Sunday, May 1, 2011

Why Acid Rain is Deadly Dangerous

The last post asked what we'd do if we had to make a choice between the environment and some of our life giving activities. It is a tough choice to make. At a certain point in time will we have to make that choice? Not if we modify our activities to benefit both - us and the environment.

To be able to do that we first need to understand what exactly human activities have been responsible for.

To date what we've done is, taken a resource from the earth, used it to make whatever's useful and ended the process there. We haven’t had to think about what by-product we’ve created.

All too often this has been a pollutant that poisons our air, waters and soil and damages our health.

7. This article tells us why acid rain is deadly dangerous for our health. It helps us understand why the gases that produce this kind of rain shouldn’t be the end product of our activities.


Here's a statue of St. Francis. Study the folds of his robe for a moment. And look at his face. You might see an inkling of the statue's previous days of glory if you look hard enough. But mostly, it looks ravaged. Isn't it sad what acid rain and pollution have done to this statue? 

Photo by Melody Murray 

And what about the Taj, our temples, ancient inscriptions and murals? These have previously survived for centuries but in recent years there's been a rapid decline.
Photo by Scott Norsworthy

The Taj Mahal is beginning to turn yellow thanks to acid rain.  

This is what happens:

As seen earlier, our industrial activities and our vehicles, which involve the use of fossil fuels like coal and oil, release Sulphur oxides and Nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere.These gases combine with water vapour that exists in clouds and in the air to form sulphuric and nitric acids, which become part of rain and snow.

Sulphur dioxide not only reacts with water vapour, it dissolves easily in water to form sulphurous acid which reacts with oxygen in the air, (usually in the presence of a catalyst such as NO2), and gets further oxidised to sulphuric acid.

This acidic rain falls not only on man made structures but ends up in our lakes, rivers and oceans.

What are the effects of acid rain?

  • Over time our lakes and rivers might become too acidic for plants, fish, animals and human who live off them.
  • Acid rain also affects crops and trees in more ways than one. 
    • First, the roots get damaged as a result of which the plant doesn’t grow to its full potential or even dies. 
    • The acidity destroys nutrients present in the soil. Useful micro organisms which convert decaying organic matter to soil through natural composting also die leaving behind a decaying smelly mess instead of nutrients for plants. 
    • The waxy coating on leaves is damaged which makes the plant vulnerable to disease. 
    • Some of the sulphur dioxide is capable of clogging up the stomata. This reduces the tree's ability to make food. 
    • Also, toxic metals that are freed from the soil due to the acid in the rain are absorbed by trees through their roots, damaging them even further.
  • With trees destroyed, the animals or birds that live in the trees suffer due to loss of their natural habitat.
  • Acid rain also frees toxic metals which are present in the ground and washes them into our drinking water sources. Perhaps you’ve seen warning signs posted near some water bodies that the fish may have been poisoned by mercury. This is a direct result of acid rain causing elements like mercury and aluminium to be freed from the soil and rocks and washed away into the waters. Fish and others who use the water are affected.  
Studies have shown that mercury that accumulates in the organs and tissues of animals, either directly or through the food chain, has been linked to brain damage in children, nerve disorders, heart problems and even death. People are not only unable to eat the fish, people who sell fish to earn their living, whose livelihood depends on fishing, suffer. As for aluminium, it causes Alzheimer’s disease. 
  • The acidic water eventually gets to our drinking water supply and contaminates it. When the water is acidic enough, it may even corrode the water pipes, adding in dissolved copper and lead to compound the problem of clean water supply.
  • Toxic metals which are absorbed from water by fruits, vegetables, and in the tissues of animals  affect the human food chain.
  •  Acid rain affects buildings or other man-made structures like bridges, reacting with the material we’ve used for the structure and making it weak at the foundation by causing corrosion, fracturing or discolouration. We've seen what it has done to the statue of St. Francis and that it has started turning our beloved Taj Mahal yellow. Every structure we've built and which has withstood centuries of nature simply has no chance with the volume of man made chemicals being released into our atmosphere through car exhaust and industry.
The obvious solution is to decrease acid rain. But how?

A possible answer is environmental regulations that limit the quantity of emissions from our factories. Do we have to decrease the quantities of what we manufacture? Perhaps not. Once our desired product and sulphur dioxide (and other toxic gases) are produced, we could add scrubbers which react with the SO2 and produce harmless (or even beneficial) gases. This would, to a great extent, reduce the amount of sulphur dioxide released in the air. Or perhaps, we could use coal that has less sulphur and nitrogen compounds to manufacture our desired products. The other option is to continue poisoning the air we breathe, the soil and water we depend on for our survival - an option that is too dire to even contemplate.

It would hugely help if vehicle exhaust is converted to something harmless as well before being released into the air we breathe. The technology exists. It is only a matter of the informed choices we make, coupled with our government's will to enforce legislation.

All images from here


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Some other gases that are harmful to humans. Click on each:

Carbon Monoxide  

Carbon Dioxide  

Sulphur Dioxide  

Nitrogen Dioxide  

Acid Rain

Particulate Matter  

Ground Level Ozone and Odours


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