American Journal of Law & Medicine

Past and present environmental health challenges in Southwestern Pennsylvania: some comments on the right to a clean environment.

The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. (1)


Where they are clear and undeniable, public health issues constitute the 800pound gorilla in the development of environmental policy; they can take any seat they choose and compel responses. But when the health impacts of environmental policies are not immediate and obvious, as with many contemporary matters, their absence can become a barrier to the development of preventive policies. This Article explores the role of public health evidence in the development of environmental policy by comparing two cases of contamination in Southwestern Pennsylvania--one involving an acute episode of visible exposures, the other involving longstanding invisible exposures. It discusses the problems posed by statistical power considerations in epidemiological studies of small areas, and shows that the requirement that public health damage be demonstrated before efforts are taken to prevent such harm undermines the preventative thrust of environmental policy.

The early history of environmental regulation in this country was fueled by acute crises that provided clear evidence of immediate threats to public health and the environment. (2) More recent environmental health challenges consist of chronic, poorly perceived hazards posed by low levels of invisible, poorly characterized pollutants that migrate across media. (3) Where the numbers of persons affected by chronic pollution are small, studies of public health impacts of such exposures lack the power to achieve statistical significance. (4) Where evidence of the public health impacts of chronic exposures may be unclear and unresolved, the tendency has been to delay remedial actions and await epidemiological or other public health investigations. (5)

This Article depicts two distinct examples of environmental challenges to public health--one an acute and spectacular episode that felled half a town, the other an ongoing series of problems posed by chronic contamination of a sparsely populated rural county. Part II portrays the circumstances leading up to the 1948 incident in the Washington County town of Donora, Pennsylvania, site of one of the first acknowledged lethal smog episodes in the industrial world, relying in part on excerpts from When Smoke Ran Like Water, a book exploring the impact and legacy of the Donora episode. (6) Part III contrasts the acute Donora episode, which occurred when there were no federal or state standards for pollutants, with the chronic and complex environmental policy issues surrounding current efforts to identify and develop integrated regulatory strategies to control sources of arsenic and other contaminants in Greene County, Pennsylvania.

The need to control acute episodes of environmental contamination, such as those of Donora, fueled the development of early environmental policy. In contrast, current patterns of chronic pollution are proving more difficult to master. Contemporary compliance with established standards does not guarantee protection of public health where those standards are themselves undergoing serious reassessment. (7) Under guidelines from the precautionary principle where scientific evidence of harm exists, the evidence should form the basis for preventive policies to prevent the occurrence of further damage. (8) The implementation of these guidelines has proven highly problematic for reasons that will be elaborated further in this Article.

Part IV argues that the tendency of recent environmental policies to insist that public health damage be demonstrated before action is taken to prevent further harm violates the Fourth Amendment which guarantees citizens "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." (9) Such policies effectively permit and require proof of harm and are a major obstacle to the implementation of preventive public health policy. The right to a clean environment should be understood as a basic and protected freedom that requires preventive policies.


Donora was a simple town, not pretty in any conventional sense, with cobblestone streets that snaked up and down hills so steep they had stairs instead of sidewalks. It was a young place, full of working people, few of them over sixty--the sort of place where weeks would pass and nobody would die. (10)


Everyone in Donora knew how to make steel; (11) the town had sprung up around its steel industry. Steel production relied on limestone, coal and iron ore. (12) Coal was essential to keeping the Donora economy moving. (13) Each day, the Donora Steel & Wire Works burned as much coal as all the homes in Pittsburgh. (14) In addition to needing coal to fire the mill's furnaces, steel making depended on a derivative of coal called coke--pure carbon, essentially. (15)

"A coke oven [in 1950] was a pretty simple affair, a gigantic beehive about the size of a one-car garage, built in honeycomb fashion out of fired bricks." (16) Coal was heated to temperatures in excess of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit to produce coke. (17) Once started, the oven could not be stopped because if it ever cooled it could not be restarted. (18) Thus, young steel workers who stacked bricks over the opening of the oven to keep the temperature high were in constant contact with the hydrocarbons that baked out of the coal, filling the surrounding air and ground. (19)

   When the oven was ready to yield steel, the workers would open the 
   doors on both sides, letting air into the oven. (20) The air-starved 
   coke would suck up the oxygen and explode into flames. (21) Massive 
   amounts of water were needed to put out the fires. (22) The water 
   used in steelmaking tends to pick up whatever impurities that are 
   rinsed off materials in the process. Some bright fellow had the 
   idea of using dirty water from other parts of the mills to quench 
   the coke, which made sense except that however poisonous the water 
   was when it came from the mill, it would only be made worse by 
   quenching. Mrs. LaMendola told me she could never get tomatoes 
   to grow in the path where the plume from the ovens ran. On the 
   other side of her house, they did just fine. (23) 

The greatest enemy of steel, oddly enough, is air, as oxygen seeks to bind with metals like iron, creating a permanent layer of rust. (24) Thus, steel had to be painted with a galvanizing film that contained metals like cadmium or lead to keep out the air. (25) This essentially meant plunging the steel into a bath of molten zinc. The zinc bonds to the surface of the steel, forming a series of layered zinc-iron alloys. When done properly, these alloy coatings last decades.

