Acid pollution said to threaten soils and crops in third world

The alabaster serenity of the Taj Mahal . . . fields of maize (corn) downwind from Zambian copper mines . . . intricate stonework decorating New Delhi temples . . . soils in China, Brazil, and Mexico. All show signs of corrosion or acidity consistent with the effects of ``acid pollution,'' according to experts here.

In fact, says Jon Tinker, director of the British environmental research agency Earthscan, they point to a new twist in the ever-quickening debate over acid pollution: the pollution not only affects forests and lakes in North America, Europe, and Scandinavia, but many parts of the third world as well.

Mr. Tinker, and the author of a new Earthscan study on acid pollution, John McCormick, both concede hard evidence from the third world is hard to find.

After talking to scientists in a number of countries, however, both say they are convinced that there is ``an enormous potential for damage'' in India, China, Indonesia, Mexico, Brazil, Zambia, and other third-world countries.

They cite two reasons: First, ``acid pollution'' is not caused just by sulphur-oxide emissions from power stations and copper smelters. It can also be traced to nitrogen oxides in auto emisssions.

Zooming population and industrial growth in cities the world over clog narrow streets with autos and exhaust fumes. The geography of a number of cities, including Mexico City and Djakarta, means that the emmision oxides tend to be recirculated. ``Traffic is thought to account for 92 percent of the air pollution in Kuala Lumpur and 75 percent in metro Manila,'' the report says.

Second, the drive for industrial growth in many third-world countries has led to dense pockets of factories and plants which belch sulphur-oxide fumes over large parts of the countryside. In Zambia, officials have launched a study to assess damage in corn fields.

``Third world soils tend to be simple in structure and poor in quality,'' said Tinker. ``There's a good prima facie case for saying that soils in the third world are extremely vulnerable.''

Eighty percent of China's air pollution, the study says, is from inefficiently burned low-quality coal.

A year ago the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) launched a study of acid damage in tropical countries, together with a committee of the International Council of Scientific Unions. Results will be known in about three years.

The introduction to the new study says that the Taj Mahal in Agra, India, is ``dissolving in an acid wind.'' The only evidence in the study itself is a prediction by a professor at a New Delhi University that the Taj could be seriously damaged over several decades by a big oil refinery opened in 1982 upwind of Agra 25 miles.

Tinker conceded that the ``dissolving'' language may have been overly dramatic. ``But rate of damage to the Taj has accelerated recently,'' he maintained.

``Now, it's difficult to prove that nitrogen oxides or sulphur oxides are the direct cause. Experts disagree. But we think that public opinion should be alerted to what looks to us like very probable connections.''

What can the third world do about ``acid pollution?'' (Tinker uses the term instead of ``acid rain'' because he says acidity can be deposited in dry form on leaves and building as well as through snow, rain and mist.)

The third-world problem is made more difficult because many areas want industry so badly that they are prepared to risk heavy pollution for it.

Nor is there any evidence that third-world countries have seriously begun to tackle acid pollution. But Tinker and Mr. McCormick agree that:

The third world has the opportunity to fit emission ``scrubbers'' and other cleanup devices onto new factories and plants. This is ``always cheaper than retrofitting'' (adding scrubbers after construction has been completed), Tinker says.

The time is approaching when third-world capitals will have to consider limiting traffic and speed limits -- just as, the two experts say, speed limits in Britain will have to come down to 50 miles per hour to control nitrogen-oxide emissions.

Tinker does not believe that the Western world is polluting the third world with acid pollution carried in cloud, wind, and rain. Distances between the two are too great for that, he thinks.

``But it is true to say that Mexico is suffering from acid pollution blown across from the United States,'' he said, ``and Mexico also exports some pollution to the southern US.

``Japan's soils may already be being damaged by acid pollution from China.''

The focus of the Earthscan report, called ``Acid Earth,'' is that acid pollution is spreading globally, and that it is causing a build up of acid in soils, releasing poisonous aluminum salts to tree roots, killing them from the ground up.

Looking at the Western world, the study says solutions must come from international, rather than national action.

Exporters of pollution, such as the US and Britain, ``still have not realized the bitter resentment in many countries'' caused by US and British refusal to join the ``30 percent club'' -- whose members agree to reduce emissions by 30 percent by 1993.

Sweden is talking about taking Britain to the International Court of Justice, Tinker says. Norway is discussing whether to offer loans to Britain and Poland to finance antipollution measures.

Implications of acid pollution in the West:

If you want to see the Black Forest in Germany, go next year. The forest is rapidly dying.

Expect higher electricity bills in North America and Europe to pay for emission controls.

Don't ``waste money'' on a fast car, because speed limits are coming down.

The price of natural Christmas trees is going up.

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