acid rain

Acid rain, toxic leaded gas, and widespread air pollution? Not anymore. Thanks to EPA.

Acid rain. Dangerous DDT. Toxic leaded gas fumes. Rampant air pollution. These environmental challenges once seemed impossible to meet, and they put our nation’s air, water, and land at risk—not to mention our families’ health. The dangers they posed were real, but you probably haven’t heard about them in a while. There’s a good reason for that.

We put smart policies in place to fix them.

So this Earth Day, here’s a reminder of a few of the environmental challenges our nation has conquered with EPA leading the way, and where we’re headed next.

Acid Rain

Caused by air pollution mixing with water vapor in the atmosphere, acid rain was once poisoning our rivers and lakes, killing fish, forests, and wildlife, and even eroding our buildings.

The 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act gave EPA the authority to regulate sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, the pollutants causing acid rain, from power plants. The EPA developed the first market-based cap-and-trade pollution reduction program, and guess what—it worked.

Despite the doomsday warnings from some in the power industry that the regulations would cause electricity prices to spike and lead to blackouts, over the last 25 years, acid rain levels are down 60%—while electricity prices have stayed stable, and the lights have stayed on. Thanks to hard work by EPA, states, and industry, our nation has put policies in place to solve the problem over the long haul.

Leaded Gasoline

For decades, leaded gasoline threatened the air our kids breathed. Lead from polluted air was absorbed into their bloodstreams, endangering their brain development and risking consequences like permanent nerve damage, anemia, and mental retardation. So EPA phased out leaded gas. Back in the late 1970s, 88 percent of American children had elevated levels of lead in their blood. By the mid-2000s, that number had dropped to less than 1 percent.

DDT

The bald eagle once faced extinction. The culprit was DDT, a powerful pesticide that made birds’ eggshells too weak for the chicks to survive, and also caused liver cancer and reproductive problems in humans. EPA banned the use of DDT in 1972, and since then, bald eagles have made a huge comeback—they were removed from the Endangered Species List in 2007—and our families are safer from harmful chemicals.

Air Pollution

A newspaper headline once called the smog shrouding Los Angeles “a dirty gray blanket flung across the city.” L.A. and many other cities like this one were choked by severe air pollution—leading to asthma, respiratory illness, and certain cancers. But over the last 45 years, we’ve cut air pollution 70 percent, while our nation’s economy has tripled. It goes to show that a strong economy and a safe environment go hand in hand.

Breathing Easier

Every day, EPA works toward cleaner air. One recent study found that thanks to the strides we’ve made in cutting air pollution in just the last 2 decades, children’s lungs in Southern California are 10% bigger and stronger today than they were in children 20 years ago.

Last fall, we built on that success by proposing stricter standards for ozone pollution to protect those most vulnerable—children, the elderly, and those already suffering from respiratory illnesses like asthma. For our kids, that means avoiding up to a million missed school days, thousands of cases of acute bronchitis, and nearly a million asthma attacks. Adults could avoid hundreds of emergency room visits for cardiovascular reasons, up to 180,000 missed work days, and 4 million days where people have to deal with pollution-related symptoms. Every dollar we invest in these standards would return $3 in health benefits.

Looking Ahead

And now, EPA is taking action on another major environmental challenge—climate change. The carbon pollution driving it comes packaged with other dangerous pollutants like smog and soot that can cause asthma and certain cancers, especially for those living in the shadow of polluting industries.

When we finalize our Clean Power Plan this summer, we’ll not only cut carbon pollution from power plants, our nation’s largest source, but we’ll also reduce those other dangerous pollutants and protect our families’ health. When we act, we also help safeguard communities from the impacts of climate change—like more severe droughts, storms, fires, and floods.

Time after time, when science has pointed to health risks, EPA has obeyed the law, followed the science, protected public health, and fortified a strong American economy. We’re doing the same thing today. Our track record proves that when EPA leads the way, there’s no environmental challenge our nation can’t meet.

 

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Preservation of Unique Natural Resources in Puerto Rico

Several links below exit EPA Exit EPA Disclaimer

By Luz v Garcia, MS, ME

Since I wrote about the unique places in Puerto Rico, I have to mention the importance of preserving this unique ecosystem. Dynoflagellates, the microscopic microorganism that produces the luminescence in the Puerto Rico bays can be destroyed without repair. How? Just by the simple act of swimming in these bay waters.

There is a third bioluminescent bay in Puerto Rico—“Laguna Grande” – in the town of Fajardo on the northeastern side of the island. The scientific name of this unique dinoflagellate is Pyrodinium bahamense.  It produces a bioluminescence as bright as the one in Vieques island . But in 2003, this unique habitat was adversely impacted by the local practice of swimming in the area. Luckily, the Puerto Rico Department of Natural Resources took over and banned swimming at Laguna Grande and the fluorescent bay was reestablished.

