Fluoride Information

Fluoride is a poison. Fluoride was poison yesterday. Fluoride is poison today. Fluoride will be poison tomorrow. When in doubt, get it out.

An American Affidavit

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Ch. 9. Donora: A Rich Man's Hocus Pocus: the fluoride deception by Christopher Bryson from archive.org

Donora: A Rich Man's Hocus Pocus 

I have felt the fog in my throat 

The misty hand of Death caress my face; 

I have wrestled with a frightful foe 

Who strangled me with wisps of gray fog-lace. 

Now in the eyes since I have died. The bleak, 

bare hills rise in stupid might With scars of its 

slavery imbedded deep; 

And the people still live — still live — in the poisonous night. 

Attributed to area resident John P. Clark, whose mother-in-law, Mrs. 
Jeanne Kirkwood, aged seventy, died at Clark's home at 2 AM on Saturday, 
October 30, 1948. 

THE MOST VISIBLE U.S. air pollution disaster after the war was in 
Donora, Pennsylvania, where twenty people were killed and many 
hundreds were injured following a smog that blanketed the mill town over 
the Halloween weekend of October 1948. Philip Sadtler, the chemical 
consultant and antipollution crusader, had gone to Donora immediately 
afterward and written a report blaming fluoride. However, his conclusions 
were soon drowned out by the subsequent official Public Health Service 
investigation that blamed a temperature inversion and "a mixture" of 
industrial pollutants.' Robert Kehoe and Edward Largent also investigated 
the disaster and prepared medical evidence against the Donora survivors 



sued the U.S. Steel Company for damages. Kehoe s files shine a stark 
new light upon these historic events. 

Halloween 1948: Donora 

WHEN PHILIP S A D T L E R stepped from the train platform onto 
Donora's cobbled streets that November morning in 1948, he carefully 
made his way up McKean Avenue and past the many churches and 
Slavic working clubs of the industrial Pennsylvania town. 

Grief and fear still clung to the air. It was only five days after what 
had been the worst recorded air pollution disaster in U.S. history.' 
Bodies stiffened in Rudolph Schwerha's funeral home. Scores of citi 
zens had been hospitalized and many hundreds lay seriously 

Sadtler nodded a greeting at a knot of Donora s grim-faced citizens. 
He studied them closely, already gathering clues. Over that Halloween 
weekend twenty people had been killed in Donora and the nearby town 
of Webster. Two more would die that same week, and many more 
would succumb to their injuries in the weeks and months ahead.' An 
estimated 6,000 men, women, and children had been sickened, out of 
a population of 13,500. They were choked and poisoned in their homes 
and beds by a toxic gas from the metal-smelting plants along the banks 
of Monongahela River, which cut between the two towns. The deadly 
effluent was trapped in the river valley by a seasonal temperature 
inversion. A layer of warm atmosphere had pressed down on the cold 
dense air below and a blanket of industrial filth had smothered Donora 
and Webster for almost five days. 

The townspeople were unaware at first that a disaster was unfold ing. 
Their Halloween parade on the Friday night down McKean Avenue 
was a ghoulish farce. They were just like shadows marching by, the 
mayors wife said. It was kind of uncanny, especially since most of the 
people in the crowd had handkerchiefs tied over their nose and mouth 
to keep out the smoke. But, even so, everybody was coughing. The 
minute it was over, everybody scattered. They just vanished. In two 
minutes there wasnt a soul left on the street. It was as quiet as 

As midnight struck, death began to stalk the brightly painted 
wood-framed homes that climbed the hills surrounding Donora. 



Perhaps the first to die was Ivan Ceh, a seventy-year-old retired steel 
-worker. When he was twenty-two, Ceh had set sail from Yugoslavia to 
work in the Donora mills. At around 8:3o p M that Friday evening, as the 
toxic fumes crept though the town, the unmarried Ceh began hacking with 
a dry cough, struggling to breathe. His torment worsened through the night. 
With his lungs fighting for oxygen, the steel-worker's heart suddenly failed 
at around l:3o A M. "It was observed that a white frothy fluid was coming 
out of the patient's mouth during the last moments of life," noted one 
medical report.' 

Ceh's violent demise would be typical that night. A Scottish widow 
who had lived in Donora for twenty-four years since arriving in the United 
States had also fallen ill on Friday. The town's smogs had frequently left 
her breathless but this was much, much worse. She coughed through a 
sleepless night, her lungs scrambling for air. Two hypodermic injections 
brought no relief and, at 2:oo A M on Saturday, she also died of heart 

The undertaker Rudolph Schwerha may have been the first to real ize 
that a tragedy was unfolding. A telephone call announced the arrival of a 
new death, just as his assistant returned to the morgue with Ivan Ceh's body. 
"Now I was surprised," Schwerha told The New Yorker magazine. "Two 
different cases so soon together in this size town doesn't happen every 

Donora's longest night would be etched in the memory of its residents. 
Almost fifty years later Gladys Shempp gestured to the curtains in her 
Donora home and described that long-ago Friday of October 29, 1948, as 
she struggled through air "as yellow as the color of those drapes. You 
couldn't see. Your eyes were burning, and the tears were running down 
your face." 

