Centennial E7 – Night of the Killer Smog

A double-decker bus with a police motorcycle escort to guide the bus driver through the London Great Smog.
Credit: Alan Farrow; public domain.

The Clean Air Act of 1970 was one of the first and most influential environmental laws passed in the United States. But why was this law needed in the first place, and what inspired lawmakers to want to regulate air pollution levels?

Two tragedies in the mid-20th century showed air quality was an issue lawmakers needed to address. In October 1948, a cloud of toxic smog settled over the town of Donora, Pennsylvania, and hung there until Halloween. The town was home to the largest nail mill in the world at the time, which burned more coal than the nearby city of Pittsburgh. The poison fog killed 20 residents in five days and sickened thousands more.

Just four years later, a similar but larger-scale event happened in London. In December 1952, pollution from coal-fired powerplants and chimneys, as well as emissions from new diesel buses, created a smog so thick residents couldn’t see their own two feet. Thousands died and tens of thousands were sickened by the poison cloud that persisted for five days.

In this episode, physician Devra Davis recounts the effects of the Donora and London smog events and describes why they were so deadly. A Pennsylvania native who grew up in the town of Donora, Devra shares her memories of living in the polluted town and how the deadly smog affected her family. She also recounts the research she conducted on the London smog event and how her work showed the death toll from the disaster was much higher than the British government reported. Finally, Devra describes how these two tragedies served as catalysts for enacting the first clean air laws in the United States and abroad.

Read more about the Donora smog even in Devra’s book, When Smoke Ran Like Water.

This episode was produced by Lauren Lipuma and mixed by Robyn Murray and Jon Schriner.  


Lauren Lipuma:             Nanci, do you watch The Crown?

Nanci Bompey:             I did start watching The Crown actually with my mom when we were on vacation.

Lauren Lipuma:             Nice.

Nanci Bompey:             Very, that kind of, you know …

Lauren Lipuma:             You were watching TV on vacation?

Nanci Bompey:             When I was visiting them in the evening, you know?

Lauren Lipuma:             Oh okay, there you go.

Nanci Bompey:             Kind of a little Netflix. It’s good though, I really like it.

Lauren Lipuma:             Me too, I didn’t think I would but I really enjoy it.

Nanci Bompey:             Although, I have to watch it with subtitles.

Lauren Lipuma:             Really?

Shane Hanlon:              Really?

Nanci Bompey:             Hard for me to understand the English accents.

Lauren Lipuma:             Really?

Nanci Bompey:             Also, Game of Thrones I had to … I started watching that with subtitles and the entire show changed for me because I was like I can now understand-

Lauren Lipuma:             I can see that.

Nanci Bompey:             … 50% more.

Lauren Lipuma:             If you haven’t read the books, I can totally understand how that … Game of Thrones might be-

Shane Hanlon:              I actually-

Nanci Bompey:             It’s a game changer.

Shane Hanlon:              I lived with one of my brothers and sister-in-laws for six months or something and they watch everything with subtitles on and it bothered me so much. I couldn’t do it for a while and now I do it and now my partner hates me because of it. She’s like turn this… turn the subtitles off.

Nanci Bompey:             Yeah, that’s what my mom does I guess. I guess, are they like 75, no?

Shane Hanlon:              No, they’re like, your age, yeah. It’s just they like subtitles.

Lauren Lipuma:             I should tell my parents that, because they can’t really hear very well.

Shane Hanlon:              Welcome to the American Geophysical Union’s podcast about the scientists and the methods behind the science. These are the stories you won’t read in a manuscript or hear in a lecture. I’m Shane Hanlon.

Nanci Bompey:             And I’m Nanci Bompey.

Lauren Lipuma:             And I’m Lauren Lipuma.

Shane Hanlon:              Hi Lauren. And this is Third Pod from the Sun, Centennial Edition.

Lauren Lipuma:             Okay. We’re actually talking about The Crown because this whole episode today is … all started when I saw an episode of The Crown. Do you remember the one about the great smog? Did you see that one yet?

Nanci Bompey:             I didn’t see that one, I think I’m still in like the … I don’t know.

Lauren Lipuma:             Well, this one’s pretty early on.

Shane Hanlon:              You know that one?

