Acid Rain

June 20, 1980

Report Outline
Rising Environmental Awareness
Advancing Research on Acid Rain
Solving the Acid Rain Problem
Special Focus

Rising Environmental Awareness

Damage to Fish, Crops, Forests and Health

Little known except among experts just a decade ago, acid rain has emerged as an important and exceptionally challenging environmental problem. Certain substances, primarily sulfur and nitrogen compounds emitted by power plants and smelters, can combine with moisture in the atmosphere or on the surface of the earth to form droplets with a high acid content — sometimes as acidic as vinegar. Though the term “acid rain” has captured the public's imagination, it actually understates the problem. Acid precipitation includes not only rain but also acidified snow, hail and frost, as well as sulfur and nitrogen dust. When sufficiently concentrated, these acids can kill fish and damage material structures. Under certain circumstances they may reduce crop and forest yields and cause or aggravate respiratory diseases in humans.

Since the airborne compounds can travel hundreds and perhaps thousands of miles, ignoring city, state and national boundaries, a solution of the problem will require cooperation among numerous jurisdictions. The temptation to pass the buck will be great, and as concern about acid rain grows, questions will be raised as to whether our political institutions — both national and international — can keep up with unusually rapid advances in knowledge.

In Europe, where acid precipitation has received the most attention, its ill effects have been detected from the Mediterranean basin to the Arctic. Acid is thought to have killed all fishlife in hundreds of lakes in Scandinavia, while in Athens and Rome it has contributed to the disintegration of historic treasures like the Parthenon and Coliseum. In the United States, the acidity of precipitation has increased up to fiftyfold in some parts of the East during the past 25 years, and even in some remote places in the West the rain and snow appear to be getting more acidic at an alarming rate. The greater acidity is thought to have killed off fish in hundreds of lakes in the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada.

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