Air Attacks, Kills the Young and Old

The story so far:  On November 28, 1939, 75 years ago, a thick, black smoke covered St. Louis, turning day into night, snarling traffic and angering and shocking residents.  A Smoke Elimination Committee was created and it met through January and into February sorting out its limited options for finagling cleaning the city’s air. As February continued, the city waited for the committee’s report.

By Bob Wyss

The headlines were blunt: “Smoke, Major Peril to Health,” “Physician Says Smoke Hurts All, Especially Sick,” and “Human Respiratory Tract Cannot Cope With Fumes.”

Air Pollution 1949

Children were especially prone to illnesses from smoke and air pollution. This child is being treated in 1949 from the toxic fumes that attacked and killed residents of Donora, Pa. – AP

For decades St. Louis had peered at the coal smoke that shrouded the city and only saw prosperity. Finally in the winter 75 years ago of 1939-40 the city was beginning to see sickness and death.

Four medical societies in the city declared that the air pollution being caused by the burning of coal was a public health menace that needed to be ended.

The Ear, Nose and Throat Club, the Trudeau Club that represented pulmonary and lung specialists, and the St. Louis Pediatric Society adopted recommendations that were then accepted by the St. Louis Medical Society.

That resolution condemned “the continuation of this health menace to the citizens of St. Louis and requests the proper authorities to institute immediate, appropriate and effective steps to abolish this menace.”

Some members of the Smoke Elimination Committee had worried that the medical community would not take a strong enough stand, but those fears proved to be ill founded.

Dr. John S. Young who had taken public health stands in the past, was especially outspoken in a story published in late January by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

While everyone suffered from the type of air pollution prevalent in St. Louis at the time, Dr. Young said that the young, the old, and those who were ill were at the greatest risk.

“The child born and reared in a smoky atmosphere never has the chance, all things being equal, of one born and reared where the air is unpolluted,” he said.

“If some scheme could be worked out by which the average mother could be shown that by tolerating air pollution she is partially guilty for the ill-health of her baby, I feel sure something would be done about it.”

Research by 1940 was showing a clear link between air pollution and cancer and other respiratory ailments, a point that was examined in great detail in a number of news stories and radio broadcasts.

Donora Killer Smog

The Donora attack was 10 years after St. Louis debated what to do about its air. A patient is being treated in a hospital near Donora. – AP

The human respiratory tract, a marvelous wonder, cannot cope with St. Louis smoke, Young said. “When we consider this anatomical arrangement,” he continued,” one does not have to be a physician to understand that God almighty anticipated when he made us that we would inhale certain substances that would be detrimental to our health. But I do not believe he considered that we should be exposed to hazards as severe as are found in many of our busy industrial sections.”

In a radio broadcast called John Q Public, Dr. Herbert V. Goldwasser was asked how the smoke affected those who were sick.

“Smoke is especially bad for convalescents,” said Goldwasser. “Asthmatics and people in that group are hit particularly hard.”

But he said even those who were well had difficulty coping.

“It pulls down our morale and our feelings of well-being,” he said. “It cuts down our general resistance to disease.”

None of this should have been news. While the large-scale outbreaks of deaths from air pollution in Donora, Pa. and London were still in the future, a four-day fog in Liege, Belgium had killed 65 people in December 1930. An investigation concluded that the deaths had been caused by noxious fumes from nearby industries that had affected the bronchial tubes of nearby residents.

Henry Obermeyer in his 1933 book Stop That Smoke! blamed ailments that could be caused by air pollution that ranged from increased common colds to heart disease and cancer.   “The popular idea that smoke does not injure health, but only affects our comfort, does much to interfere with real public appreciation of the problem,” he said at the time.

H.B. Meller, chief of Pittsburgh’s bureau of smoke regulation was even more blunt. “More persons are devitalized, disabled and poisoned by the impurities contained in smoke-polluted air than by the noxious ingredients in food and water.”

Seventy-five years later we would like to believe that we are at least in command of the problem. But in some ways, as we will demonstrate next, we are not.


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