It is the 74th anniversary of the Donora killer smog that hit Dr. Devra Davis’ southwestern Pennsylvania hometown of Donora in 1948. In five days, twenty people suddenly dropped dead.
The cause of the Donora smog proved to be a deadly mixture of emissions from the plants and coal furnaces located in the valley and town. Sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and metal dust—a possibly highly reactive fluoride gas—were trapped in the town by a layer of stable cool air that kept warmer polluted fumes from escaping. Years later, views over the valley showed large patches of land on which no vegetation would grow. The investigation into the Donora Smog Disaster was essential to the first U.S. federal clean-air act, passed in 1955.
At the turn of the 20th century, the Donora Mill attracted people because “Smoke meant jobs,” according to Dr. Davis, who tells the story of Donora’s Killer Smog in her book “When Smoke Ran Like Water.” This work was the first book on the environment since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring to become a National Book Award Finalist in non-fiction and has now been translated into more than a dozen languages.
Listen to Dr. Davis interviewed in the History This Week Podcast on “The Donora Death Fog”
Read about the Donora Smog in the Smithsonian magazine. Dr. Davis is featured in the article “The Deadly Donora Smog of 1948 Spurred Environmental Protection—But Have We Forgotten the Lesson?”