As early as 1872, Robert Angus Smith noted that coal burning in Great Britain caused acid precipitation, and shortly after the turn of the century English scientists C. Crowther and H.G. Ruston reported that "acid rain," the term they used, had killed or reduced the yields of timothy, radish, lettuce and cabbage grown near Leeds in the industrialized Midlands of Great Britain.
In 1959 a Norwegian fisheries inspector, A. Dannevig, first attributed the decline in fish in southern Norway to the increasing acidity of the water, but he had no idea that the acids came from the sky. At the same time Eville Gorham, a Canadian ecologist then in England and now at the University of Minnesota, published a number of papers demonstrating that acid precipitation could affect the buffering capacity of bedrock, soils and lakes.
But it was not until 1967 that Svante Odén, a young colleague of pioneering Swedish atmospheric scientists Karl Gustav Rossby and Erik Eriksson, made the breakthrough that identified acid precipitation as a serious environmental threat. Odén, who had been asked to do research on surface-water chemistry, theorized that the increasing acidity of Swedish waters was the result of atmospheric fallout of sulfates. The Swedish government asked him to write a report on his hypothesis, and while Odén was working on it, he received a call from a fisheries inspector in western Sweden who asked, "Is it possible that a massive fish kill we have found could be related to the acid precipitation?" Odén recalls. "That was a shock to me, because that was the first real indication that acid precipitation had an impact on the biosystem."
Odén's report, issued in 1968, showed that acids emanating from Great Britain and West Germany were having a deleterious impact on Swedish rivers and lakes, particularly in the southwestern part of the country. The report created a sensation, and Odén was invited to lecture at universities in the U.S., where other scientists, notably Dr. Gene E. Likens at Cornell and one of his graduate students, Charles Cogbill; Dr. F. Herbert Bormann of Yale; Dr. James N. Galloway of the University of Virginia; and Dr. Ellis Cowling at North Carolina State began investigating acid precipitation. Cowling was instrumental in the establishment of a National Atmospheric Deposition Program, which has a network of sampling stations across the U.S. and in Canada. Dr. Harold Harvey and Dr. Richard Beamish at the University of Toronto focused on lakes. Likens and his colleagues at Cornell were in a particularly advantageous location in upstate New York. Dr. Dwight Webster, a Cornell professor of fisheries science, had been working on several Adirondack lakes that had been losing their trout populations, and Schofield, the Cornell aquatic scientist, examined the data Webster had accumulated. As Webster says now, "Everything began to fall into place." In time, even utilities joined in. Since 1977, the Electric Power Research Institute, a non-profit arm of the utility industry, has funded $14.5 million in acid precipitation research.
Apart from being a threat to aquatic life, acid precipitation poses other problems, some of which are the concern of Dr. Michael Oppenheimer, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund headquarters in New York City. Oppenheimer recently gave up his post as an atmospheric chemist with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. to join EDF so he could deal full time with acid precipitation and related issues.
"On certain days the air pollution from Los Angeles blows across the Southwest," says Oppenheimer. "Add that pollution drifting out of the L.A. basin to that from large power plants and smelters in the Southwest, and some of our best views in the West, such as the view of the surrounding ridges from within the Bryce Canyon National Park, are reduced. The haziness is caused by the microparticulates associated with acid precipitation. Congress was specifically concerned about this when it passed the Clean Air Act. There are possible effects on climate. Particulate matter reduces the penetration of sunlight, and I think it likely this will have some effect on climate in the Northeast and perhaps elsewhere.
"There are also possible adverse effects on human health. The first human-health effect is the inhalation of suspended microparticulates of nitrate and sulfate materials. For years asthmatics have gone West for their health, and the inhalation of microparticulates can affect asthmatics, old people and children. We're concerned now that fine particles are causing widespread health damage in the Northeast."
The "Northeast Damage Report," written for a consortium of Northeastern states by Jennie E. Bridge of the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission and F. Peter Fairchild of the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, states "Human health is also directly impacted by sulfates and other fine particles transported in the atmosphere. Impacts range from serious respiratory and cardiovascular diseases to death from cancer. High levels of sulfate in the Northeast, largely due to long-range transport into the region, contribute significantly to morbidity in the region. The probability of dying from air pollution-related diseases is twice as high in the Northeast than in other regions of the United States."
According to Oppenheimer, "A second adverse human health effect is the leaching of toxic materials into drinking water supplies, both ground and surface waters." In some parts of the U.S., homeowners obtain their drinking water from roof catchments that drain into cisterns. In Ohio, for example, there are 67,000 such systems. In a study of 40 catchment-cistern homes in Clarion and Indiana counties in western Pennsylvania, Dr. William E. Sharpe, a water resources specialist at Penn State, found that 28 homes, or 70%, had lead concentrations—already in the water when it arrived as rainfall—in their water supplies that exceeded the EPA's "safe" level (50 parts per billion). Nine of the homes had hazardous lead concentrations caused by acid corrosion of the plumbing. "People who rely on roof catchments have very definite problems," Sharpe says. "There are possible health effects, and there are economic costs. They're going to have to lay out $600 to $1,000 per household to make rudimentary changes.
"The rural sections of Clarion and Indiana counties have no public water supplies, and there's an irony here: Deep and surface coal mining has polluted the ground and surface waters so they're unfit to drink, and the people have turned to the sky as a last resort. It's the coal that's mined in the area and shipped to power plants that's coming back to kill their last resort."