The following morning, Saturday, October 30, her husband, Bill 
Shempp, was called out to the Donora fire station to give oxygen to 
residents. The smog had thickened. The volunteer firefighter crept through 
empty streets he no longer recognized. "It was like a claustrophobia," he 
said. "You didn't know where you were. It would take us at least two or 
three hours to get to one home." 

A vision of hell greeted the firemen. Frightened citizens clamored for 
oxygen. Shempp released the elixir into a homemade oxygen tent made out 
of a sheet or blanket. It helped, he said, but when the firemen tried to leave, 
panic ensued. "They were in great fear of not 

being able to breathe, Bill Shempp remembered. They were getting some 
relief temporarily, and then to shut it off on them, we had quite a problem.'" 

Fire chief John Volk discovered men and women whose lungs clawed 
for air but whose grip on life was slipping. I found people laying in bed 
and laying on the floor, he remembered. Some of them didn't give a damn 
whether they died or not. I found some down in the basement with the 
furnace draft open and their head stuck inside, trying to get air. ' 

A doctor's receptionist, Helen Stack, continued to answer a telephone 
that had rung endlessly throughout Friday night with cries for help. 
Everyone who called up said the same thing, Stack told The New Yorker. 
Pain in the abdomen. Splitting headache. Nausea and vomiting. Choking 
and couldnt get their breath. Coughing up blood. 

On Saturday morning Stack called her good friend Dorothy Hollowitti to 
check on Dorothys father, whod also fallen sick from the smog. She 
wanted to reassure her friend that the doctor was on his way. Dorothy was 
crying when she answered the phone, said Stack. "I'll never forget what 
she said. She said, "Oh, Helen — my dad just died! He's dead!'" 

Dorothy s father, the retired steelworker Ignatz Hollowitti, was the sixth 
victim of the smog." Incredibly, even by that Saturday after -noon many 
Donora residents still had no idea that a disaster was upon them. Allen 
Kline was a twenty-two-year-old sportswriter for the Daily Republic, 
covering the Donora high school football games. Donora had a passion for 
sports. Hometown hero Stan Musial had just completed another fabulous 
season with the St. Louis Cardinals, batting a league high .376 average. But 
that Saturday at the football game, it was impossible to see the players from 
the press box and there was a great deal of "coughing and hacking" from 
spectators, Kline remembered. "It was almost unbelievable," he added. "It 
seemed to be nighttime in the middle of the day.'" 

During the football game an announcement was made: the children of 
Bernardo Di Sanza should return home. The announcer did not mention the 
reason, but the sixty-seven-year-old Di Sanza was dead. The Donora death 
fog had now claimed eleven victims. 13 

On the sideline reporter Allen Kline heard firemen telling stories 



about how many people they had administered oxygen to, and how people 
were dropping over here and there. A temporary morgue had been set up in 
the Community Center. Kline quickly called the Pittsburgh offices of the 
Associated Press and UPI wire services. He discovered that, ironically, 
while Donorans were just learning of the disaster, the Pittsburgh wire 
services were already reporting the deaths to the nation, sealing Donoras 
place in history. 

Donora residents now heard the news over the radio. Walter Winchell 
broadcast a report on his nationwide show on Saturday evening. Panic 
quickly gripped the town, phone lines jammed with incoming calls from 
worried relatives and friends, and hundreds of residents attempted to flee 
the valley for higher ground. Poor visibility and choked roads, however, 
meant that for many evacuation was nearly impossible, reported the New 
York Times. 14 

Reports of the unfolding horror quickly reached U.S. Steels corporate 
headquarters in Delaware. Its subsidiary company, American Steel and 
Wire, ran Donora's zinc and steel works. On Sunday morning at 3:0o A M, 
with the death toll at nineteen, U.S. Steel gen eral counsel Roger Blough 
made a frantic phone call. He reached the zinc works superintendent M. M. 
Neale in Donora and ordered him to shut the smelter down. 15 The call may 
have prevented a much greater disaster. A local doctor, William Rongaus, 
later testified that if the smog had lasted just one more evening, the 
casualty list would have been 1,000 instead of 20. 

U.S. Steel had reason to be concerned. Donora was a company town, 
entirely dominated by the mighty steel and zinc plants that stretched for 
three fuming and clamorous miles along the town's riverfront. By 1948 five 
thousand of Donora's men sweated in those mills, turning out record profits 
that year for the company.' Even the town's name betrayed its corporate 
roots. "Donora" was an amalgam of the first name of Nora Mellon, the wife 
of Pittsburgh industrialist Andrew Mellon, and the surname of a former 
company president William Donner. 18 U.S. Steel had long ago purchased 
the Donora Works from Mellon, but the town's corporate character 
remained; the steel company's accounting department even drafted 
Donora's town budget. 19 

Donora was famous for its culture. Many workers were immigrants from 
Eastern Europe, Slovenia, northern Spain, and Italy. 


