When acid rain was selected as one of the top ten “censored” stories of 1977, its toll was cited in terms of contaminated soil, damaged crops, dying trees, and dead fish. Today, acid rain may have become a household term but few people are aware of its devastating toll in human terms. There is now strong circumstantial evidence that acid rain is a significant threat to human health and lives — one of the “best kept secrets about airborne pollution.”
In 1986, the Brookhaven National Laboratory of New York estimated that acid rain annually kills 50,000 Americans plus 5,000 to 11,000 Canadians. Brookhaven claimed that two percent of all deaths in the U.S. and Canada were acid rain related. The Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), an advisory body to Congress, rated acid rain much more dangerous in 1988 than it had been in the previous three years. And, in 1984, the OTA estimated the annual American death toll due to acid rain at 50,000 to 200,000 — triple their estimate of just two years earlier.
While alarming, the OTA estimates may be conservative. In 1979, professors Robert Mendelsohn and Guy Orcutt of Yale University analyzed two million death certificates and another two million census observations. They concluded that acid rain contributed to 187,686 deaths that year, while directly causing another 23,756.
A recent study by Dr. Cedric Garland, Director of Cancer Epidemiology at the University of California at Berkeley, revealed a pattern of increased cancers occurring throughout the “acid rain belt” cutting across the northeast U.S. and eastern Canada. Statistics from the area appear to support Dr. Garland — during the five-year period of 1982-1986, deaths from lung cancer in Vermont rose 28 percent; breast cancer deaths increased from 77 in 1980 to 103 in 1986, a 34 percent increase.
An early warning of the human dangers of acid rain was sounded 40 years ago. During Halloween, 1949, an inversion layer settled over Donors, Pennsylvania, for 24 hours. The smoke from coal-burning factories mingled with a cool fall rain, descending straight back to earth. When the inversion layer lifted, 21 people had died — the cause: irritation of lungs and breathing passages by atmospheric sulfates. The 21 were the first known American victims of acid rain, some 30 years before the term “acid rain” reached public awareness.
Statistical studies are just now beginning to document the harm done by toxic metals released by acid rain. Some, like lead, fall to earth with the acid itself; other toxic metals, including aluminum, mercury, and cadmium, both fall from the sky and are leached by acid runoff from rocks and soil. In addition to lethal metals, acid raindrops often contain man-made chemicals such as DDT and PCBs. And there is a strong likelihood that acid rain may be contributing to asbestos water pollution.
During the Reagan era, while acid-rain legislation was thwarted, acid rain would appear to have been causing Americans more respiratory disease than any source besides smoking. Nor is it just an American problem. In 1987, the United Nations Environment Program and the World Health Organization warned that acid rain now threatens the physical well-being of half a billion people worldwide.
VANGUARD PRESS, Jan 28-Feb 4, 1988, “Acid Rain Is Killing Five to 20 Times as Many Americans as AIDS,” by Merritt Clifton, pp 10-11.