Acid Rain, Nitrogen Scares Debunked

Published February 1, 2007

This article is the eighth in a continuing series excerpted from the book Smoke or Steam: A Guide to Environmental, Regulatory and Food Safety Concerns, by Samuel Aldrich, excerpted and abridged by Jay Lehr.

Perhaps the best example of the contributions of scientists to a large, complex issue is the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Project (NAPAP). This project entailed hundreds of scientists working in small groups over a period of 10 years at a cost of $550 million.

Scare Debunked

The NAPAP findings were submitted to Congress in 1990. Because the study’s findings minimized the impact of acid rain caused by humans, Congress and the media completely ignored them.

The NAPAP study found that among thousands of U.S. lakes, only 4 percent were somewhat acidic. One-quarter of those were acidic due to natural causes, leaving only 3 percent somewhat influenced by human activities.

The study found many of the Adirondack lakes were acidic when explorers first entered the region, and likely contained few fish at the time. Logging the virgin forests prior to 1900 reduced the regional lake acidity. Acidity then rebounded with the decline of logging.

Simple Solution Available

Perhaps the best news in the NAPAP report was that whatever the cause, overly acidic lakes can be easily and inexpensively corrected by the addition of lime.

Attempting to reduce regional water acidity by targeting smokestack emissions through the Clean Air Act costs at least 1,000 times more than applying lime to the small proportion of lakes where the problem exists.

Furthermore, the report minimized the effect of acid rain on the erosion of buildings and statues, and found no basis for alleged widespread health effects.

All of this was completely ignored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), environmental activist groups, and the news media.

Ignoring the findings of the $550 million, 10-year NAPAP study is among the most egregious and costly errors ever made by Congress and EPA.

Nitrogen Fears Unfounded

At the 1968 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, environmental activist Barry Commoner said the concentration of nitrates was rising dramatically in Midwestern rivers, that the cause was nitrogen fertilizer, and that the result was a threat to human health and the integrity of natural ecosystems.

To address Commoner’s claims, the Illinois Pollution Control Board held 10 hearings in 1970 and 1971 to determine whether constraints should be imposed on farm application of nitrogen fertilizers and animal manure in order to limit the content of nutrients in surface waters.

It is important to remember that nitrogen fertilizer had been responsible for much of the phenomenal increases in yields of corn, sorghum, and small grains used directly in human food and as livestock feed to produce beef, pork, lamb, chicken, and turkey. Constraints on the use of nitrogen fertilizer would have reduced the supply and raised the price of many food products.

Claims Proved False

Commoner’s claim that the nitrate content had tripled in the Illinois River proved to be false–the sample used for his first test was taken at a different location than the sample used for his later test.

Though many cases of an infant health problem (methemoglobinemia) from high nitrate levels can be found worldwide, the last infant death reported from excess nitrate in drinking water in the United States was in 1949, long before nitrogen fertilizer was a factor.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director for The Heartland Institute. Samuel Aldrich is an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois. His groundbreaking book for laymen, Smoke or Steam? A Guide to Environmental, Regulatory, and Food Safety Concerns, is available from The Heartland Institute for $12. The table of contents of the book, containing 211 topics, can be viewed at