They had seen newspaper advertisements placed by steel barons Andrew 
Carnegie and Andrew Mellon in the European papers and had arrived in 
Donora in the early part of the twentieth century, an excited chorus of 
foreign tongues bubbling up the valley, mingling with earlier Scottish and 
Irish immigrants and African Americans from the southern states. The zinc 
workers — whose toil at the white-hot furnace face was some of the dirtiest 
in Donora — were mostly from northern Spain. 

Donora was a great Spanish town, remembered Bill Shempp. They 
used to have a festival out at Palmer Park every year and people came from 
as far away as California and it would last for a week or so, and they would 
practically camp out." 

Today a stroll through a wooded Donora cemetery whispers a memory 
of the new industrial world those immigrants found. Birdsong spills upon 
the gravestones, some marked with distinctive twin-horizontal Coptic 
crosses, etched with Slavic, Spanish, and Italian names. Coal barges still 
push up the Monongahela River. A train whistles in the valley below. On 
one gravestone an engraved photograph of a young man in an 
uncomfortable-looking suit stares out from behind a glass panel like an 
icon, this grave a final resting place for a long-ago dream of that Promised 
Land in western Pennsylvania. 

In Philadelphia that disaster weekend Philip Sadtler's father, Samuel 
Sadtler, flipped through the pages of his Sunday newspaper. It was full of 
speculation that Harry Truman would lose the coming November election 
to Republican presidential challenger Thomas Dewey. But as Sadtler read, 
his eyes lit on a short description of the terrible events in Donora. Time, 
Newsweek, and the New York Times all carried similar accounts of the 
tragedy. Scores of Donora's sick and injured were being evacuated by air to 
Myrtle Beach in South Carolina. 

As he read about the Donora events, Samuel Sadtler became sus picious. 
He recalled a similar disaster in Belgium some eighteen years earlier, when 
fumes from metal-smelting and fertilizer factories had been trapped by a 
temperature inversion and had killed sixty-three people in the Meuse 
Valley. Thousands more had been left ill with respiratory and heart 
problems. Kaj Roholm and other scientists had reported that fluoride 
emissions from industrial plants 



in the Meuse Valley had caused the disaster.' There had been three zinc 
plants in the valley. Roholms book sat in Sadtlers library. He wanted his 
son to go to Donora and investigate the situation. 

Father said, That s fluorine," remembered Philip S adder. I said, Well, 
so what Dad? I cant afford to go out there. 

But five days later Philip Sadder stepped off the Donora train. The 
six-foot-tall Sadtler already had his own reputation as a talented scientist 
and air-pollution investigator. He had examined several big fluoride 
pollution cases just after the war in Ohio, Florida, New Jersey, and 
Pennsylvania, including the so-called Peach Crop cases, linked to the 
Manhattan Project (see chapter 5). Sadtler had also measured fluoride 
content in vegetation along the industrialized Delaware Valley and found 
damage endemic and widespread. 22 " There were at least ten thousand 
square miles of damage from fluorine. Most people did not know that was 
going on, he said. 

Sadtler's train ticket to Donora was paid for by a group of crusading 
Florida farmers. They were suing phosphate fertilizer plants near the town 
of Bradenton, on Florida s southwest coast, claiming that fluoride air 
pollution was destroying their crops and their health. Thirty-eight-year-old 
Sadtler was their courtroom scientific expert. The Florida farmers hoped 
that a verdict of fluoride poisoning in Donora might help their own court 
case and worried that the Donora deaths would be blamed instead on sulfur 
dioxide, a much less toxic pollutant that at the time was being generated in 
large volumes by the coal used to heat homes. 

"The Bradenton farmers called and said, "Don't let them call it sulfur 
dioxide,'" Sadtler told me. They feared that if Pennsylvania's industrialists 
could point the finger at sulfur dioxide produced by Donora's coal-burning 
citizens, instead of industry's fluoride emissions, then there would be no 
one to blame for the disaster. " All the culprits in the country at that time 
wanted to call it sulfur dioxide," Sadtler recalled. By blaming air pollution 
on sulfur dioxide, the industrial polluters were safe; fluoride, on the other 
hand, was much more likely to be blamed on metal smelters and manu- 
facturing plants, and could lead to convictions in court.' 3 (Today the 
fluoride researcher and activist Mike Connett describes sulfur dioxide as 
the Lee Harvey Oswald of air pollution. Like Oswald, sulfur dioxide is a 
convenient scapegoat and, like Oswald, it is highly 



unlikely that sulfur dioxide could accomplish all that it is blamed for.) 
Sadtler thought that the farmers were probably right. He had earlier 
investigated some big sulfur dioxide pollution incidents, and he felt 
that the damage in Donora sounded a lot worse than sulfur dioxide 
ever caused, he said. 

