When Dr. Devra Lee Davis was visiting a “green” community in China during a trip for the United Nations, she couldn’t help but think of her hometown of Donora.
Early one morning, she awoke to an explosion and then looked outside to see flames, tar and smoke spewing from a plant. Through her window, a hole in the wall of her unfinished hotel, she could smell the fumes.
“I was excited because it smelled like home, and the smells of your childhood, whether they’re chocolate chip cookies or tar and fumes, are the most familiar,” Davis said.
Davis, director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, grew up in the Washington County town when the residents made their living off the steel industry and the Donora Zinc Works spewed its smoke over a barren landscape.
But Davis said the lessons Donora taught 60 years ago this month — that air pollution kills — have not been heeded in developing countries such as China and India.
She believes people are dying today in those countries, just as they did in Donora.
“Donoras are happening today in areas of India and China,” Davis said. “We can’t go back and reclaim the lives of those that were taken or shortened, but we can and we must warn those who are living under the same conditions today.”
During a symposium that helped kick off a week’s worth of activities to commemorate the killer Donora smog of 1948, Davis spoke about new documents that she believes indicate fluoride gas was responsible for the deaths of 20 people during that event.
Fluoride gas emanating from the zinc works, where steel was galvanized against rust, has been suspected for a while.
Officially, the U.S. government, through the Public Health Service, determined that the deaths and the illnesses of about 6,000 people in Donora and Webster were the result of a temperature inversion that kept a layer of fog blanketing Donora for five days.
But people pointed the finger at the zinc works immediately, and Davis said recently uncovered autopsy reports point to highly reactive fluoride gas as the culprit.
Davis said the plant used calcium fluoride and sand in the smelting process, which, when combined, form highly reactive silicone fluoride gas.
The gas can’t be detected in the air because of its instability, but Davis said fluoride residue was found in a Donora air-conditioning duct after the smog.
Davis said autopsies revealed that the victim’s lungs looked as though they had been exposed to poison gas used during war. Davis added that fluoride levels in a Donora victim who was exhumed were found to be 12 to 25 times normal.
In fact, Davis said, the main investigator sent by the U.S. Public Health Service investigated fluoride gas as part of the Manhattan Project.
Davis said that since she published, “When Smoke Ran Like Water,” her book about Donora and other ways pollution has impacted public health, a nun came forward to talk to her. The nun claimed a relative who worked in the zinc works told her the men were ordered to destroy what they had burned during the killer smog.
Davis said she wonders if some new mixture led to the poison in the air.
“It’s a question we need to have an answer to today because of what’s happening in towns in India and China,” Davis said.
After the symposium, she said Donora remains relevant as developing nations pollute but have no systems in place to check how the pollution is impacting lives.
“They are making zinc and they are making products often using old technologies with no idea they are contributing to deaths,” Davis said. “They may have people dying, and they don’t know why.”
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