Fluoride Action Network

Donora: Earth Day roots trace back to a killer ‘fluoride fog’

Source: Bucks County Courier Times | April 22nd, 2010 | By John Anastasi

The Donora Smog that killed residents of a Pennsylvania town in 1948 was the first in a series of environmental disasters that led to today’s environmental consciousness.

Every now and then, something reminds David N. Taylor of how much more environmentally conscious the nation has become since the 1940s and 1950s.

Sometimes it happens during AMC’s “Mad Men,” the show about a fictional 1950s-era advertising agency. Taylor recalled a scene in which the show’s central character – Don Draper – and his family are having a picnic. As it ends, the characters pick up the blanket and, without a second thought, shake a massive amount of trash out onto the grass.

“Draper takes a beer bottle and just throws it as far as he can,” said Taylor, who is the executive director of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association. “Sometimes you feel that gap and it’s shocking.”

Sometimes a nation’s consciousness can be gradually awakened by a series of events.

Momentum gathered for the Clean Air Act’s 1955 predecessor – the Air Pollution Control Act – thanks to the Donora Smog, an air pollution disaster in western Pennsylvania that killed 20 people and sickened thousands more in 1948.

Between Oct. 26 and Halloween night of 1948, a weather pattern contained air pollution from various sources, particularly the Donora Zinc Works smelting facility, over the Washington County town. Twenty people asphyxiated and half of the people in the town of 14,000 became ill.

Cathy Milbourn, air quality spokeswoman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said the “FLUORIDE fog” was one of the key events that prompted a cry for pollution control legislation. The Donora Smog gained national attention on Walter Winchell’s radio show.

“That supposedly triggered the first Clean Air Act,” she said. “It’s been said that if the smog lasted another day, it would have killed 1,000 instead of 20.”

The Clean Water Act of 1972 came about after a series of attention-grabbing events. Former New Jersey Gov. James J. Florio, who signed into law that state’s Clean Water Enforcement Act, listed two as being particularly significant – the release of Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” in 1962 and the Cuyahoga River fire of 1969.

Rachel Carson, who was born in Allegheny County, was a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ecologist and author. A biography posted to a website devoted to her life – www.rachelcarson.org – said she became disturbed by the growing use of synthetic chemical pesticides after World War II.

In “Silent Spring,” she challenged agricultural practices and warned the public about their environmental effects.

The Cuyahoga River passes through Cleveland, Ohio. In June 1969, an oil slick and debris caught fire, possibly from a spark thrown by a passing train. According to the Ohio Historical Society, the fire, which wasn’t the first on the Cuyahoga, lasted 30 minutes but it brought the city’s businesses infamy for their pollution.

“The alarm was set by Cuyahoga,” said Florio, who, as a U.S. representative, authored the legislation that became known as the Superfund law. “But it was cumulative. What we had was 100 years of industrial activity.+ At some point we came to realize that it culminated into something that was making our air, water and land un-useable.”

Those developments swayed the public’s perception and, while the two laws were opposed by some in the various industries, Delaware Riverkeeper Maya van Rossum pointed out that they received the support of both parties.

“The environmental movement was a bipartisan movement,” said van Rossum.

She noted that it was the Republican Nixon administration that passed the Clean Water Act in 1972 and created the EPA in 1970.

“There was a lot of political agreement on environmental issues between Republicans and Democrats,” agreed Ed Hopkins, director of the Sierra Club’s Environmental Quality Program. “Some of that agreement has faded away in recent years. There’s more division today and more extreme viewpoints in Congress. That makes progress more difficult.”