Now, treading Donora s cobbled streets, Sadtler continued gath- 
ering clues. When the Donora townspeople talked, he watched their 
mouths. Many had teeth that were badly mottled, he said. Sadtler 
knew that the mottling — the white blotches and chalky marks that 
appeared on teeth — was known as dental fluorosis. He knew that such 
dental fluorosis was an indication that a community had been exposed 
to fluoride over a long period of time and was a cardinal sign of 
fluoride poisoning. Scientists call such long-term and moderate 
exposure chronic. Larger acute exposures, on the other hand, such as 
burns or serious lung damage, are the sort of fluoride poisoning that 
might occur during an industrial accident. Sadtler even joked about 
the dismal dental situation he found in Donora, where many workers 
were entirely toothless. They did not have any tooth problem with the 
employees in the smelter, Sadtler said, because when they went to 
work they put their teeth in the locker. No tooth problem. But people 
outside [the smelter] did have the mottling. 

As Sadtler approached the Donora town hall, more people passed. 
He heard several ugly hacking coughs. Respiratory disease such as 
pulmonary fibrosis, emphysema, and dyspnea (shortness of breath) is 
another obvious sign of chronic fluoride poisoning." He soon learned 
that the mill town and the surrounding county had a notorious 
reputation among local people and doctors, even within smoky, 
industrial Pennsylvania, for lung problems and respiratory disease." 

There were lots of respiratory problems in the area, said the 
Donora resident Gladys Shempp. Everybody was always sneezing 
and carrying on. But they took it for granted, that was just part of life. 

Sadtler soon had a third clue to the health of Donora citizens. He 
learned that arthritis was unusually common in the town. The scientist 
knew that fluoride was stored in bones as well as teeth; the Danish 
scientist Roholm had linked fluoride to arthritis-like symptoms. Steel 
mills added a fluoride mineral called fluorspar 



to help flux and draw the steel from the molten ore. Fluoride was among 
the worst pollutants of the U.S. steel industry and the subject of millions of 
dollars in legal claims against steel mills around the country." The Donora 
zinc plants also gave off copious fluoride fumes. Working in the steel and 
zinc mills, or simply living in Donora where the poison was breathed each 
day, had produced very obvious physical effects, both in the teeth and in 
the bones, of the local people he met, Sadtler said.' 

Philip Sadtler was not the only new scientist in Donora that day. News 
of the disaster had electrified the captains of U.S. industry. They quickly 
dispatched their top lieutenants to western Pennsylvania. That Sunday 
night, while Donora s firefighters gave oxygen to suffocating residents, 
twenty-eight miles to the north telephones started to ring in 
Pittsburgh — home to the U.S. Steel Corporation and the giant Aluminum 
Company of America. Industrialists knew that the Donora disaster might 
get much worse. In the wee hours on Sunday morning, U.S. Steel 
executives had placed an emergency call to the Mellon Institute, whose 
director, Ray Weidlein, had answered the telephone that weekend. There 
was already a growing national agitation against pollution, Weidlein knew. 
The steel industry had reaped record profits in 1947 and 1948. Yet almost 
no effort was being made to staunch the torrent of raw chemical pollution 
spilling into waterways and filling the nations skies. Just three days before 
the Donora disaster Colliers magazine had reported, with stunning 
prescience: It is an American habit to poison our air as flagrantly as we 
have poisoned our water. . . . Given the right weather conditions enough 
poisonous fumes are poured into the air every day to produce a great 
disaster. It happened once in Belgium. Now European nations have air 
pollution control. Should we wait until some appalling catastrophe happens 

An aggressive investigation of pollution from the Donora factories 
might place legal responsibility for the deaths squarely on the smelters, 
costing millions in victim compensation and requiring expensive new 
pollution-control equipment in fluoride-emitting industries — not just in 
Donora, but across the country. "It would have been very hard on chemical 
plants. It would have been hard on the steel industry, it would have been 
hard on the aluminum industry, said Philip Sadtler. 



There was another worry. Both the U.S. Army and the Atomic 
Energy Commission (AEC) had a secret and vital interest in the 
outcome of the Donora disaster, Sadder knew. Vast amounts of 
fluoride gas were now needed by the AEC for the uranium-enrichment 
factories that were being planned and constructed across the United 
States in Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Sadtler had already 
measured high human blood fluoride levels among poisoned peach 
farmers living near the DuPont Chamber Works plant in New Jersey, 
where DuPont made top-secret fluoride compounds for the Manhattan 
Project. If fluoride were fingered for the Donora deaths, it might bring 
new scrutiny of worker health safety in those AEC bomb factories, 
resulting in damage suits and expensive requirements for air-pollution 

It would have been very hard on the Atomic Energy Commis- 
sion, said Sadtler. They would have had to pay millions of dollars 
in damages if [citizens] knew the real story. 

Newspaper reporters were already sniffing a possible military 
connection to Donora. Death Smog Eyed Closely in Washington, 
headlined one story in the Pittsburgh Press. Military intelligence 
officials are watching closely Pennsylvania s investigation into 
causes of the mystery fog at Donora, Pa., wrote the newspapers 
Washington correspondent, Tony Smith. The government, he 
wrote, has given much attention to possible air contamination 
around atomic energy projects, and has taken precautions to guard 
against it. Other types of industry, particularly war industries, may 
also cause air pollution. ... A source intimate with the operations of 
central intelligence said that agency will order one of its own if the 
results of Pennsylvania s arent considered satisfactory, Smith 
continued. Should central intelligence investigate the Donora smog, 
it would undoubtedly be an unannounced and 
secret operation. 

