until, no longer able to chew because their teeth had crumbled down to the nerves, they began to starve.

These were the cattle of the Mohawk Indians on the New York-Canadian St. Regis Reservation during the period 1960-75, when fluoride pollution from neighboring aluminum plants devastated the herd and the Mohawks' way of life. Crops and trees withered, birds and bees fled from this remnant of land the Mohawk still call Akwesasne, "the land where the partridge drums."

Today, nets cast into the St. Lawrence River by Mohawk fishers bring up ulcerated fish with spinal deformities. Mohawk children, too, have shown signs of damage to bones and teeth.

In 1980, the Mohawks filed a $150 million lawsuit for damage to themselves and their property against the companies responsible for the pollution: the Reynolds Metals Co. and the Aluminum Co. of America. But five years of legal costs bankrupted the tribe and they settled for $650,000 in damages to their cows. The court left the door open for a future Mohawk suit for damage to their own health. After all, commented human rights lawyer Robert Pritchard, "What judge wants to go down in history as being the judge who approved the annihilation of the Indians by fluoride emissions?" -- Joel Griffiths

The lessons learned at Donora resulted in the passage of the 1955 Clean Air Act America's worst air pollution disaster may have been caused by fluoride emissions: 50 years later, vital records are still missing.