Lauren Lipuma:             That one. Well you should definitely watch this one. For those listening you should watch it too, it’s very interesting. In the early 1950s in London, in beginning of December of 1952, there was this episode that is referred to now as the London Great Smog. London’s always been a very smoggy place. But there’s this one time where the smog just … over the city would not dissipate. It was so thick and persisted for over five days that people literally could not see their feet, like when you looked down, that’s how foggy it was.

Nanci Bompey:             Wow.

Lauren Lipuma:             Yeah.

Shane Hanlon:              What does that do to someone’s body?

Lauren Lipuma:             Bad stuff, bad stuff, and that’s actually what we’re gonna hear about today.

Nanci Bompey:             Didn’t you say it with like pea soupy?

Lauren Lipuma:             Yeah, they called them pea soupers when this would happen, because it looked like pea soup.

Shane Hanlon:              That’s gross.

Lauren Lipuma:             It’s very gross. But yeah, it actually killed a lot of people. Thousands of people died from inhaling these toxic fumes. It was fumes from all the coal burning power plants and the coal fires. Remember it was winter time, it was really cold. People were burning fires in their houses to stay warm and there were diesel buses.

Lauren Lipuma:             I saw this and I got really interested in it and I wanted to find out more. I actually found out that there is … there was a very similar event that happened, but on a much, much smaller scale right here in our neck of the woods in this town called Donora, Pennsylvania,

Shane Hanlon:              Pennsylvania, that’s where I’m from.

Lauren Lipuma:             That is where you’re from. Shane, wait, where are you from again in Pennsylvania?

Shane Hanlon:              I’m from a tiny little village of less than 700 people called Munster, Pennsylvania.

Lauren Lipuma:             Like the cheese?

Shane Hanlon:              No, like The Munsters. There’s no E.

Lauren Lipuma:             Like Herman Munster?

Shane Hanlon:              Yes.

Nanci Bompey:             I do like Muenster cheese though.

Lauren Lipuma:             It’s pretty good.

Shane Hanlon:              It’s delicious, yeah.

Lauren Lipuma:             But have you ever heard of this town called Donora?

Shane Hanlon:              I have not actually.

Nanci Bompey:             Oh, he brought up on the map here.

Lauren Lipuma:             Let’s pull it up, let’s see.

Nanci Bompey:             It’s kind of Southeast.

Lauren Lipuma:             It’s south of Pittsburgh.

Shane Hanlon:              Yeah, but so I’m surprised I haven’t, because I’m from that part-ish of the state.

Nanci Bompey:             Have you ever been to Perryopolis?

Shane Hanlon:              No, I’ve … yeah. Now we just started looking at a map of names and realize there’s a bunch of funny names in or-

Lauren Lipuma:             Pennsylvania has like, yeah, interesting town names.

Nanci Bompey:             They’re probably all states, but yes, this is fun.

Lauren Lipuma:             Yeah. There’s a place called Smock.

Nanci Bompey:             Smock. I know, I like Smock. Oh, and Moon.

Lauren Lipuma:             Oh, Moon.

Shane Hanlon:              Oh yeah, Moon. It’s very space themed. It’s a township outside of Pittsburgh.

Nanci Bompey:             Is it seriously like that-

Shane Hanlon:              No, no.

Nanci Bompey:             They embrace it? Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, I thought you be …

Lauren Lipuma:             There’s a place called Eighty Four?

Shane Hanlon:              Oh yeah, Eighty Four, there’s a lumber company out of Eighty Four, I worked for Eighty Four lumber one summer.

Lauren Lipuma:             Where you like a lumberjack, is that it?

Shane Hanlon:              No. Well, sure. Why not?

Lauren Lipuma:             We are going to come back to this someday.

Shane Hanlon:              Yeah someday.

Lauren Lipuma:             I want to hear Shane’s life story.

Shane Hanlon:              There is a lot of … there’s an entire [inaudible 00:04:13] around this.

Lauren Lipuma:             I’ve never heard of a town with a name that’s just a number, but okay.

Shane Hanlon:              It’s spelled out though.

Nanci Bompey:             Yeah, I see that.

Shane Hanlon:              Yeah.

Lauren Lipuma:             There’s a place called Bentleyville.

Nanci Bompey:             Sweet.

Lauren Lipuma:             You have to drive a Bentley if you live there?

Shane Hanlon:              Bum, bum, bum, bum, and where are you now?

Nanci Bompey:             Oh yes, so back to Donora.

