Acid Rain: What Causes It and What Effects Does It Have?

A sign at the Environmental Protection Agency or EPA. mccready/Flickr

Acid rain effects include acidification of lakes and streams and damage to trees at high elevations (for example, red spruce trees above 2,000 feet) and many sensitive forest soils. 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, sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxide (NOx) gases and their particulate matter derivatives—sulfates and nitrates—contribute to visibility degradation and harm public health.

Visibility Impairment

Sulfates and nitrates that form in the atmosphere from sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions contribute to visibility impairment, meaning we cannot see as far or as clearly through the air.

Sulfate particles account for 50 to 70 percent of the visibility reduction in the eastern part of the U.S., affecting our enjoyment of national parks, such as the Shenandoah and the Great Smoky Mountains. The Acid Rain Program is expected to improve the visual range in the eastern U.S. by 30 percent. Based on a study of the value national park visitors place on visibility, the visual range improvements expected at national parks of the eastern United States due to the Acid Rain Program's SO2 reductions will be worth over a billion dollars annually by the year 2010.

In the western part of the U.S., nitrates and carbon also play roles, but sulfates have been implicated as an important source of visibility impairment in many of the Colorado River Plateau national parks, including the Grand Canyon, Canyonlands, and Bryce Canyon.

Health Effects

Acid rain looks, feels, and tastes just like clean rain. The harm to people from acid rain is not direct. Walking in acid rain, or even swimming in an acid lake, is no more dangerous than walking or swimming in clean water. However, the pollutants that cause acid rain—sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx)—do damage human health.

These gases interact in the atmosphere to form fine sulfate and nitrate particles that can be transported long distances by winds and inhaled deep into people's lungs. Fine particles can also penetrate indoors.

Many scientific studies have identified a relationship between elevated levels of fine particles and increased illness and premature death from heart and lung disorders, such as asthma and bronchitis.

Based on health concerns, SO2 and NOx have historically been regulated under the Clean Air Act, including the Acid Rain Program. In the eastern U.S., sulfate aerosols make up about 25 percent of fine particles. By lowering SO2 and NOx emissions from power generation, the Acid Rain Program will reduce the levels of fine sulfate and nitrate particles and so reduce the incidence and the severity of these health problems.

When fully implemented by the year 2010, the public health benefits of the Acid Rain Program are estimated to be valued at $50 billion annually, due to decreased mortality, hospital admissions, and emergency room visits.

Decreases in NOx emissions are also expected to have a beneficial impact on human health by 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 inflammation, including asthma and emphysema.

Damage to Forests

Over the years, scientists, foresters, and others have noted a slowed growth of some forests. Leaves and needles turn brown and fall off when they should be green and healthy. In extreme cases, individual trees or entire areas of the forest simply die off without an obvious reason.

After much analysis, researchers now know that acid rain causes slower growth, injury, or death of forests. Acid rain has been implicated in forest and soil degradation in many areas of the eastern U.S., particularly high elevation forests of the Appalachian Mountains from Maine to Georgia that include areas such as the Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountain National Parks. Of course, acid rain is not the only cause of such conditions. Other factors contribute to the overall stress of these areas, including air pollutants, insects, disease, drought, or very cold weather.

In most cases, in fact, the impacts of acid rain on trees are due to the combined effects of acid rain and these other environmental stressors. After many years of collecting information on the chemistry and biology of forests, researchers are beginning to understand how acid rain works on the forest soil, trees, and other plants.

Impact on the Forest Floor

A spring shower in the forest washes leaves and falls through the trees to the forest floor below. Some trickles over the ground and runs into streams, rivers, or lakes, and some of the water soaks into the soil. That soil may neutralize some or all of the acidity of the acid rainwater. This ability is called buffering capacity, and without it, soils become more acidic. Differences in soil buffering capacity are an important reason why some areas that receive acid rain show a lot of damage, while other areas that receive about the same amount of acid rain do not appear to be harmed at all.

The ability of forest soils to resist, or buffer, acidity depends on the thickness and composition of the soil, as well as the type of bedrock beneath the forest floor. Midwestern states like Nebraska and Indiana have soils that are well buffered. Places in the mountainous northeast, like New York's Adirondack and Catskill Mountains, have thin soils with low buffering capacity.

