From Above: Acid Rain
It was once thought that at least the water from rain or snow could be depended upon to be pure and clean. But not anymore!
The many tons of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides daily spewed into the air by emissions from automobiles, oil production facilities, coal-burning power plants and other industrial sources do not stay there. They come back down. They come down as dry acidic powder. Or they mix with moisture in the atmosphere to come down in rain, snow and fog as nitric or sulfuric acid.
These acidic deposits are the subject of a scientific and political storm that has state pitted against state, province against province, nation against nation, ideology against ideology.
Airborne pollutants do not respect politically designated borders. What falls in one area may have had its origin in smokestacks or auto exhausts hundreds of miles away. Thus, the Canadian government and parts of the northeastern United States point an accusing finger at the industrial midwestern states. Likewise, Scandinavian countries blame European industrial centers to the south for certain ecological damage they have been suffering.
Acid rain — or acid fog, which can be 10 times more acidic than rain — is said to be responsible for a wide variety of harmful effects: dead lakes, sterile fish, decimated forests, lifeless soil, deteriorating statuary, eroding architecture, marred finishes on motor vehicles and lawn furniture, aggravated respiratory conditions and other health problems.
Much controversy rages concerning to what degree acid rain and related phenomena are actually caused by the effects of human activity on rain, snow and fog. Industrial interests contend that even if the evidence were (to them) conclusive, it would be extremely difficult or impossible to pinpoint which kind of tree died because of which pollutants — and from which smokestack. Cutting back on pollutants, it is pointed out, would affect jobs and enormously inflate the cost of electrical power and consumer goods.
Numerous voices outside industry maintain that the situation is intolerable and that something must be done quickly to protect the environment. Some, however, in the scientific field are now pointing out that certain nonindustrial activities of man also have an effect. The suppression of forest fires, for example, increases acidity in nearby lakes by preventing the neutralization on forest floors of excessive acidic humus — that is, turning humus to ash.
One thing is abundantly clear: Though nature itself produces acidic compounds that fit into the natural scheme of things, industrial societies and ecologists, who insisted on high chimneys to carry pollutants away, must accept responsibility for humanly produced harmful effects that upset the delicate balance of the ecological system.
[Photo Caption — Experts disagree on specifics, but few fail to recognize a link between man’s activities and dying forests.]
Below: Poisoned Wells
The public is becoming more skeptical whenever experts offer their opinions. Take the case of TCE for example. TCE is the abbreviation for trichloroethylene, an industrial chemical widely used in the United States for the last 60 years. It is now suspected of causing cancer.
Cheap and plentiful, the chemical has been the most popular solvent, its uses ranging from degreasing metal parts and engines to dry cleaning clothing to decaffeinating coffee. Since it was so easily available, it was merely dumped after being used.
Apparently no one wanted to believe TCE could taint water supplies. And so it is with a certain degree of astonishment that it has been discovered in wells all over the country. “With an ease that has surprised geologists, TCE has defeated nature’s soil, sand and clay filters to reach deep aquifers, the underground geological formations that supply half the nation’s water” (The Wall Street Journal, August 12, 1980).
In one area where TCE-contaminated drinking water was discovered, a newspaper explained: “State health experts admitted Thursday they were wrong in assuming trichloroethylene never would contaminate groundwater wells. . . ‘We [scientists] thought TCE would evaporate. We were wrong. We didn’t think it would get into the groundwater,’ ” a scientist confided (emphasis ours).
Somebody has been wrong about a lot of things — not only about TCE. For while examining tap water throughout the United States in one study, officials identified 22 known or suspected cancer-causing substances plus some 1,000 other organic chemicals. Consider, too, that each year more than 500 new chemical pollutants are developed, too many of which find their way into the water system.
The knowledge that some experts admit “We didn’t think…” must be of small consolation to any who may be suffering physically from foreign substances they have ingested from their drinking water.
On the Surface: Tainted Waters
In various Western countries, undeniable progress has been made in cleaning up some of the dramatically visible surface water pollution widely publicized in the ’60s and ’70s. Some of it.
Still it is not hard to find instances where the visible effluent of man and his industries continues to be dumped into rivers, lakes and seas as though the day of reckoning will never come.
In addition to what can be seen, alarming evidence has been turning up of pollution that is not readily visible to the eye: concentrations of metals such as copper, cadmium, zinc, lead, mercury, as well as hundreds of other contaminants associated with industrial and municipal waste.
If the elements themselves cannot be seen, the immediate effects often can. One of them coming under increased scrutiny is the high rate of diseases — especially cancer — in fishes taken from many rivers, lakes and estuaries. There is increasing evidence there of such “invisible pollution.”
Said Donald C. Malins, a biologist with the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Services, “What the fish are telling us is that something very dangerous is being put into the environment” (Los Angeles Times, January 11, 1984).
Not only are the water and the fish thought hazardous for human consumption, but anyone living or working in the area of the water can be exposed to toxic elements. What will it take before mankind learns that rivers, lakes and streams are not to be regarded as limitless cesspools?
Even when waste is not purposely dumped into water, problems can arise as inadvertent consequences of human activity. Thus a potential time bomb involving millions of people has been discovered in much of the drinking water of Southern California. The water comes from the north by way of a huge aqueduct. On the way it passes by some abandoned asbestos mines. Because of erosion, mining wastes have contaminated the water in the aqueduct in what has been described as the most perplexing water contamination problem in the United States.
Measurement of more than two million asbestos fibers a liter (slightly more than a U.S. quart) of water are not unusual. But Southern California clearly must have that water for its economic survival.
The link between breathing asbestos fibers, especially by smokers, and lung disease is well documented. But nothing conclusive has been put together concerning oral ingestion.
In the words of one scientific report, “the delayed effects of asbestos in drinking water are unknown.”
Few are prepared to say, however, that no danger from high levels of asbestos contamination exists.
It has been noted that workers (many of whom are smokers) exposed to air-borne asbestos have had high rates of gastrointestinal cancer as well as lung diseases, presumably because they have swallowed the fibers. To some officials this is a very real and worrisome indication that a major disaster involving several million individuals could now be in the making.
[Photo Caption — What you see is bad enough. But what about the pollution that cannot be seen?]
[Source:The Plain Truth, April 1986]