Lauren Lipuma:             Anyway, the reason I’m talking about the Donora, like I said, is there was this other really horrible smog event that happened in Donora, Pennsylvania in 1948. When I was researching this episode, both the London event and the Donora event, I came across Devra Davis and she is a doctor, she’s a toxicologist and an epidemiologist, and she has studied both of these events in detail, but interestingly, she actually grew up in the town of Donora.

Devra Davis:                 I’m Dr. Debra Davis. I am an epidemiologist and toxicologist. I’m also a writer of popular books, including When Smoke Ran Like Water that tells the story of the London and Donora killer smogs.

Lauren Lipuma:             Tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into medicine and epidemiology.

Devra Davis:                 Well, I grew up in the town called Donora and it was a very small steel town, working class. It was the largest nail mill in the world.

Lauren Lipuma:             Oh, wow.

Devra Davis:                 It was … it had one of the largest zinc smelters in the world at the time. The town of Donora burned more coal in a single day through … because of the mill, than the entire city of Pittsburgh. I never heard about the word pollution when I was living there. When I went away to school I was in high school, I went to the university and I learned that there was a town called Donora that had been polluted. I came and I said to my mother, mom, was there another town with the same name as ours? She said, “Why are you asking?” I said, well, I read a book at school that there’s a … was a town called Donora and it was polluted. Was our town polluted?

Devra Davis:                 And she motioned for me to sit down and she said, “Well, do you remember how the sun didn’t shine for days at a time?” I said, yeah. “Remember how we used to have to clean the walls every couple of months, we’d have to clean the soot off the walls.” I said, sure. She said, “Well, I guess today they’d call that pollution, but back then it was just a living.” I remembered that our games were the games that you play when there’s no grass. For example, regularly we would get on the top of a little hill and slide down because there was no grass growing on it, so you could use the hill as a slide.

Lauren Lipuma:             Wow.

Devra Davis:                 This is before they were playgrounds, okay? There were certain areas where you could grow tomatoes and there were areas where nobody tried to grow anything. Now I realize those were areas where the plumes were strongest. Zinc plume in particular, zinc is pretty toxic to plants. Years later, when I came back for my grandfather’s funeral, I was shocked that the hills I had slid down and the grounds I’d played on were full of Sumac trees, which grow very quickly and grass. I realized I grew up without much green in many places and we just took it for granted.

Lauren Lipuma:             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Devra Davis:                 Just the way it was.

Shane Hanlon:              Wow, Donora sounds lovely.

Lauren Lipuma:             I’m sure it was until this big smog event happened in 1948. Even spookier, it happened right before Halloween. Yeah, this smog rolled in and it didn’t dissipate for a couple of days, right around the end of October in 1948.

Devra Davis:                 I was an infant at the time. My mother just thought it was a little smokier than usual.

Lauren Lipuma:             What did it look like?

Devra Davis:                 The football game went on.

Lauren Lipuma:             Really?

Devra Davis:                 They couldn’t see the other side. Could not see when the football went up in the air, where it was going to come down.

Newscaster:                  … settles down on the industrial town of Donora, Pennsylvania, and brings with it mysterious death. Residents have difficulty in breathing the murky air. 20 die, 400 others are stricken with respiratory ailments. Oxygen tents care for sufferers in the town’s community center, transformed into a hospital. Investigations are launched. A local zinc plant suspected of emitting poison smoke is closed down. Rain brings relief, but an epidemic of pneumonia is feared in the wake of Donora’s deadly plague of smog.

Lauren Lipuma:             You were too young, but what … from the other people who’ve described it, what did it look like? What …

Devra Davis:                 People could not see their feet. People kept on their normal activities. When they went up to the top of the hill, there was less smoke down of … but this particular smoke just wouldn’t go away. I interviewed people who described watching a coal-fired steam engine discharge this black plume of smoke, which would normally go up and away, and instead of going up and dissipating, it went around straight over the horizon and dropped right back down. The Halloween parade went on, but they didn’t need to make it any more spookier, because it was already spooky enough with all the smoke.

Lauren Lipuma:             Yeah.

Devra Davis:                 The smoke just got denser and denser and after a while people started to hear people had gotten really sick. About a third of the town became ill. Now you have to understand Donora was a small town, normally nobody would die.

Lauren Lipuma:             How many people about?

Devra Davis:                 At the time I lived there maybe 20,000, maybe a few … a little bit less. Normally nobody would die and if somebody died it was a big deal. The first thing that happened is the funeral homes ran out of caskets.

