Air Crisis in Pittsburgh

Historic photos from Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City by Stefan Lorant
By Barrett P. Walker

Pittsburgh emerged from World War II as an industrial powerhouse, providing steel for the war effort and manufactured goods for the rebuilding that followed.  Foundation trustees Tom, Sr. and Barrett P. Walker grew up in Pittsburgh and recall a series of respiratory illnesses - colds, coughs, and sore throats - brought on by acidic emissions from the mills.  Not only were buildings blackened from layers of soot, the acidic emissions actually eroded the stone and concrete that buildings were made of.  Despite the obvious costs of air pollution, many city residents considered pollution to be the cost of prosperity.

A 1947 public opinion survey revealed that upper income Pittsburgers were overwhelmingly in favor of smoke abatement regulations, whereas "lower-class" residents were opposed. Pedominantly Italian mill and mine workers complained they paid the cost for millionaire industrialists to breath clean air, even though they were exposed to more pollution and suffered worse health effects. 1

A poem by Meda Logan, dating to around 1907, captures the public’s conflicted view. 2

“Here’s to grim Pittsburgh
          the city of smoke,
Where the sky’s but a memory
          and sunshine a joke,
Where the incense of stogies
          perfumeth the air -
But in spite of her faults
          we all love to be there.” 

In 1948 an air inversion trapped pollution over the city.  The air became so bad in the nearby mill town of Donora, that half the population was sickened, and 20 died.  Despite pleas to shut down the town’s zinc plant and steel mill, they continued emitting toxic smoke.  The Donora smog was a pivotal event that turned the public against unabated air pollution. 3  People began to move away from the Pittsburgh area in search of better living conditions.  Over the following four decades, census data shows the City lost almost half its population.  

As described in the next section, bipartisan effort resulted in the enactment of smog control and the beginning of Pittsburgh's Renaissance.
  1. Pennsylvannia History, vol. 66, no. 4, Autumn 1999, The 1941 Smoke-Control Ordinance and Italian Americans in Pittsburgh, Stefano Luconi
  2. Creative Writing, Steel Heritage in Western Pennsylvannia Curriculum, Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, p. 6
  3. Smog Deaths in 1948 Led to Clean Air Laws, April 22, 2009, On All Things Considered, NPR Transcript & Story.

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