Moreover, the mortality rate in Donora from 1945-48 was 26 percent lower than the 2006-08 death rate in surrounding Allegheny County, despite the fact that the air was far dirtier as measured by the Weather Bureau in 1949, when more than half the time it exceeded the current EPA standard by a factor of 14 or more.
So what happened in Donora? The unusual inversion trapped toxic chemical fumes from facilities that did not cease operations until conditions had reached obviously toxic levels. The 20 elderly people who died in Donora (mean and median age 65) were all already suffering chronic heart and lung disease.
Autopsies indicated that unknown substances caused the deaths, which the Public Health Service’s report analogized to the World War I chemical weapon phosgene. There was no evidence that particulate matter caused any deaths.
Although the Donora tragedy could not occur today because of stringent air-toxins regulations, modern emissions-control technology, vastly improved medical care and the societal wealth to afford it all, the EPA nonetheless likes to pretend that today’s air quality is as poor and dangerous as it ever was and that we are all just one orange or red air-quality day away from death.
The agency’s remedy is a slew of new regulations - such as its imminent ozone rule, which is estimated to be the most expensive regulation ever, costing $1 trillion annually in real compliance costs after 2020 and killing as many as 7.4 million actual jobs.
In November 1950, the Public Health Service’s Donora report was reviewed in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which observed, “There is need to know whether there is an insidious effect on those living their lifetime under an industrially polluted sky. Statistical studies of death rates in industrial cities are not sufficient. The situation requires the best in investigative medicine.”
While no one in America anymore lives under an “industrially polluted sky,” the call for “investigative” medicine 60 years ago still has not been answered. Instead, the EPA has spent tens and perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars cooking up dubious statistical claims about air quality without ever checking to see if they match up with reality.
If the EPA seriously maintains that its existing and new air regulations are providing trillions of dollars’ worth of health benefits, it should be compelled to produce hard medical evidence of those claimed benefits.
Sixty-three years ago, the Donora tragedy alerted society that air could become deadly in certain situations. It helped America choose a path toward the clean air we have now.
We can recycle the lesson of Donora. This time, however, we must make sure we don’t allow an out-of-control EPA to wreck our economy and kill jobs with overly stringent regulations that only “prevent” imaginary deaths and illness at real and significant costs that we can’t afford.
Steve Milloy publishes JunkScience.com and is the author of “Green Hell: How Environmentalists Plan to Ruin Your Life and What You Can Do to Stop Them” (Regnery, 2009). Dr. John Dale Dunn is an emergency physician in Texas.