Lauren Lipuma:             Oh my God.

Devra Davis:                 The florists ran out of flowers, the pharmacies ran out of drugs.

Lauren Lipuma:             What about anyone in your family? Were they affected?

Devra Davis:                 Yes, my grandmother had one of her many heart attacks. She was like a lot of women her age. They were considered old ladies in their 50s who were in bed much of the time because they weren’t well, and they weren’t well because their hearts had been damaged by the heavy pollution. I saw my grandmother have heart attacks. In fact, her heart attacks are so common that she next to her bed there was a welder’s tank of air, because the only treatment known for heart attacks back then was to put people in what they called an oxygen tent and they would tent oxygen over the bed and try to get the person to have access to more oxygen. She didn’t die then. She didn’t die until her 25th heart attack. She’d had so many of them and I’d seen so many of them that I couldn’t believe she wasn’t going to come back, but that time she didn’t.

Lauren Lipuma:             What was it like for you watching that?

Devra Davis:                 It was scary. Doctor Levin would come, he was the town doctor and he of course he made house calls and my mother would drag me along. I was the oldest at that point. I think there was two others. Because I could be helpful and I remember my grandmother would … often would vomit and would hold her chest and would be moaning. We would all just wait for Doctor Levin to come and administer something.

Devra Davis:                 I think that there were so many people like my grandmother in that town, people who had been full of energy. My grandmother was legendary for having been the first woman to hand crank a Model T.

Lauren Lipuma:             Wow.

Devra Davis:                 She would drive before the Pennsylvania turn bank existed. She would drive with her five children to Atlantic City in the summertime. I never knew her when she had that level of vigor and strength. I heard the stories from my mother. But, she was a very smart lady. And, of course, like most grandchildren, I adored her. So it was quite a loss.

Nanci Bompey:             Why was this particular instance so bad the smog incident? What was happening?

Lauren Lipuma:             Well, actually it happened … it had to do with the weather. There is this weird weather phenomenon. Well, I guess it’s not weird. To me it’s weird because I had never heard of it before, but it’s called an anticyclone. I wanted to know more about this, so I spoke to an atmospheric scientist. Her name is Sarah Benish and she explained to me what it was and why this happened at this particular time.

Sarah Benish:                My name is Sarah Benish and I’m a fourth year PhD candidate in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science at the University of Maryland. I study air quality and air pollution transport in China. An anticyclone is a type of weather system where the surface pressure is greater at its center than the air is around it. It’s basically a more technical term for a high-pressure system. If you’ve ever watched the news or looked at the weather map, those are the blue H’s on, on those maps.

Sarah Benish                 These systems are associated with falling air and clockwise circulation in the northern hemisphere. Because this air is sinking in these high-pressure, these anticyclone areas, it’s suppressing the upward motion that you need to create things like clouds and precipitation. For this reason, anticyclones are generally associated with fair weather or good weather.

Sarah Benish:                This means low clouds, no precipitation, it’s dry the weather’s stagnant, there’s low winds. These really create some good conditions for air pollution to build up and then just stay right where it is and not be transported other … where other places where it could be diluted or rained out or things like that. The Donora Pennsylvania and the London smog episode where were particularly important because these were multi-day anticyclones. Air was really just stuck where it was for multiple days and there was no precipitation, no rain. It didn’t have anywhere else to go because of the local emissions and the chemistry associated with that. I’ve had a catch-22 there was nothing to do to be done at that point.

Nanci Bompey:             Now back to Devra. She grew up there in this town, obviously there was this incident, but she actually ended up being a scientist, I mean studying this thing.

Lauren Lipuma:             Right, so she was very affected by this when she got older and she really wanted to look into it and find out what exactly happened and what was the actual part of the smog that was so toxic to people. She became a doctor. She became a toxicologist and she looked into this in detail and went actually back to look for all those records from the people who had died and who were sick during the ’48 event.

Devra Davis:                 When the mills shut down, my family joined thousands of others leaving and went to the big city of Pittsburgh. Years and years later when I was in graduate school and I was doing my postdoc at Johns Hopkins University, I became very interested in the science of epidemiology, which is the study of the patterns of disease made by people in time and space. I began to try to map what had happened in Donora. For years, it was called an act of God, a freak of weather, but I subsequently did further research and determined it was not just a freak of weather. What we found is that where the deaths were in Donora was within a few hundred feet of the highest levels of pollution of that mill during this particular episode. That’s where all the 20 deaths that occurred within five days.