Dynoflagelates are sensitive to other microorganisms—bacteria and ciliates. These contaminating microorganisms can create toxic algae and change the pH of the water where these fragile dynoflagellates live . Human intervention promotes the increase of bacteria in these habitat waters further threatening the fragile pH balance of the ecosystem.

Just imagine that you are enjoying a beautiful flowering garden and all of the sudden the weather changes and acid rain starts pouring into your garden destroying all your beautiful flowers. In the same way, this unique microorganism can disappear by just the simple change in pH created by an increase population of bacteria. The acidification process in the water creates an unbalanced environment for these Dynoflagellates and soon they get “stress out” by the blooming of red algae.

In the town of Fajardo , aquatic sports are commonly practiced. It appears that kayaking has not had an adverse effect, for now, on this unique habitat. I believe humans and other species can live in a positive and facultative symbiotic relationships and knowing how much Puerto Ricans love water sports, I believe that once we are aware of the value of unique natural resources, we will promote their preservation and value.

About the author:  Ms. Luz V. García M.E. is a physical scientist at EPA’s Division of Enforcement of Compliance Assistance. She is a four-time recipient of the EPA bronze medal, most recently in 2011 for the discovery of illegal pesticides entry at U.S. Customs and Border Protection in New York.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Ready For Your Science Fair Project?

By Shanshan Lin

This month, students across the country are busily preparing for their annual science fair projects. If you are a student still pondering ideas for your investigation, a teacher looking for classroom resources, or a parent interested in helping your child find the perfect science fair project, EPA has free resources and tools for you.

Interested in climate change? Use the Greenhouse Gas Data Publication Tool to investigate local sources of carbon pollution. Are you wondering about your home’s impact on the climate? Check out the Household Emissions Calculator to explore the impacts of taking various actions to reduce your family’s greenhouse gas emissions. Want to learn first-hand about the effects of climate change on the natural world? Take a look at the student scientist guide to learn how to observe the impacts of climate change in your backyard.

Concerned about air quality? The Air Pollution: What is the Solution website uses real time data to help you understand about the science behind the causes and effects of outdoor air pollution.

Looking for information on acid rain or how to use pH paper? Check out EPA’s guide on the causes and effects of acid rain on ecosystems. The “Learning about Acid Rain: A Teacher’s Guide for Grades 6 through 8” provides detailed instructions for nine science experiments related to acidity and acid rain, including how to measure the pH of different substances.

Want to learn more about ozone layer? Sign up to receive the free SunWise tool kit, with over 50 activities about stratospheric ozone, ultraviolet radiation and how to stay safe in the sun.

So, get creative and check out these resources and see where they take your science fair project!

About the author: Shanshan Lin is an intern for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation communications team. She is also a graduate student at George Washington University.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Science Wednesday: Nitrogen, Think About It

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection.Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Sarah Blau

Let’s just take a moment to think about nitrogen. Symbol: N. Atomic number: 7. Atomic mass: 14u. But unless you’re a chemist this doesn’t mean too much…

So let’s think about other aspects of nitrogen. Nitrogen is in the air we breathe, it is in the food we eat, it is a part of the necessary nutrients needed for life. Plants need nitrogen. Animals need nitrogen. We need nitrogen.

But, as is often the case, too much of a good thing is NOT a good thing. Nitrogen exists naturally in the environment, but human energy and food production have led to increased nitrogen levels in the air, land, and water. This excess of nitrogen in our natural resources contributes to many adverse impacts from decreased visibility in the air, to acid rain falling on land, to harmful algal blooms in water bodies, and more.

Nervous yet?

Luckily, EPA researchers take more than a moment of the day to think about nitrogen. They think about sources of nitrogen, the movement of nitrogen in the environment, the chemical changes of nitrogen, and the environmental and public health effects of nitrogen.

EPA scientists and partners in Iowa are testing newly created wetlands as treatment systems for lowering sediment and nitrogen pollution in surface waters draining into the Mississippi River.

In Narragansett, Rhode Island, EPA scientists are investigating how nitrogen from different sources interacts with other pollutants and affects lakes and reservoirs. Results will be used to develop computational tools for more informed nutrient management decisions.

Yet another EPA study focuses on the northern Gulf of Mexico, a.k.a. “The Dead Zone” where excess levels of nitrogen have had severe effects on the coastal ecosystem. Scientists are developing cutting-edge, 3D water flow and water quality models of the northern Gulf in order to inform decision-making about how potential nutrient management and climate change scenarios will affect the Gulf’s Dead Zone and the rivers and streams that feed into it.

EPA’s nitrogen research is ongoing at these and many other locations across the country to answer the overarching question: “How do we protect and sustain ecosystems and protect public health while also providing the material, food, and energy required by society?”

