Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Lemming Tracks: The Donora Death Fog and the Good Old Days

"Oct. 26, 1948: Death Cloud Envelops Pennsylvania Mill Town"
This Day in Tech, Wired (October 26, 2010)

"1948: An inversion layer settles over the rust belt town of Donora, Pennsylvania, trapping industrial pollution in the atmosphere. When it clears six days later, 20 people are dead, another 50 are dying and hundreds will live out their days with permanently damaged lungs.

"Inversion occurs when the air near the ground is cooler than the air above it, a reversal of normal atmospheric conditions. When that happens, manmade pollutants are trapped, resulting in smog. The physical conditions around Los Angeles, for example, lead to frequent inversion layers over the basin. That, combined with heavy automobile pollution, consistently gives L.A. the worst air quality in the country.

"But L.A. has never seen anything quite like that one week in Pennsylvania, in what became known as the Donora air inversion or, more dramatically, the 'Donora Death Fog.'..."

The town is about 20 miles south of Pittsburgh. During the night of October 26, 1948, pollutants from steel smelting plants and a zinc works got stuck under a temperature inversion there.

"...The companies connived with the U.S. Public Health Service to cover up the facts of the incident and succeeded in doing so for half a century. Whistle-blowers were silenced; records disappeared. It wasn't until 1994 that a full accounting of what happened in Donora was finally published...."

The Good Old Days and the Lemming

A good memory is one of the better defenses against pathological nostalgia, in the Lemming's opinion. It's okay to remember days of October's bright blue weather: but prudent, I think, to remember what didn't go so well, too.

Like the Donora Death Fog.

The Lemming isn't surprised that the cover-up happened in the 1940s. That wasn't a particularly bright patch in America's history, in several ways. Doctor John Cutler was making medical history in Guatemala, in cahoots with the Public Health Service. (Another War-on-Terror Blog (October 2, 2010)) The Tuskegee experiments - but those started in 1932 and continued until 1972. (Another War-on-Terror Blog (June 17, 2008))

Of course, those were scientific medical experiments on natives and other unimportant people - not like the little oopsie in Donora. The point is that the Public Health Service had a quite - convenient - sense of ethics.

You'd think that using words like "medical" and "scientific" wouldn't work so well as excuses for hurting and killing people these days - but I've discussed that in another blog (A Catholic Citizen in America (August 30, 2010))

Welcome to the Information Age

Between cell phones, blogs, and other threats to the power of old-school information gatekeepers, the Lemming doubts that something like the Donora Death Fog could be kept quiet for quite so long today. A few hours, maybe: not decades.

No, the Lemming doesn't miss 'the good old days.'

Not that the current era is particularly perfect.

Given changes in the establishment since the sixties, it's not likely that Big Oil, or any industrial outfit, would be given the benefit of the doubt in a "Donora" situation. Pollution seems to have replaced Communism as a major subject of fear - reasonable and otherwise - for America's leadership.

Humanity's talent for ethical lapses remains undimmed, though: and that's another topic.

Related posts, touching on health, ethics, and government:

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