Devra Davis:                 Even though you inhale an air pollutant … Air pollutants are a combination of gases and particles. Once they are inhaled, however, both the ultrafine particles and the gases obviously get into the lung. The smaller they are, smaller than 2.5 microns, they can get all the way into the lung. Once they get in through the nose and let’s say they’re 2.5 or smaller nanoparticle size, they can then get into the lung and into the bloodstream. Once they get into the bloodstream, they can go anywhere into the body.

Devra Davis:                 There still is a debate about what part of the pollution was the most toxic, if you will. We know that sulfur dioxide forms acid when you’re in the presence of water, but that’s not likely to be the culprit. That’s not going to kill people. It’s going to make them cough and it’s going to have a kind of noxious odor to it. I believe that the most likely culprit was the formation of a highly reactive fluoride gas. That’s what I suspect and I suspect that based on some evidence that was found in the air conditioning filters that were analyzed years later where there was some residues consistent with that.

Devra Davis:                 Donora you see was along the Monongahela valley along a horseshoe bend, where it was given to these inversions of where the cold air would sit on top of the hot and it couldn’t get out. But so were other towns in the Mon valley, but only Donora had the zinc plant. All the other towns had Coke ovens and steel mills, but only Donora had this huge sink plant. I suspect that there was something in the process of zinc smelting, particularly fluoride. You take sand and you’d take Fluorspar, that’s calcium fluoride, and you combine them and you get highly reactive fluorine gas. I believe it was the gas that caused this problem. Because when I looked at the autopsies and I looked at some of the pathology, the lungs of the people from Donora that you could look at looked like they had suffocated. Just like those from poison gas warfare, where also they used a kind of fluorine gas for some of the poisoned guests.

Lauren Lipuma:             Oh my God, that’s horrifying.

Devra Davis:                 The official record for Donora said 20 deaths. Well, now I know there were far more than that.

Shane Hanlon:              Okay, so Lauren, you started this whole, I guess, journey of discovery down this rabbit hole because of the great London smog.

Lauren Lipuma:             Right, of 1952.

Shane Hanlon:              What made it great?

Lauren Lipuma:             Well, it was just, it was really horrible. Thousands of people died.

Shane Hanlon:              So bad great?

Lauren Lipuma:             Bad, yeah, exactly. Bad great, terrible great. But actually officials from London, they knew that something like this was a possibility that it could potentially happen and that if an anticyclone came and stayed over the city for a long time, it could be really bad and cause a lot of deaths. Devra told me actually about how some London officials actually went to Donora to investigate what happened with that smog event.

Devra Davis:                 London immediately sent a team of investigators to Donora within weeks of its happening.

Lauren Lipuma:             Oh, the Donora smog?

Devra Davis:                 Yes, and they went to the town … and the people that investigated the Donora smog were from the National Security Agency of the United States. The people investigating from London were also from the security bureau.

Lauren Lipuma:             Why did they go? I mean, did they just … They knew that this was the kind of thing that could happen in London too?

Devra Davis:                 There were those who were well aware that this possibility existed and they were in senior positions in government and that report sat in a drawer unread and ignored until after the London smog had hit. The London report said if an episode like Donora ever hits a town like ours we will have thousands of deaths.

Nanci Bompey:             So London, how many people actually died there from this?

Lauren Lipuma:             Well, so in the early fifties the official government report, their official reports at about 3,000 to 4,000 people died.

Nanci Bompey:             Oh, wow.

Lauren Lipuma:             But Devra, went back and looked at this later on and she’ll tell you all about it … found out that actually a lot more people probably died and hundreds of thousands of people were sickened from it. You’re breathing in toxic coal fumes, sulfuric acid, tons of bad stuff. Devra wanted to go back and look at this. She and a colleague went back and they found that a lot more people died than the British government officially thought.

Lauren Lipuma:             What their government’s official explanation in the beginning was that there had also been a flu epidemic. Because remember it’s wintertime, it’s typical flu season and they thought that the flu had made people more vulnerable to the effects of the smog. But when Devra and her colleague Michelle Bell … When they went back and looked at this, they found that that was not the case.

Nanci Bompey:             How did they deal with that in The Crown?

