The History Behind Air Pollution in Big Cities (NYC & Donora, PA)

Updated: Dec 26, 2020

In 1964, New York City had the worst air pollution among big cities in the United States.(1) It had 32 garbage incinerators that were operated by the city, and 17,000 others in apartment houses.(1) Many power plants in the city were fueled with coal and oil, which led to noxious emissions.(1) During the Thanksgiving weekend of 1966 a haze of smog that consisted of sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide, wrapped around the city. (1) Approximately 200 people died.(1) The fastest-growing cause of death in New York during the 1960s was pulmonary emphysema.(1) Deaths from chronic bronchitis also soared.(1) Also, NYC’s waterways were worse than the air pollution.(1) “Huge quantities of untreated sewage are pumped into New York Harbor continually,” The New York Times reported in 1970. (1) Companies along the Hudson River, particularly General Electric and General Motors, drained and leaked chemicals into the river. (1)

Another Northeastern city that has had an air pollution episode is Donora, a town in Pennsylvania that had a population of 14,000 people.(2) Donora is on the Monongahela River in a valley surrounded by hills and had a number of steel mills along with a zinc smelting plant that released excessive amounts of sulphuric acid, carbon monoxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere.(2) During the 1920s, Zinc Works, paid off local residents for damages caused by the pollution but there was little or no regulation of the air.(2) In 1948, a smog hovered over Donora, Pennsylvania, for over 5 days, killing 20 people and leaving thousands severely sick.(2) In the beginning of the fall, the weather conditions in the valley brought a heavy fog into Donora.(2) This fog trapped the airborne pollutants emitted from the zinc smelting plant and steel mills.(2) The trapped the airborne pollutants were inhaled by the local residents.(2) Most residents tried to evacuate, but the heavy smog and increased traffic made leaving difficult.(2) Thousands flooded the hospitals when they experienced difficulty breathing.(2) The day that Zinc Works shut down their operations, rain fell on Donora and dispersed the pollutants.(2) By that time, another nine people had died.(2) The Donora smog disaster led to the passage of 1955 Clean Air Act.(2)

1. Dwyer, J. (2017, March 01). Remembering a City Where the Smog Could Kill. Retrieved from

2. Killer smog claims elderly victims. (2009, November 13). Retrieved from

#Pollution #air #Airpollution #nyc #pollutedcity #cities #urbancity

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