The Effects of Acid Deposition on Humans and the Environment

The Effects of Acid Deposition on Humans and the Environment

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Acid Deposition


One of the biggest environmental problems that needs dealing with in society today is acid deposition. It is largely caused by humans, and causes much pollution to the environment and harms people and buildings as well. Although there are minimal positive sides to this issue, the negatives far outweigh it and call people around the world to take action to reduce and even solve this problem. Coming in both wet and dry forms, acid deposition consists of acidic pollutants including nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides that have been deposited from the atmosphere to the surface of the earth. There are both wet and dry forms of acid deposition, wet forms being referred to as acid precipitation. Acid precipitation is the result of sulfur and nitrogen oxides reacting in the atmosphere with water vapor. This returns to the earth as acid rain or snow. Dry deposition occurs when these oxides react without water and they settle out of the atmosphere onto the earth. Acid deposition can come from a number of different sources such as smokestacks, trucks and cars. More than 90% of the sulfur in the atmosphere comes from humans. Coal burning, the smelting of metal sulfide ores, and automobile exhaust are major human contributions to sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere. Similarly, 95% of the increased nitrogen oxide levels in the atmosphere are a result of the activities of humans. The activity that contributes the most to these elevated levels is the combustion of oil, coal, and gas. Attention was first drawn to acid deposition in the 17th century when the bad effects of industry and acidic pollution on both vegetation and people were noticed. In the 1960s, it became an international problem when fishermen noticed declines in fish numbers and diversity in lakes across North America and Europe. Acid deposition causes many problems such as these worldwide, and is clearly a problem that needs to be properly dealt with.

There are different negative affects of acid deposition to different environments on the earth. In soils where a possible buffer of basic material isn’t as great, plant nutrients are often lost, the germination of seeds and the growth of young seedlings are hurt, and plants may become over-fertilized by nitrogen. The plants in this instance often experience reduction in growth rates, flowering ability, and overall yield. This makes the plants more vulnerable to disease, insects, drought, and frost. Trees are also affected by acid deposition.

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A great reduction in the number of trees and in their health has occurred because of this pollution. In Europe, the effect on forests is particularly prominent. Many trees are sick and dying, and in Germany alone, there has been a loss of about $10 billion in timber as a result of acid deposition and other air pollutants. In water systems, acid deposition lowers the pH of the water. Streams, lakes, and other bodies of water which are located on neutral or slightly acidic bedrock are especially sensitive to this and may be hurt more than those that are located on slightly basic bedrock which has a natural buffer from acidification. Over large areas, there has actually been relatively little agricultural and horticultural damage due to acid precipitation. However, on a smaller scale, numerous examples of severe damage to crops and forests near sources of acid emission have been reported. Therefore, it is still a major concern. In the United States, in the Adirondack and Catskill Mountains, there is much apparent acidification. Lakes and streams in those areas can’t maintain fish populations because the water is so polluted. The Chaparral forests of the Los Angeles Basin have one of the highest recorded rates of nitrogen leaching into streams. This greatly affects the water supply in that area. A phenomenon called acid shock occurs in some areas in the spring when acidic deposits built up in snow through the winter melt quickly, and all the build-up of acid is released in a short period of time. The eggs and the young of fish often don’t survive this acid shock, and this greatly decreases the fish population in affected areas. This problem has predominantly negative effects on soils, forests, and other environments. As one can now clearly see, acid deposition affects nearly every environment across the globe, and the effects are primarily negative.

Acid deposition doesn’t only affect the environment. Humans are also vulnerable. Toxic metals are released into the environment through acid deposition and may end up in the drinking water, crops, and in fish as well, which we in turn eat. Aluminum, one of these toxic metals, is believed to be related to Alzheimer’s disease in humans. There have also been increased hospital admissions because of respiratory illnesses due to acid deposition as well as an increase in the occurrence of colds, allergies and coughs among children. Sulfur and nitrogen oxides impair the lung function and intensify asthma and emphysema. Humans may have an increased vulnerability to viral infections such as influenza as well. There are numerous other problems related to acid deposition among humans also. In addition, this problem goes beyond affecting the environment and humans. Man-made structures are also hurt. Limestone and marble in ancient carvings are corroded by acid precipitation. In fact, recent air pollution damaged ancient carvings more in the past 20 years than in the previous millennium. The yearly cost from the deterioration of buildings and other materials from acid deposition in the U.S. is several billion dollars! It is not only in the best interest of the people inhabiting the earth to make efforts to reduce acid deposition, it is also a way to save money in the long run from being spent on repair to buildings and other structures.

All those mentioned have been negative effects of acid deposition. There may, however, be positive effects as well. For example, in Iowa, there is a lack of sulfur in the soil. The deposition of sulfur dioxide on this soil may actually be beneficial to the soil in this case, helping it to balance out in acidity, and making it more fertile for the many crops they grow there. On the other hand, if this acid deposition comes as rain, plants could be severely damaged. There are a few other similar instances where acid deposition may be beneficial, but the negatives already described far outweigh the slight advantages that may be gained through it.

Acid deposition is a worldwide problem affecting a broad range of environments. This range increases even more because the acidification does not always occur at the source of the pollution. Atmospheric transport can carry these acidic materials 100s of kilometers from the actual source before depositing them onto the earth’s surface. This causes the problem to become even more widespread and is reason for determining a solution as soon as possible. Scientists predict that outside the United States, nitric and sulfuric acid deposition will continue to increase in the developing world, in Asia in particular. At this point, it is still a problem increasing in severity around the globe. However, with governmental policies, more knowledge on the subject, and action taken by citizens and industries alike, it will begin to slowly decrease and eventually we can hope to see acid deposition become a problem only of the past.

Works Cited:

Acid deposition. http://esa.sdsc.edu/deposition.htm. Ecological Society of America. Summer 2000.

Clean Air Markets – Acid Deposition Data. http://www.epa.gov/airmarkets/deposition. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. October 25th, 2002.

Earth Science and the Environment – Second Edition. Thompson and Turk. Copyright 1999. Pages 449-450.

Global Change Course – Global Change Alumni. http://www.meteor.iastate.edu/gcourse/alumni/acid/text.html. Eugene S. Takle - Iowa State University. Copyright 1996, 2002.

Living Landscapes…Thompson-Okanagan: Past, Present, & Future. http://royalokanagan.bc.ca/mpidwird/atmosphereandclimate/acidprecip.html. Tracy Gow and Michael Pidwirny. October 17, 1996.
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