Impacts of Acid Rain
Air Pollution Creates Acid Rain
Scientists have discovered that air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels is the major cause of acid rain. Acidic deposition, or acid rain as it is commonly known, occurs when emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and oxides of nitrogen (NOx) react in the atmosphere with water, oxygen, and oxidants to form various acidic compounds. This mixture forms a mild solution of sulfuric acid and nitric acid. Sunlight increases the rate of most of these reactions. These compounds then fall to the earth in either wet form (such as rain, snow, and fog or dry form (such as gas and particles). About half of the acidity in the atmosphere falls back to earth through dry deposition as gases and dry particles. The wind blows these acidic particles and gases onto buildings, cars, homes, and trees. In some instances, these gases and particles can eat away the things on which they settle. Dry deposited gases and particles are sometimes washed from trees and other surfaces by rainstorms. When that happens, the runoff water adds those acids to the acid rain, making the combination more acidic than the falling rain alone. The combination of acid rain plus dry deposited acid is called acid deposition. Prevailing winds transport the compounds, sometimes hundreds of miles, across state and national borders. Mobile sources (transportation) also contribute significantly to NOx emissions. Overall, over 20 million tons of SO2 and NOx are emitted into the atmosphere each year. Acid rain causes acidification of lakes and streams and contributes to damage of trees at high elevations (for example, red spruce trees above 2,000 feet in elevation). In addition, acid rain accelerates the decay of building materials and paints, including irreplaceable buildings, statues, and sculptures that are part of our nation’s cultural heritage. Prior to falling to the earth, SO2 and NOx gases and their particulate matter derivatives, sulfates and nitrates, contribute to visibility degradation and impact public health. Acid rain primarily affects sensitive bodies of water, that is, those that rest atop soil with a limited ability to neutralize acidic compounds (called “buffering capacity”). Many lakes and streams examined in a National Surface Water Survey (NSWS) suffer from chronic acidity, a condition in which water has a constant low pH level. In some sensitive lakes and streams, acidification has completely eradicated fish species, such as the brook trout, leaving these bodies of water barren. In fact, hundreds of the lakes in the Adirondacks surveyed in the NSWS have acidity levels indicative of chemical conditions unsuitable for the survival of sensitive fish species. Streams flowing over soil with low buffering capacity are equally as susceptible to damage from acid rain as lakes are. The acidification problem in both the United States and Canada grows in magnitude if “episodic acidification” (brief periods of low pH levels from snowmelt or heavy downpours) is taken into account. The impact of nitrogen on surface waters is also critical. Nitrogen plays a significant role in episodic acidification. Nitrogen is an important factor in causing eutrophication (oxygen depletion) of water bodies. Acid rain has been implicated in contributing to forest degradation. Acidic deposition seems to impair the trees’ growth in several ways; for example, acidic cloud water at high elevations may increase the susceptibility of the red spruce to winter injury. There also is a concern about the impact of acid rain on forest soils. Sulfur dioxide emissions lead to the formation of sulfate particles in the atmosphere. Sulfate particles account for more than 50 percent of the visibility reduction in the eastern part of the United States. Acid rain and the dry deposition of acidic particles are known to contribute to the corrosion of metals and deterioration of stone and paint on buildings, cultural objects, and cars. The corrosion seriously depreciates the objects’ value to society. Dry deposition of acidic compounds can also dirty buildings and other structures, leading to increased maintenance costs. Based on health concerns, SO2 has historically been regulated under the Clean Air Act. Sulfur dioxide interacts in the atmosphere to form sulfate aerosols, which may be transported long distances through the air. Most sulfate aerosols are particles that can be inhaled. Decreases in nitrogen oxide emissions are also expected to have a beneficial impact on health effects by reducing the nitrate component of inhalable particulates and reducing the nitrogen oxides available to react with volatile organic compounds and form ozone. Ozone impacts on human health include a number of morbidity and mortality risks associated with lung disorders.
Impacts of Acid Rain