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Friday, October 24, 2008

Devra Davis talks smog in Donora

DONORA, Pa. - Caskets occasionally washed to the street when heavy rain fell on a barren cemetery above a filthy zinc mill in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Decades of pollution from the Donora, Pa., mill's smokestacks had killed the vegetation at Gilmore Cemetery, including grass that would have protected its ground from erosion.

"It certainly was a testimony of what happened there when you couldn't get grass to grow on the ground over the graves," environmental scientist Devra Davis said, discussing the Donora smog of 1948 that killed 20 people and also was linked to the mill.

Davis, an author and native of Donora, made the remarks Monday while speaking in her hometown as the community commemorates the 60th anniversary of the nation's deadliest air pollution disaster.

"The funeral homes ran out of caskets," she told the crowd of local high school students and academics who attended the symposium at the borough building.

"The florists ran out of flowers for funerals," said Davis, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute and a public health adviser to each U.S. president since Jimmy Carter.

While the exact nature of the smog never has been revealed by U.S. Steel or through the federal investigation, Davis said she has uncovered evidence that suggests at least one death was attributed to fluoride poisoning. An autopsy report that was recently uncovered indicates the victims had toxic levels of fluoride in their tissues.

The autopsy showed findings as if "someone had been hit by war gas," she said.

Steel mills generated large quantities of the chemical when the industry was booming, and some were facing millions of dollars in court claims involving alleged fluoride damages at the time of the smog.

Donora's smokestacks were not high enough to send their emissions over the steep valley hills, Davis said. The situation turned deadly over that Halloween weekend of 1948 when a large stagnant air mass trapped the mill gases over Donora and Webster, its downwind neighbor.

Most of the deaths occurred within a half-mile distance of the zinc mill. Another 600 residents were hospitalized before rain helped to wash away the fumes that Halloween afternoon.

Davis said it's important to get the bottom of the disaster that helped to spur the nation's clean air laws.

"'Donoras' are happening today in small areas of India and China," she said. "Why is Donora so important? We must warn those living in similar conditions today."


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