The Mellon Institute s Ray Weidlein, who had been a consultant 
to the U.S. military on chemical war gases during World War I, took 
swift action. On October 31, as an autumn rain fell that Sunday 
morning in Donora and washed the worst of the smog away, suited 
strangers began flocking to the traumatized mill town. One of the 
first to arrive, at 6:00 A M that Sunday, was Wesley C. L. Hemeon 
of the Mellon Institute. For the next month Hemeon would walk 



Donoras streets, acting as the eyes and ears of Ray Weidlein and the many 
friends of the Mellon Institute. 

Hemeons first stop was an emergency meeting that Sunday afternoon 
held by Donoras Board of Health. Although the meeting was closed to the 
general public, the Mellon man managed to slip in. Passions ran high. 
Donora doctor and health-board member William Rongaus rose and told 
mill officials that the smog was just plain murder. Air pollution that night 
had affected many other towns, he said, but the deaths had occurred only in 
Donora and across the river in Webster. Many of the deaths were within 
blocks of the U.S. Steel zinc works. 

Poison gas from the zinc mill had been injuring Donoras residents 
silently and insidiously since the mill opened in 1915, Rongaus told the 
board members. It was not only asthmatics who had been made sick during 
the disaster; there were numerous reports of normally healthy people 
experiencing central-nervous-system effects, such as shaking, chronic 
fatigue, dizziness, and acting crazy. Many of those symptoms would last 
for months. At least one Donora woman suffered a miscarriage that 
evening as well. 29 I treated many patients who were young and strong and 
never had any symptoms of asthma," Dr. Rongaus stated. All complained 
of severe pains in the lower chest. It seemed to me like a sort of partial 
paralysis of the 

As he sat through the meeting, Wesley Hemeon of the Mellon Institute 
grew increasingly nervous. The United Steelworkers safety director, Frank 
Burke, blamed the zinc mill for fluoride and sulfur-gas pollution. Then it 
got worse. The steel workers representative pointed an accusing finger at 
the medical experts from the Mellon Institute. Workers trusted neither the 
Mellon Institute nor health officials from the Commonwealth of 
Pennsylvania to investigate the disaster, Burke announced. State health 
authorities had done nothing to protect Donora citizens, despite thirty years 
of lawsuits and complaints. This is worse than a catastrophe, Burke told 
the Donora Council. "Twenty of your citizens are dead. Why weren't 
washers used in the mill to strain poisons out of the air? We want the facts 
and we are going to get them. 

The president of Donoras Board of Health, Charles Stacy, agreed with 
Burke — any state investigation of the smog would be a whitewash. Stacy 
called for an immediate federal investigation 



by the U.S. Public Health Service. Like many Americans, Donora 
residents had emerged from the Depression and World War II with 
renewed faith in the power of the federal government and its ability to 
improve living conditions. Initially, however, Washington pub- 
lic-health officials had seemed reluctant to get involved in Donora. 
Twice during the disaster weekend federal authorities had dismissed 
frantic calls from Pennsylvania asking for government intervention. 
On Saturday evening, for example, the mayor of Donora, the badly 
shaken August Chambon, had declared a state of emergency and 
called Washington for help. His own mother had been stricken. After 
returning from shopping, she was discovered lying on the floor, with 
her coat on, and a bag of cookies spilled all over beside her, gasping 
for breath and in terrible pain, newspapers reported. A quick federal 
response might have enabled authorities to measure the exact chemical 
content of the air pollution or to draw timely blood samples. On 
Sunday, however, a second plea to Washington from the state 
authorities was rebuffed. 

But subdued Mellon officials soon saw a silver lining in the pro- 
posed federal inquiry. They faced a public -relations disaster. Anger in 
Donora and Webster glowed hot as molten steel. Daily press accounts 
of smog victims funerals fanned public emotion. Each shovel of earth 
that fell on the lowered coffins was a drumbeat of accusation against 
U.S. Steel. The first lawsuits against its subsidiary, American Steel 
and Wire, were already being composed. 

The stakes had suddenly become very high, industry saw. Suc- 
cessful lawsuits could prove crippling to many U.S. corporations, 
warned Alcoa s medical director, Dudley Irwin. He compared the 
disaster's potential aftermath to the effects of the Gauley Bridge 
sili-cosis deaths in West Virginia during the early 19305. "The 
repercus sions of the Gauley Tunnel [sic] episode on silicosis probably 
will be dwarfed by the effects of Donora on air pollution, Irwin told 
the powerful trade group known as the Manufacturing Chemists 
Association, whose Air Pollution Abatement Committee gathered at 
the Chemists Club in New York City on January 2, 1950, in the 
aftermath of the Donora disaster. "The Donora incident has not only 
made the public air pollution-conscious and unduly 
apprehensive, but also it has advanced opinion with regard to the 
imposition of restrictive measures by many years, said Irwin. The 
outcome of 



the legal action arising from the Donora experience may set a pattern that 
could be followed in other areas. 31 

Although the cards now seemed stacked against it, industry had an ace in 
the hole: a friend in Washington. Only 170 miles from the grieving mill 
town, across the Allegheny Mountains in Washington, DC, the Truman 
Administration was basking in the sunny afterglow of the November 
election triumph. Plum jobs were going to those who had engineered the 
upset victory over the Republican Thomas Dewey. One of President 
Truman s most trusted deputies and a key figure in the election victory was 
fellow midwesterner Oscar R. Ewing. As acting chair of the Democratic 
National Committee, the Harvard-trained lawyer had raised millions of 
dollars for the election campaign and had helped to craft the presidents 
folksy media image of just plain Harry. 32 After the 1948 election Oscar 
Ewing was reinstalled as head of the giant Federal Security Agency (FSA), 
in charge of the U.S. Public Health Service. 

