What if today’s levels of air pollution didn’t kill anybody? That certainly would be bad news for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has spent the past 15 years stubbornly defending its extraordinarily expensive and ever-tightening air-quality regulations.
The EPA claims airborne fine particulate matter kills tens of thousands annually and that the prevention of those deaths will provide society $2 trillion annually in monetized health benefits by 2020.
Everyone (including environmental zealots) agrees that the worst air-pollution episode ever to occur in the United States occurred in Donora, Pa., in October 1948.
For three days, an unusual and stifling temperature inversion trapped noxious fumes from local industry in Donora’s valley. By the time rain finally came to clear away the smog, thousands had been affected, hundreds had been sickened, and 20 elderly persons were dead. The Donora tragedy was a sentinel event on the path to the federal Clean Air Act that finally was enacted in 1963.
Ironically, though, when the Donora episode is studied rather than simply exploited as a rhetorical device, that debunks the EPA’s assertion that present-day air quality is a killer.
The U.S. Public Health Service investigated the Donora tragedy and in 1949 issued a report titled “Air Pollution in Donora, Pa.: Epidemiology of the Smog Episode of October 1948.”
The report indicates that the death rates for the period 1945-48 for Donora and nearby Pittsburgh were 826 and 1,086 per 100,000 people, respectively.
Surprisingly, those mortality rates compare pretty well with the most recent mortality data for Allegheny County, Pa., home to both Donora and Pittsburgh.
During the years 2006-08, Allegheny County’s mortality rate was 1,110 per 100,000. And while mortality rate is one of the few objective public health statistics available, there’s much more to this story than simply comparing then-and-now mortality rates.
Donora’s air quality was measured by the U.S. Weather Bureau from Feb. 16 to April 27, 1949 - i.e., more than three months after the October inversion and during what would be considered normal air-quality conditions in Donora.
The Weather Bureau’s measurements of airborne particulate matter are astonishing and compelling. Of the 205 air samples taken at 12 stations during those 10 weeks in Donora, 54 percent exceeded 500 micrograms per cubic meter.
While the other 46 percent of the readings were less than 500 micrograms per cubic meter, it’s likely that all of those were likely far greater than today’s EPA’s standard for maximum allowable fine particulate matter, which is 35 micrograms per cubic meter during a 24-hour period.
In contrast, Allegheny County violated this modern EPA standard just twice during 2007-09.
So, although the air in Allegheny County is much cleaner than it was in the years following World War II, the mortality rate is about the same.