Lauren Lipuma:             Well, you have to watch it, but actually she told me The Crown was very historically accurate.

Nanci Bompey:             Oh, that’s interesting, that’s interesting.

Devra Davis:                 Michelle Bell was a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins and I had finished my postdoc and was at the National Academy of Sciences. We got this idea that there ought to be a little bit more that you’d come up with because London, unlike Donora, had a record of keeping data for public health for many years. We did some digging and we came across a sole practitioner, kind of analogous to a country doc, but in London who kept assiduous records of every patient he ever saw for 40 years, every day.

Lauren Lipuma:             Good.

Devra Davis:                 What we were able to show is that there was … when his record of treatment of people sick during the time of the killer smog, he had no unusual increase in reporting flu deaths or flu cases that came into his office. All his flu cases were confirmed over the period of 40 years. There was not an unusual number of them during that time.

Narrator:                      Every year, railways, factories and private exude two and a half million tons of smoke.

Devra Davis:                 Well, we put it all together in an analysis and then we went back and we noted did something else and we looked at the daily death rate all the way into several months out after this episode. Now the London killer smog was in early December of 1952-

Narrator:                      1952, when 4,000 people died.

Devra Davis:                 The government’s position was that that episode ended by mid-December. We noted that the death rate remained 50% above normal, all the way into the spring.

Lauren Lipuma:             Wow.

Devra Davis:                 We calculated just with plain old numbers what the data actually show, which is that there were 12,000 deaths more than normal. Now look, London’s a huge city, it still is. It was then one of the world’s largest cities. It was normal that you would have hundreds, if not thousands of deaths over a short period of time. But to have this many deaths occur in such a small period of time was extraordinary.

Lauren Lipuma:             What was the British government’s official … What was their number for it before you guys found the 12,000?

Devra Davis:                 3,000.

Lauren Lipuma:             Wow, wow.

Devra Davis:                 This is four times more than the official explanation now.

Lauren Lipuma:             Good.

Devra Davis:                 What was unique about the London smog, right? Because London and had smogs for hundreds of years, they even named his clothing line London Fog. What was unique in Donora, I think was the zinc plant. What was unique in London were the diesel buses, because the summer before the London smog hit was when they first introduced diesel buses into transportation in London. It was the double-decker diesel buses with the diesel fumes combined with a million smoke fired chimneys, that I believe accounted for the unique toxicity of that London.

Narrator:                      Every year, railways, factories and private homes exude two and a half million tons of smoke. Nobody England and Wales knew-

Devra Davis:                 And the reason I think that is the case is that Jerry Abraham, a very bright pathologist from upstate New York actually dissected lungs from London 50 years later and he was able to show inside the lung and inside the lymph black schmutz like you would get from diesel.

Narrator:                      In fact, the amount of soot of taken in by one person in a day would cover a [inaudible 00:26:19] bit.

Devra Davis:                 You see it was a toxic soup. Diesel, particles on the gas inhaled, into the lung with … in a form and a density that never existed before that created this very deadly dense smoke that I think created the deadly fumes that affected so many and ultimately shut down traffic. People could not see their feet.

Narrator:                      A great fog of London has been the chief topic in the south of Britain. It results being of course a great hold up and vast inconvenience for millions. Traffic in London was completely at a standstill on many occasions.

Devra Davis:                 There, I tell a story in my book when smoke ran like water of a guy can’t find his way home so he, hears the tap, tap, tap of a blind man. He followed … he asks him if he could take him by the hand to find his way home.

Lauren Lipuma:             Wow. Wow. How long did the London smog event last?

Devra Davis:                 Supposedly 10 days. It started to ebb, as does most of these things, the weather and the winds change. But remember London wasn’t on a hill, it was just a slight valley of the Thames. But again, this a hundred feet or so difference was all it took.

Shane Hanlon:              These are all obviously absolutely terrible catastrophic events.

Lauren Lipuma:             Yeah.

Shane Hanlon:              But, I assume or I’m at least hoping that there was like some ultimate good that came out of this, like regulation-wise.

Lauren Lipuma:             Yeah. Sadly, it always takes a tragedy to have something good come out of it. But eventually this, these two events were really the catalyst for clean air regulations, in the second half of the 20th century and actually helped to establish the EPA here in the US.