Ewing had a very private past. For two decades he had been a top Wall 
Street lawyer for Alcoa. He strolled to work at his offices on lower 
Broadway in Manhattan swinging a leather briefcase embossed with the 
gold letters One Wall Street. Inside were legal papers from the 
powerhouse law firm of Hughes, Hubbard, and Ewing. The senior firm 
member Charles Evans Hughes had been an Alcoa attorney since 1910. 
Hughes would subsequently be a Republican presidential candidate and a 
U.S. Supreme Court chief justice, while Oscar Ewing became one of the 
most powerful attorneys in America, earning a reported Depression-era 
salary of $100,000. 33 

During the war Ewing had moved to Washington as Alcoa s top legal 
liaison with the federal government. 34 A key wartime concern of the 
aluminum manufacturers was, of course, lawsuits from workers and 
communities for fluoride air-pollution damage to health and property. One 
of Ewing s legal friends was lawyer Frank Ingersoll, from the same 
Pittsburgh firm as Frank Seamans, head of the Fluorine Lawyers 
Committee (see chapter 8). 

The old friends kept in touch with Ewing, even after he became a 
Washington public servant. A Dear Jack letter from Frank Ingersoll in 
June 1947, for example, sought Ewing s help in getting a friend appointed 
to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). 35 Dear Frank, Ewing responded, 
I would be only too happy to help any- 



one in whom you, [Alcoa president] Roy Hunt and George Gibbons are 

In the grim days of early November 1948, Ewings Public Health Service 
now echoed industry s response to the disaster. The same week of the 
Donora funerals, the U.S. Steel Corporation had taken out a newspaper 
advertisement denying responsibility for the deaths. We are certain that 
the principal offender in the tragedy was the unprecedentedly heavy fog 
which blanketed the Borough for five days, the company wrote. That same 
week federal PHS official John Bloomfield also pinned responsibility on 
the weather, telling newspapers the smog had been an "atmospheric 
freak." 37 

The Mellon Institute was backing away from direct involvement in the 
disaster investigation because it wanted "no legal entangle-ment. 38 Wesley 
Hemeon told industry leaders in Donora on Novem ber 8 that he now 
favored an investigation by the Public Health Service. A week later, at the 
annual meeting of the Mellon Institute s Industrial Hygiene Foundation, the 
PHS announced that it, too, had reversed course. James Townsend of the 
PHS announced that Donora would be the first investigation of an 
air-pollution disaster by the agency and its biggest project since their 
aftermath studies of the Hiroshima atomic bombing. 39 

The PHS chose Helmuth Schrenk to head its investigation. Schrenk was 
a senior scientist from the Pittsburgh office of the federal Bureau of Mines, 
located only blocks from Ray Weidleins Mellon Institute. And although it 
was not made public then, nor would the Donora citizens learn of his dual 
identify for more than half a century, Helmuth Schrenk was a poison-gas 
expert who had worked as a secret consultant during the war for the 
Manhattan Project atomic bomb program. His special expertise was 
fluoride gas. 40 

On November 30 Helmuth Schrenk and his PHS team moved into the 
municipal Borough Building in downtown Donora." It was not a moment 
too soon. A day earlier Philip Sadtler had seized newspaper headlines. He 
had completed his investigation, reporting that fluorine gas from 
industrial plants had killed and injured the Donora residents. Other toxic 
gases — including sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide — had been in the air 
that night and contributed to health problems, he stated, but none of them 
had been present in quantities to kill. 42 



Numerous mills in the area used large quantities of fluoride-containing 
raw materials, Sadtler wrote. Blood levels of the dead and injured showed 
12 to 25 times the normal quantity of fluorine," he reported. Another 
symptom of acute fluoride poisoning that night, Sadtler noted, included 
the widely reported appearance of dyspnea, a shortness of breathing similar 
to asthma. Fluoride had been polluting Donora for years, Sadtler concluded. 
He reported mottled teeth in Donora residents, the destruction of farm 
crops, high fluoride content in vegetation, crippled farm animals, and the 
etching of windows by fluoride gas 43 

Sadtler publicly sided with those Donora residents who blamed the zinc 
works for their long-standing health problems and the envi ronmental 
damage. The Danish scientist Kaj Roholm had identified zinc ore as 
being high in fluoride content. Ironically, the same zinc ore used in the 
Meuse Valley in Belgium, where 63 people had been killed in that 
industrial disaster in 1930, may also have poisoned Donoras citizens. 
Sadtler spoke with an official from the New York chemical testing firm of 
Ledoux & Company, which analyzed metal ores imported into the United 
States. That official told him that the Donora mill had been "smelting 
high-fluorine content zinc ore from the Meuse Valley, Sadtler reported. 44 
After the Donora mill began using the Belgian ores, U.S. Steel had asked 
Ledoux & Company to stop analyzing the ore for fluorides, noted Sadtler. 
That was told to me by one of the heads of the company," he added. 

