The Donora Fluoride Fog: A Secret History of America's Worst Air Pollution Disaster

By Bryson, Crhis | Earth Island Journal, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

The Donora Fluoride Fog: A Secret History of America's Worst Air Pollution Disaster


Bryson, Crhis, Earth Island Journal


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. These charges 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. …

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