Before 1948, the way to deal with air pollution was to grin and bear it—or cough and ignore it. The cloudy air was considered a mere nuisance, akin to living on a block with a loud, obnoxious dog. And in industry-heavy towns such as Donora, Pa. (pop. 5,653), the perception was no different.
"Residents didn't think much about having to occasionally hose layers of dust off the house or the car," says Marcia Spink, associate director for air programs for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's office in Philadelphia. "In those days, it wasn't uncommon for salesmen to bring multiple white shirts with them to the office, knowing that on bad air days their shirts would turn dingy before it was time to clock out."
That laid-back approach to dirty air came to an end in October 1948, when the then-14,000 residents of Donora suffered a week-long air pollution event that blanketed the town in stinging, blinding smog, killed 20 people and put thousands in the hospital.
Donora wasn't all that different from other nearby mill towns, except that it had a couple of unfortunate elements working against it that week. First, the surrounding region had produced much of the steel used in World War II and many mills remained, including the 4-mile-long Donora Zinc Works smelting plant. All had been on full-speed production for years.
The town also sat in a valley, where dust clouds tended to get trapped, an effect made far worse by a rare weather condition called a temperature inversion that swept in Oct. 26 and lasted for six days. That week, residents couldn't tell who they were passing on the sidewalk through the smog, let alone see the road well enough to leave town.
Stories also were told of a high school football game in which players couldnt see one another, the firemen who'd fumbled through smog to bring a couple minutes of oxygen to victims, and the community center that had been turned into a morgue.
The Donora incident, the first air pollution event in the United States that had actually killed people, served as a wake-up call for America—the tragedy was the impetus behind passage of the nation's first clean air legislation. But for many years, it was something the citizens of Donora would rather have forgotten.
"The older folks in town, who'd lived through it, felt that everybody knew Donora as this dirty, polluted place," Spink says. "They didn't want that to be their town's image."
So no one talked about the disaster, and for 50 years no memorial was erected and no anniversary was observed, even as Donora itself changed and many of the industries that had contributed to the smog shut down.
It wasn't until the 1990s that residents got a new lease on their town's history, thanks to a teenager. In 1995, high school student Justin Shawley researched the tragedy for a school project and began an ultimately successful campaign to commemorate the victims with a historical marker at the Donora Public Library and, in 1998, with a memorial service at a local church.
More importantly, Shawley helped his fellow residents shift their own perceptions of the town and to begin to see the legacy of Donora in a new light. The public outrage following Donoras smog event in 1948 led directly to the creation of the first air pollution laws, the emergence of a movement of anti-pollution activists and, ultimately, to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.
When Spink came to speak at the 1998 memorial service, she explained how Donora should be viewed: not as a dirty town, but as a town that helped change America for the better. "We'll never have another Donora now," she says.
The night of the memorial service, in a Catholic church filled to the rafters with residents and well-wishers, Spink says she saw the local perception of the Donora event finally changed for good.
"The people of Donora understood for the first time that the rest of America saw their sacrifice and their struggle and respected the contribution they'd made to clean air everywhere," she says. "People came up to me later and told me that it felt good to be recognized as the town that led the clean air movement."