But Sadtler still had some lingering questions about the sequence of 
events in Donora that weekend. Temperature inversions and bad fogs were 
common during the fall in Donora and along the Monongahela Valley. 
Why had so many people been killed and injured that weekend? Why had 
the deaths occurred in such a short period of time? At one point nine people 
died in six hours. Most deaths happened on Friday night and before noon 
on Saturday. Yet the weather was just as bad on Saturday evening, and the 
zinc mill did not cease operations until Sunday morning." 

"It was really very queer," said Donora's Red Cross director, Cora 
Vernon, who was prepared for more deaths on Saturday evening. The fog 
was as black and as nasty as ever that night, or worse, but all of a sudden 
the calls for a doctor just seemed to trickle out and stop. I dont believe we 
had a call after midnight, she told The New Yorker. 



Sadtler suspected that something had suddenly produced an 
extraordinary amount of fluoride that Friday night. He wondered 
whether top-secret military work had been going on in the Donora 
mills. It might have been that they were smelting something for the 
Atomic Energy Commission, he speculated. Perhaps, he said, the 
Donora mills were being used that night to roast not zinc ore, but 
uranium tetrafluoride, to "drive off the fluorine, so that they could get 
the uranium." 

Investigative reports fifty years later by Pete Eisler in USA Today 
and subsequent disclosures by the Department of Energy, all since 
Sadtler's death, have revealed that private industrial plants were 
routinely used for secret nuclear work in the 1940s and 1950s. 
Although none of these disclosures has mentioned Donora, many have 
revealed that workers were frequently injured by that work and rarely 
informed about health risks. 

Dr. Weidlein Goes to Washington 

SADTLERS VERDICT OF fluoride poisoning in Donora maddened 
industry. An account of his findings was published on December 18, 
1948, in the leading trade magazine, Chemical and Engineering News. 
Retaliation was swift. Sadtler heard immediately from the magazine's 
Washington editor, who told him that he could not accept any more 
reports about Donora. Although Sadtler had been a frequent 
con-tributor — and his grandfather had been a founding member of the 
American Chemical Society, which publishes Chemical and Engi- 
neering News — the editor explained that the director of the Society 
was now none other than the Mellon Institute s Ray Weidlein. He told 
me Dr. Weidlein had been to visit," Sadtler said. "Why would the 
Mellon Institute, supposedly a nonbiased, nonpolitical organization 
do such a thing? Well, U.S. Steel, the owners of the zinc works, had an 
influence with the Mellon Institute, so it only took a telephone call to 
have Dr. Weidlein go to Washington." 

Robert Kehoe also attacked Sadtler. His Kettering Laboratory had 
been hired by U.S. Steel to conduct a private investigation of the 
disaster, and it would gather medical evidence to fight lawsuits by 
victims family members and smog survivors. Dr. Kehoe fired off a 
blistering volley to the editor of Chemical and Engineering News, 
Walter J. Murphy, on December 22 , 1948. In a letter underlined 



Personal and Confidential, Kehoe called Sadtlers conclusion of fluoride 
poisoning, which had appeared in the magazine two weeks earlier, "wholly 
unwarranted, almost certainly untrue, and a disservice not least to the 
families and friends of the unfortunate victims. (Kehoe did not mention in 
his letter, however, that he was working on behalf of U.S. Steel, which was 
being sued by those same unfortunate victims. ) 

The analysis of the blood for fluoride is a very difficult procedure, Kehoe 
wrote, and even under conditions of severe exposure the concentrations of 
fluorine in the blood [are] quite low. My associates and I believe that no 
such results as have been reported here [ by Sadtler] are possible of 
achievement, and therefore we regard the entire story as a deliberate lie or 
as an irresponsible expression of technical ignorance or incompetence. 
Kehoe was careful to keep his attack anonymous. Since I and my 
associates are engaged in investigations at Donora I do not wish to be 
quoted in any way in this connection, lest I be suspected of having drawn 
conclusions before facts are available, he added. 

Murphy passed the smoldering letter to his boss, executive editor James 
M. Crowe, who responded to Kehoe on January 7, 1949 I have heard from 
Sadtler recently, Crowe wrote Kehoe, and he insists that he has made tests 
on the blood of victims of the disaster and on vegetation, etc., in the area 
and that he has chemical evidence of unsafe concentrations of fluoride. He 
claims that he volunteered to check his analytical methods and results with 
the representatives of the public health agencies, but that they were 
uncooperative.... I note from your letter that the analysis of fluorine in 
blood is quite difficult and that you feel Sadtler could not have obtained the 
results indicated. It seems to me that this is the one point, at least, where 
scientific methods could be checked and agreement reached on whether the 
results are or are not accurate. It is not our intention to become embroiled in 
this matter and permit our pages to become a battleground for this case, but 
for our own information we would be interested to know the results of any 
analytical findings of your investigation." 