It’s a good question and a hard one to answer. So let’s be glad that EPA scientists know their chemistry.

About the author:  Sarah Blau is a student services contractor working with EPA’s Science Communication Team.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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The Future of the Acid Rain Program

In 1980, as an intern with the House Natural Resources Committee, I spent hours summarizing legislative proposals to address acid rain, an issue captivating public consciousness. Thirty years later, I can see the great progress we’ve made and, along with hard-working EPA staff, I’m pleased to spread the word about that progress.

On April 8, we launched the 20th Anniversary Acid Rain Program Discussion Forum to talk about what we’ve been doing to address acid rain over the past 20 years and to create a space for open dialogue on this issue. I encourage everyone to check out the discussion forum posts to learn about the large emission reductions and high compliance rates we’ve seen under the program. You’ll also find information about improvements in air quality and human health, recovering ecosystems, and improved visibility in our parks.

Assessing where we are with acid rain is also done every few years in the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program (NAPAP) report. The newest report, scheduled to be sent to Congress later this year, is a collaboration among EPA, other government agencies and scientists. It contains hard data on the success we’ve had in addressing acid rain, but it also underlines the work we still need to do – work that EPA is ready to tackle.

Administrator Lisa Jackson’s seven priorities for EPA specifically list reducing SO2 and NOx as top priorities for improving air quality. And so, building on the success of the Acid Rain Program and other programs, the Agency is getting ready to propose a new rule this spring that will deepen SO2 and NOx emission reductions in the East. Until that rule is finalized (sometime in 2011), the Clean Air Interstate Rule is in place and already achieving NOx and SO2 reductions from power plants. Check back with us this summer to see our progress report on results from the first year of the CAIR annual and ozone season NOx programs.

We are certain that in another 20 years we will have even MORE environmental and public health progress to share with you.

We hope you’ve enjoyed all the posts and comments on our discussion forum. Please continue the conversation with us on Facebook and Twitter.

About the author: Rick Haeuber is Chief of the Assessment and Communications Branch within the Clean Air Markets Division which implements the Acid Rain Program and other cap and trade programs.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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The Health Benefits of the Acid Rain Program

Growing up in the early 1990s, I heard a lot of buzz about acid rain and its damaging effects on our forests and aquatic environments. It wasn’t until I started interning in the Clean Air Markets Division of EPA that I began to investigate how sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx), the emissions that cause acid rain, could also harm my health.

Since the Acid Rain Program began requiring SO2 and NOx reductions from power plants, the drop in emissions has improved air quality around the country, preventing some negative health impacts and leading to a higher quality of life for many Americans.

In fact, the greatest benefits are the 20,000 to 50,000 lives saved per year because of cleaner air and lower pollution levels. SO2 and NOx emissions can lead to the formation of fine particle pollution and smog, also called ground level ozone. Smog and particle pollution have been linked to health problems including aggravation of asthma and increased risk of premature death in people with heart or lung disease.

Even though I’m relatively healthy and am not considered particularly sensitive to these effects, I can still feel the impact when I’m playing or working outdoors. I spend a lot of time outside with my two dogs, Bella and Lucy. I love taking them hiking near the Occoquan River in northern Virginia. Even though I’m not affected by asthma, the hills are a lot harder to climb on bad air days. Fortunately for me (and my dogs), the good air days far outnumber the bad and we don’t have to cut our adventures short because of polluted air.

It’s pretty amazing that a program originally designed to fix the environmental problem of acid rain saves so many lives every year! EPA’s mission is to protect human health and the environment, and the Acid Rain Program is doing both.

Interested in learning more? Join our Discussion Forum and follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

About the author: Elyse Procopio was an intern in EPA’s Office of Atmospheric Programs. She recently graduated from North Carolina State University with a bachelor’s degree in Natural Resource Management.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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The Grand Experiment

A few weeks ago, I read an opinion piece in the Washington Post that praised the Acid Rain Program as an example of how people with different perspectives could come together to create a successful program to solve an important problem. Reading this article twenty years after I helped write the bill that created the Acid Rain Program, I couldn’t help but ask – How did we do it?

The Acid Rain Program is often called “the grand experiment” because it is the world’s first large-scale air emissions cap and trade program. Signed into law in 1990, it created a cap and trade program that requires power plants to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) in order to address acid rain.

We were breaking new ground on environmental policy but we also needed a strong, national solution to a multi-state problem with local impacts. Writing the legislation was a wild ride full of Washington intrigue but we knew we had to – and we did – create a carefully designed program that provided a firm environmental goal (the emission cap) while giving industry the flexibility to decide how to achieve their emission reductions.