During the violent work slowdowns and protests before World War I that gave rise to the big steelworkers union, Donora remained staunchly anti-union. (26) For being the consummate company town, Donora was rewarded with a zinc plant, which was out of date the moment it opened in 1915. (27)

   [Donora Zinc Works'] massive, horizontal coal-fired furnaces were 
   already giving way to electrically powered plants that were less 
   smoky and that did not create such quantities of toxic zinc fumes. 
   The plant's smokestacks, moreover, were less than 150 feet tall, 
   too short to propel their contents above the 600-foot hills around 
   them. In 1933, after the plant had been firing for less than two 
   decades, a Pennsylvania historian reported that bones from some 
   old Native American graves had washed out of the hillside downwind 
   of the zinc plant's plumes. The grass that held the earth in place 
   had died off. (28) 

Working zinc was like coking, but worse. Accordingly, zinc workers had only a three-hour workday, probably because nobody could tolerate a longer period in front of the blistering furnaces. (29) As soon as the workers filled the furnaces, they were allowed to leave. (30)

   Most of the plant's employees had emigrated from parts of Spain 
   where their families had produced zinc workers for generations. 
   They did not mix much with the rest of the townsfolk. One fellow 
   who had worked in a zinc plant commented to me, "I was the only 
   one in the workforce who could read or speak English. Most of 
   the workers were under twenty-five. Few of them lasted very long." 
   He described for me his last day in the plant: "Five guys had gone 
   before me to shovel out the finished zinc. Each one of them keeled 
   over, real sick, kinda pale, and nearly passed out. I was the sixth 
   one in. I couldn't take it either. I left. Spent a week in bed and 
   never returned. Not many ever made it to the age of thirty as zinc 
   workers. I quit when I was twenty." (31) 

Zinc is one of those elements that the body needs in very small doses in certain forms, as when bound with sugars to fight colds, but is poisonous in larger amounts and different forms, as when combined with sulfur, carbon, fluoride, or nitrogen gases. (32) In addition, both zinc smelting and steel production use large amounts of flurospar, a penetrating and corrosive toxic fluoride gas which can take the gloss off of light bulbs and etch glass. (33) "One investigator found that mottled teeth, characteristic of fluoride poisoning, were common in Donora." (34)


   On calm, cloudless, dry nights, the air gives up its heat to the 
   surrounding hillsides, and growing denser as it cools, flows 
   downhill like water. Usually, the temperature within any column 
   of air is cooler the higher you get. Where there are valleys, the 
   colder air from the hills can create an inversion layer that keeps 
   warmer air from rising. Hot-air balloons fly because hot air is 
   lighter than cold air. But when an inversion happens, balloons 
   cannot fly, smoke cannot rise, and fumes, hot when released, cool 
   and sink back to the ground, unable to dissipate. 
   October 26th, 1948, brought a massive, still blanket of cold air 
   over the entire Monongahela Valley. All the gases from Donora's 
   mills, its furnaces and stoves, were unable to rise above the 
   hilltops and began to fill the homes and streets of the town 
   with a blinding fog of coal, coke and metal fumes. At first, 
   cars and trucks tried to creep along with their headlights lit, 
   but by midday, traffic came to a standstill as drivers could no 
   longer see the street. "I could not even see my hand at the end 
   of my arm," recalls Vince Graziano, then a strapping young 
   steelworker. "I actually could not find my way home. I got lost 
   that day." (35) 

Berton Roueche, a writer for The New Yorker, later described the incident:

   The fog closed over Donora on the morning of Tuesday, October 26th. 
   The weather was raw, cloudy, and dead calm, and it stayed that way 
   as the fog piled up all that day and the next. By Thursday, it had 
   stiffened adhesively into a motionless clot of smoke. That 
   afternoon, it was just possible to see across the street. Except 
   for the stacks, the mills had vanished. The air began to have a 
   sickening smell, almost a taste ....(36) 

Other community residents shared their memories of the experience:

   Arnold Hirsh, a World War II veteran then just beginning his 
   half-century as the town's leading attorney, watched the 
   gathering fog from his Main Street office. "The air looked 
   yellow, never like that before. Nothing moved. I went over to 
   Seventh Street and stood at the corner of McKean, looking down 
   towards the river, and you could just barely see the railroad 
   tracks. Right there on the tracks was a coal-burning engine 
   puffing away. It issued a big blast of black smoke that went up 
   about six feet in the air and stopped cold. It just hung there, 
   with no place to go, in air that did not move." 
   Doc Rongaus gave the same advice to anyone who would listen: 
   Leave if you can. The firemen of Donora went from door to door 
   delivering whiffs of oxygen from tanks to those who were stranded. 
   One of the firemen, John Volk, remembered borrowing oxygen 
   canisters from the Monongahela, Monessen and Charleroi fire 
   departments. "There never was such a fog. You couldn't see your 
   hand in front of your face, day or night. Hell, even inside the 
   station the air was blue. I drove on the left side of the street 
   with my head out the window, steering by scraping the curb." (37) 

Yet the mill workers stuck to their daily routines. (38) Michael Neale, superintendent of the zinc works, knew the mill was operating as usual, despite community whispers that the mill had caused the fog. (39) Roger Blough, Chief Counsel of American Steel and Wire, called Neale at three o'clock Sunday morning to tell him to "dead fire" the furnaces without zinc ore. (40) Resentful of Blough's interference and convinced the mill was not the problem, Neale did not comply with the "dead fire" order until a group of company-hired chemists arrived at the mill several hours after Blough's phone call. (41) Neale later said he took this action out of concern for the community, not as an admission of responsibility for the smog, telling the press, "the zinc works has operated for 32 years with no problem. …

Log in to your account to read this article – and millions more.