On Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio, a Norfolk Southern a freight train traveling East from Illinois broke down and then derailed in the small town of about 4700 people, bringing the attention of the world to them.
The train carrying the chemicals derailed causing a huge fire and, in an effort to avoid an explosion from the five railcars that were carrying vinyl chloride, a toxic chemical was released and burned to prevent an explosion, causing toxic fumes to be released in the area. Vinyl Chloride is linked to permanent liver injury and liver cancer, neurologic or behavioral symptoms, and changes to the skin and bones of the hand.
By now you have seen the images of the thick plumes of black smoke towering over the town and despite assurances from officials that the water is safe to drink and people are safe to return home, some residents say they continued to be frightened of the potential harms of the chemicals and acid rain, which they say has impacted humans and wildlife alike.
“Chemicals from the derailment were detected in creeks and streams near the village after the derailment, leading to the deaths of around 3,500 fish,” Ohio Department of Natural Resources director Mary Mertz shared with the media, on Feb. 14. Locals also reported their chickens had died suddenly, and that their pets had fallen ill.
As the chemicals are being released into the atmosphere, the fear of acid rain is on the radar of residents and officials monitoring the situation — and for good reason.
“Acid rain could have formed after the controlled release and burn of chemicals on Feb. 6,” Kevin Crist, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and the director of the Air Quality Center at Ohio University, said. “If it did form and fall, it would have most likely occurred downwind of East Palestine.
“There would maybe be localized problems, but once that plume is gone, it’s gone. Unless it’s sticking to a residue.”
Is Acid Rain a Threat to Humans?
Acid rain happens more than you would imagine. With that in mind, we wanted to look acid rain and the possible harm it can do the population and environment.
In the movies, acid rain has been depicted as literal acid falling from the sky, burning off skin, starting fires, and destroying everything in its path.
Though not ideal, the reality is much different.
According to the EPA, “acid rain, or acid deposition, is a broad term that includes any form of precipitation with acidic components, such as sulfuric or nitric acid that fall to the ground from the atmosphere in wet or dry forms. This can include rain, snow, fog, hail or even dust that is acidic.”
The pH (potential of hydrogen) levels are what’s important to remember in defining acid rain which has elevated levels of hydrogen ions. Most water, including drinking water, has a neutral pH that exists between 6.5 and 8.5, but acid rain has a pH level lower than this and ranges from 4–5 on average.
Very strong acids can, and will, burn your skin on contact and can even destroy some metals. But for this to occur, the pH of these kinds of acids needs to be very low, around pH 1.
Acid rain, on the other hand, is a much weaker form of acid, and typically has a pH ranging from 4.2 to 4.4, though there have been lower pH reports in the past.
To help put things into perspective, vinegar has a pH of about 2.2 and lemon juice about 2.3. Even the lowest recorded pH in acid rain was still only roughly as strong as vinegar or lemon juice.
While acid rain can be incredibly detrimental for the environment and will kill many plants and animals over a long enough exposure, it won’t directly hurt or kill you — so no walking zombies reported anywhere in the world yet — with the exception of those on Capitol Hill.
Though not recommended according to the U.S. EPA, “walking in acid rain, or even swimming in a lake affected by acid rain, is no more dangerous to humans than walking in normal rain or swimming in non-acidic lakes.”
This doesn’t mean acid and continuous exposure can’t cause damage to humans after constant contact. Acid rain can cause respiratory problems and greatly impact human health. It’s been estimated that around 550 premature deaths each year globally are due to acid rain. Roughly 500 people die from being attacked by elephants each year, as an FYI.
When these pollutants are airborne, there is a potential for you to inhale them into your lungs, which is how acid rain can become detrimental to your health. When exposure to this kind of particulate matter is acute enough, it can lead to a host of medical problems. Air pollution like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides can cause respiratory diseases or make these diseases worse.
Nitrogen oxides also cause a ground-level ozone causing respiratory problems like pneumonia and bronchitis, and can even cause permanent lung damage.
How Can Acid Rain Harm the Environment?
Acid rain that seeps into the ground can dissolve nutrients, such as magnesium and calcium, that trees need to be healthy. Acid rain also causes aluminum to be released into the soil, which makes it difficult for trees to take up water.
In a perfect world without acid rain and pollution, most lakes and streams would have a pH level near 6.5. Acid rain, however, has caused many lakes and streams in the northeast United States and certain other places to have much lower pH levels. In addition, aluminum that is released into the soil eventually ends up in lakes and streams. Unfortunately, this increase in acidity and aluminum levels can be deadly to aquatic wildlife, including phytoplankton, mayflies, rainbow trout, small mouth bass, frogs, spotted salamanders, crayfish, and other creatures that are part of the food chain.
Yes, acid rain is real and can cause serious problems. It has been estimated that somewhere in the region of 90% of the freshwater streams in Midwestern and some parts of the northeastern U.S. are still heavily acidified today.
The effects of acid rain have fallen dramatically in the region due in part to regulations like the 1990 Clean Air Act, but recovery from acid rain damage takes time. Soil in these areas has only recently shown signs of stabilizing and incidents like the one in Ohio only continue raise the potential for further damage.