We were looking for certainty, simplicity, accuracy and an approach that wouldn’t require a lot of people to run it. And the program has proven to be all of these things. Power plant SO2 emissions have fallen dramatically since the program began in 1995. Some sensitive ecosystems are starting to recover from the damages of acid rain. By making huge reductions in SO2, we achieved one of the largest improvements in public health. Compliance cost 70% less than originally expected. Monitors on smokestacks collect data, available online, providing transparency and confidence in results. We’ve seen the market flourish while achieving over 99 percent compliance every year.

Looking back after 20 successful years of the Acid Rain Program, the world now knows that cap and trade works. For the right pollution problem, we don’t have to control every action – just the emissions – and we can allow flexibility AND achieve high compliance. Most importantly, we have shown that a strong economy and a healthy environment CAN exist together.

Interested in learning more? Join our Discussion Forum and follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

About the author: Brian McLean is the Director of the Office of Atmospheric Programs in the Office of Air and Radiation and EPA manager for the Acid Rain Program.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Whatever happened to acid rain?

Recently, my coworkers and I have started tracking the internet chatter about acid rain. We were curious about what the world was saying about this iconic environmental issue. Acid rain is taught in most schools across the country so imagine our surprise when we found a pretty significant number of people who thought the problem of acid rain has been solved.

So…what really did happen to acid rain? It was a big problem in the 80s and early 90s, but now we don’t hear much about it. This year marks the 20th anniversary of EPA’s Acid Rain Program—a program that requires power plants across the country to reduce SO2 (sulfur dioxide) and NOx (nitrogen oxide), the pollutants that form acid rain.

Because of our program, we’ve seen power plant emissions of SO2 and NOx plummet. Many sensitive lakes and streams in the East are starting to recover from the effects of acid rain. And the days of dying forests and lakes totally devoid of fish are, increasingly, a thing of the past.

The success of the Acid Rain Program has been impressive: 63 percent lower SO2 emissions, 70 percent lower NOx emissions, and 100% compliance! We’ve come a long way but, unfortunately, acid rain is still a very real problem in some parts of the country and it is one that EPA is committed to continuing to address.

So – whatever happened to acid rain? We’d like to tell you what we’ve been doing about acid rain, but more importantly, we’re very interested in hearing what YOU guys think. How did you first learn about acid rain? What did you know about the Acid Rain Program and what EPA has been doing over the past 20 years to try to solve the issue?  How has acid rain affected your community?  What more do you think EPA should be doing  to address this issue? Tell us what you think and please join us over the next few weeks as we continue our dialogue documenting the past 20 years of the program on Facebook , and Twitter .

About the author: Josh Stewart is the Communications Intern with the EPA’s Clean Air Markets Division. Josh is currently working on his Master’s Degree in Political Management at The George Washington University.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Environmental Protection through “Cap and Trade”

As a kid growing up in the 1990’s I remember watching public service announcements and educational videos warning my generation of the dangers of pollution. The main focus of this effort was to educate people about acid rain. Stories consistently appeared in the news regarding damage to a local cityscape as a result of acid rain deposition.

This widespread concern eventually led to political action with the passage of the Clean Air Act Amendments in 1990. An important part of that legislation included the creation of a “cap and trade” system, started in 1995, that caps power plant emissions of SO2 (sulfur dioxide) and NOx (nitrogen oxide) – the primary contributors to acid rain. In accordance with the cap, allowances are distributed to the utilities and can be used to account for emissions, banked for future emissions, or sold to another utility that needs extra allowances to order to be in compliance.

As an intern here at the EPA’s Clean Air Markets Division, I have experienced first hand how, over the past couple of decades, “cap and trade” programs have played a vital role in the EPA’s efforts to lower harmful air emissions and their deposition.

The use of “cap and trade” programs has led to a decrease in wet deposition of the sulfate portion of acid rain by 40 percent through the Acid Rain Program (ARP). Another “cap and trade” program administered by the Clean Air Markets Division is the NOx Budget Trading Program (NPB). Emission reductions achieved under the NPB has led to improvements in air quality and resulted in 103 million Americans breathing cleaner air as well as 580 to 1,800 incidences of premature deaths avoided in 2008.

It is great to know that “cap and trade” systems are effective, but the urgency of the 1990’s regarding acid rain has faded. People are focused on so many other things that it is becoming difficult to keep acid rain at the forefront of people’s minds. The scientific community has voiced concern that many acid-sensitive ecological systems have still not been fully restored and they contend further emissions reductions are needed. Though we have come very far and found that “cap and trade” is a successful tool to reduce the harmful pollutants that cause acid rain, we still have a way to go. For more information.

About the author: Josh Stewart is the Communications Intern with the EPA’s Clean Air Markets Division. Josh is currently working on his Master’s Degree in Political Management at The George Washington University.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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