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Teaching Civic Ideals Using Primary Sources: Federalism and the Origin of Federal Air Pollution Policy 

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 This post is by Jen Reidel, 2019-20 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

On October 27, 1948, in Donora, Pennsylvania, thick smog covered the city of 13,000 residents. Over four days, Donora experienced the worst air pollution environmental disaster in American history. The smog caused nineteen deaths and adversely impacted the health of over 1,440 people. Influenced by the Donora tragedy, on December 10, 1949, President Truman directed his executive department officers to sponsor a conference focusing on air pollution in the United States. Truman’s request resulted in the Interdepartmental Committee organizing and hosting the United States Technical Conference on Air Pollution on May 3-5, 1950.

Air Pollution Experts to Confer Here 3 Days Starting Wednesday. Evening Star, May 1, 1950

Environmental case studies such as Donora, Pennsylvania, offer students the opportunity to evaluate the system of federalism in context of a historical event. In addition, this event may stretch students’ understanding of when and why society began to focus on the impact of air pollution on the environment.

Ask students what issues in society they think the federal government should solely be in charge of and what aspects states should control. Are there any issues they believe both federal and state governments ought to jointly address? Inform students that the articles they will evaluate offer clues as to what some government officials believed regarding air pollution policy in 1950.

Offer necessary support to help students closely read Air Pollution Experts to Confer Here 3 Days Starting Wednesday, Evening Star, May 1, 1950, and using the Library’s Primary Source Analysis Tool as guide, lead the whole class through each category of analysis.

Air Pollution Control Calls for Local Laws, President Declares. Evening Star, May 3, 1950

The United States Technical Conference on Air Pollution, which took place on May 3-5, 1950, was the first time the federal government acknowledged the negative effects of air pollution. On May 3, 1950, The Evening Star reported on President Truman’s message to the participants that “there is an urgent need to bring to bear on the problem of air pollution all the scientific knowledge at the command of the industry, Government and scientific institutions.”

Guide students to evaluate Air Pollution Calls for Local Laws, Evening Star, May 3, 1950 . Ask them to evaluate the title – what does it reveal about the system of federalism? Instruct students to read the text of the article paying close attention to the content of President Truman’s message to conference participants.  How does he describe the impact of air pollution? What level of government does he believe can best address the problem of air pollution and implement a solution?

Finally, ask students to analyze Air Pollution Parley Favors Advisory Group, Evening Star, May 6, 1950, paying specific attention to concerns regarding the advisory group. Encourage students to apply their understanding of federalism to the concerns in the article. What level of government might the critics favor to oversee air pollution policy?

The tragedy at Donora became a catalyst for federal government attention and funding of air pollution research which lead to the passage of the Federal Air Pollution Control Act of 1955. To learn more, students might:

  • Search for recent legislation;
  • Explore PBS videos from 2002 and 2003 about the Donora smog.

Studying the origin of federal policy through primary sources allows students to see how governmental action has changed over time.





  1. good to know that.

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