Devra Davis:                 In the beginning in 1955 the United States passed a clean air law that basically just gave the Department of Health and Human Services the right to gather data. Because it’s always been a lot easier to study something than to do something about it, right? That’s our tradition all over the world. Let’s study the problem. Okay, so then finally in 1970 under the leadership of Richard Nixon there was a real impetus to regulate pollutants in the air.

Devra Davis:                 The first air pollution standards, the United States and probably among in the world were set by California under a Republican governor because people in California were literally riding in the streets demanding cleaner air in the 1950s. Suburban housewives with gas masks on.

Lauren Lipuma:             Wow.

Devra Davis:                 California, they knew that there was something going on. People were getting sicker and sicker and they demanded something. California set standards. Richard Nixon comes from California. He sees the writing on the wall. He didn’t care much for the environment. In fact, he used to like light a fire in the White House in the summer because he liked the homey feeling of the fireplace. But he knew an issue that was good politically. On January 1st he said, “We must protect our environment, it’s now or never.” And that April we had the first Earth Day and he was ahead of it.

Devra Davis:                 He starts … appoints an EPA, which did not exist before then. They take parts of agencies from all over the rest of the government and pulled them together into this EPA and they start to go about not just studying the problem, but actually setting standards. They set standards for us, a sulfur air, nitrogen, volatile materials and lead and started a whole program of air pollution controls and the states have to implement the policies. But the feds basically set what the levels are. That all came from those dreadful episodes of Donora and London.

Sarah Benish:                The clean air act was really the forefront into, into controlling our air, at least the United States. Right now the state of the science is a little bit challenging because people … it’s a real highly political issue. People don’t want to be told that their business or their industry is emitting too much. We have really helpful clean air legislation with the Clean Air Act in 1970, but more work needs to be done to make these regulations even more strict in order to protect human health, control agriculture, things like that.

Sarah Benish:                Well, air pollution is very much seen, at least in a political standpoint, as a local problem or a statewide problem solution. It knows no boundaries, it’s gonna move, it’s gonna go where it wants to. I think the next round of regulations need to be more focused on a regional and global assessment of air pollution. We have studies that show Asian outflow hitting California and Washington and Oregon.

Sarah Benish:                It’s not like a frequent thing, but like other countries are going to pollute countries. I think there’s going to be a need for some global cooperation. And even just a thinking outside the box on things like energy and not like historically these coal burning power plants were the way to go for energy. But acid rain has proved that maybe it’s not. So really thinking out our … the future of our energy and of our investments and how it will affect its people and its crops and agriculture and economy I think is going to be a pretty important.

Shane Hanlon:              I keep thinking of Devra and this kind of … like the fact that she grew up in this area and then went back to like save it almost or at least learn from like the past and regulation, you know? So this is … there’s a lot of tie ins here as I think about this more. You know who she reminds me of?

Sarah Benish:                You?

Shane Hanlon:              No, not me, no, no. Rachel Carson.

Lauren Lipuma:             Oh yeah, absolutely.

Nanci Bompey:             Oh No, I’m a Rachel Carson, right? Yeah.

Shane Hanlon:              With the Donora, it was like the smog and pollution. Rachel Carson was pesticides. Both from Pennsylvania and it’s a tie in, I don’t know. I figured that’s like a … I’d like that comparison. No, it’s not me.

Nanci Bompey:             Yeah, I mean what have you done for your hometown of Munster, Shane?

Shane Hanlon:              I’ve talked about it on an internationally listened to podcast.

Nanci Bompey:             There you go, yeah.

Lauren Lipuma:             There you go, you put Munster on the map?

Shane Hanlon:              I did, I did. Everyone’s gonna Google Munster. Okay folks, that’s all from Third Pod from the Sun, Centennial Edition.

Nanci Bompey:             Thanks so much to Lauren for bringing us this story and to Devra and Sarah for sharing their work with us.

Shane Hanlon:              This podcast was produced by Lauren and mixed by Robin Murray and John Shiner.

Lauren Lipuma:             If you want to learn more about the Donora and London smog events, you can watch The Crown or you can read Devra’s book, When Smoke Ran Like Water. We’d love to hear your thoughts on this podcast. Please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts and you can find new episodes wherever you get your podcasts or @thirdpodfromthesun.com

Shane Hanlon:              We’re continuing this on, so be on the lookout for more Centennial Episodes to come-

Lauren Lipuma:             As well as our regular episodes.

Shane Hanlon:              And thanks all, we’ll see you next time.


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