Kehoe would send no analytical results to the magazine. Secretly his 
Kettering Laboratory had now obtained a similar blood fluoride result to 
Sadtlers. Kehoe s first letter attacking Sadtler had been 



ccd to Dr. Dudley Irwin, Alcoa s medical director. Alcoa was then 
sponsoring Kehoe s fluoride research at Kettering and may have been 
the master puppeteers in the Donora investigation. 

Kehoe s Donora deputy, Dr. William Ashe, had reported earlier 
that summer on the crippling disability fluoride air pollution had 
caused among aluminum workers inside Alcoa s smelting plant in 
Niagara Falls, New York. Ashe thought that poison gas had caused 
the Donora deaths. "My assumption that it was a gas which was 
hydrolyzed in the lung and produced its pathology some little time 
after it was inspired is based on a very superficial check of the clinical 
picture as seen by two doctors and two patients, Ashe told Kehoe. 
( When two PHS officials visited Cincinnati to discuss the disaster 
investigation, Ashe advised Kehoe to keep this speculation private. I 
think that it would be wise to refuse to let them know what our 
guesses are, he said.)" 8 

Following the disaster, Alcoa had quietly obtained a blood sample 
from one of the first Donora victims, Mike Dorance. On December 30, 
1948, in a letter marked "CONFIDENTIAL," Alcoa reported the 
results of that blood analysis to Dr. Ashe. The letter, which was also 
cc'd to Dr. Dudley Irwin, was written by the head of Alcoa's analytical 
division, H. V. Churchill. Alcoa s fears about Donora, and the awful 
parallel with what Philip Sadder had found, are wholly evident in this 
confidential note, written on company stationery: 

"Dr. Irwin suggested that we analyze the sample of blood for fluo- 
rine content, and we have just completed that analysis. This sample 
was received by us and contains 20.3 p.p.m. fluorine," Churchill wrote. 
I trust that you will find this information of some use to you" 
(emphasis in original)." 

This blood fluoride level is, of course, almost exactly what Sadtler 
had reported finding in Donora victims — the data that Robert Kehoe 
had objected so strenuously to seeing published. Dr. Ashe responded 
to Alcoa on January 3, 1949. He pointed out that no fluoride had been 
found in Mike Dorance s lung tissue, the only organ tested, and that a 
volume of fluid squeezed from the lung had been too small to test. 
Please be assured that we are grateful to you for this data and know 
that it is completely reliable information. The only problem is: Where 
did the fluorine come from? Ashe wrote to Churchill.' 

The fluorine finding clearly had some people worried, noted 


scientist Kathleen M. Thiessen, an expert on risk analysis who reviewed 
many of the Kettering papers on the Donora investigation for this book. 
Mike Dorance s fluoride-saturated blood, however, could not be regarded 
as proof that fluoride was the killer that week -end, Thiessen said. If 
Dorance had inhaled lethal doses of fluoride that night, she would have 
expected to see some measurement of fluoride in his lung tissue, she 
cautioned.' Nevertheless, she described the blood fluoride level 
measured by Alcoa as " excessive" and enough to kill. That s high, she 
said. If that was all you had, you could say it was highly likely that person 
died of fluoride poisoning." 

One more dagger was secretly pointed at Philip Sadtler. When he had 
first arrived in the mill town, Sadtler met with a deputy from 
Pennsylvania's Health Department to offer his services as an investigator.' 
But the official quickly attempted to head Sadtler off, he said. "I went to the 
Borough Hall, it was about 7:30 on a Friday night, met the deputy and he 
said V I will see you in my office in Harrisburg [the distant state capital] on 
Monday, recalled Sadtler. That killed everything. I had nothing to go on. I 
was quite upset and there was a schoolteacher who heard that, and after a 
few minutes' conversation he went into the borough council and told 
[them] they should hear me. So I told the borough council what I knew and 
they appointed me an official investigator. So when I came back a week 
later, the union had already appropriated $20,000 [sic] to investigate or pay 
for an investigation, but somebody inserted in pen in the minutes at his 
own expense. Therefore I was not going to get anything from that 
$20.000. ' 5 

Unknown to Sadtler, federal authorities had privately warned the 
Borough Council not to work with the independent investigator. PHS 
investigator Duncan A. Holaday reported back to officials in Washington 
that Sadtler has broken into print previously in somewhat the same role, as 
one who could solve complicated problems quickly for a sufficient 
monetary consideration. Local officials had been given a choice, Holaday 
added. He explained to them, The Public Health Service ... could not work 
in cooperation with a private individual who had been hired on a fee basis. 
It was suggested that if they so desired I would submit to them a list of 
competent industrial hygiene consultants, any of whom would give them 
an honest appraisal of the situation. " 


The Public Health Service Investigation 

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