Damage to Trees and Other Plants

Acid rain does not usually kill trees directly. Instead, it is more likely to weaken trees by damaging their leaves, limiting the nutrients available to them, or exposing them to toxic substances slowly released from the soil. Quite often, injury or death of trees is a result of these effects of acid rain in combination with one or more additional threats.

Scientists know that acidic water dissolves the nutrients and helpful minerals in the soil and then washes them away before trees and other plants can use them to grow. At the same time, acid rain causes the release of substances that are toxic to trees and plants, such as aluminum, into the soil. Scientists believe that this combination of loss of soil nutrients and increase of toxic aluminum may be one way that acid rain harms trees. Such substances also wash away in the runoff and are carried into streams, rivers, and lakes. More of these substances are released from the soil when the rainfall is more acidic.

However, trees can be damaged by acid rain even if the soil is well buffered. Forests in high mountain regions often are exposed to greater amounts of acid than other forests because they tend to be surrounded by acidic clouds and fog that are more acidic than rainfall. Scientists believe that when leaves are frequently bathed in this acid fog, essential nutrients in their leaves and needles are stripped away. This loss of nutrients in their foliage makes trees more susceptible to damage by other environmental factors, particularly cold winter weather.

Acid rain can harm other plants in the same way it harms trees. Although damaged by other air pollutants such as ground level ozone, food crops are not usually seriously affected because farmers frequently add fertilizers to the soil to replace nutrients that have washed away. They may also add crushed limestone to the soil. Limestone is an alkaline material and increases the ability of the soil to act as a buffer against acidity.

Damage to Vehicles

Over the past two decades, there have been numerous reports of damage to automotive paints and other coatings. The reported damage typically occurs on horizontal surfaces and appears as irregularly shaped, permanently etched areas.

The damage can best be detected under fluorescent lamps, can be most easily observed on dark colored vehicles, and appears to occur after evaporation of a moisture droplet.

In addition, some evidence suggests damage occurs most frequently on freshly painted vehicles. Usually the damage is permanent; once it has occurred, the only solution is to repaint.

The general consensus within the auto industry is that some form of environmental fallout causes the damage. “Environmental fallout”—a term widely used in the auto and coatings industries—refers to damage caused by air pollution (e.g., acid rain), decaying insects, bird droppings, pollen, and tree sap.

The results of laboratory experiments and at least one field study have demonstrated that acid rain can scar automotive coatings. Furthermore, chemical analyses of the damaged areas of some exposed test panels indicate elevated levels of sulfate, implicating acid rain.

The popular term “acid rain” refers to both wet and dry deposition of acidic pollutants that may damage material surfaces, including auto finishes. These pollutants, which are released when coal and other fossil fuels are burned, react with water vapor and oxidants in the atmosphere and are chemically transformed into sulfuric and nitric acids. The acidic compounds then may fall to earth as rain, snow, fog, or may join dry particles and fall as dry deposition.

All forms of acid rain, including dry deposition, especially when dry acidic deposition is mixed with dew or rain, may damage automotive coatings. However, it has been difficult to quantify the specific contribution of acid rain to paint finish damage relative to damage caused by other forms of environmental fallout, by the improper application of paint or by deficient paint formulations.

According to coating experts, trained specialists can differentiate between the various forms of damage, but the best way of determining the cause of chemically induced damage is to conduct a detailed, chemical analysis of the damaged area.

Because evaporation of acidic moisture appears to be a key element in the damage, any steps taken to eliminate its occurrence on freshly painted vehicles may alleviate the problem.

These steps include:

  • frequent washing followed by hand drying
  • covering the vehicle during precipitation events
  • and use of one of the protective coatings currently on the market that claim to protect the original finish
However, data on the performance of these coatings are not yet sufficient.

The auto and coatings industries are fully aware of the potential damage and are actively pursuing the development of coatings that are more resistant to environmental fallout, including acid rain.

The problem is not a universal one—it does not affect all coatings or all vehicles even in geographic areas known to be subject to acid rain—which suggests that technology exists to protect against this damage.

Until that technology is implemented to protect all vehicles or until acid deposition is adequately reduced, frequent washing and drying and covering of the vehicle appear to be the best methods for consumers who wish to minimize acid rain damage.

Information from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency