Sulphur dioxide and environmental pollution: environmentally-conscious groups around the world have long known these two to be a match made in heaven. But a lengthy study performed on environmental damage in the forests of Lapland have shown that the link between sulphur dioxide and environmental pollution may be even more serious than was previously assumed. The evidence, unfortunately, is written all across the bark and leaves of one of the world’s most beautiful forests.
Sulphur dioxide is commonly used as a preservative in fruits, vegetables, and other agricultural products. Anyone who’s sampled fruit produced by a modern farm is no doubt familiar with the taste of sulphur dioxide: a sharp, recognizable chemical sting. The unpleasantness of the compound is one of the early pieces of evidence that led to the discovery of the link between sulphur dioxide and environmental pollution, nothing that tastes so foul could ultimately be good for human life.
Yet sulphur dioxide has also long been used as a critical agent in something known above all else for its taste: wine. Sulphur dioxide is used to sanitize wineries and keep bacteria from infesting wine while it ferments. It’s known, of course, that this is a potentially dangerous thing to do; it’s for this reason that all wines in the United States have to carry a label notifying consumers that the wine “contains sulfites” if the level of sulphur dioxide in the wine is too high according to the FDA. Yet the practice is common, necessary, even widespread.
All this despite that sulphur dioxide slowly breaks down through oxidization over time. When it breaks down to a certain point, it combines with water vapor in the air to form another compound altogether: H2SO4. In other words, acid rain. This is the link, in chemical terms, between sulphur dioxide and environmental pollution: the link that’s left its mark on the forests of Lapland.
According to a study performed in 1989, the forests of Lapland have been hard hit by acid rain. Sulphur dioxide in the air over Lapland has been measured at a high of 500 micrograms per cubic meter, with typical levels ranging around 200 micrograms per cubic meter. At either level, that’s quite a bit of potential acid rain in the air, just waiting for the weather process to turn it into something deadly. As a result, the pine trees of Lapland have sustained heavy cellular damage, and deposits of poisonous minerals can be found in nearly every trunk.
The study was performed over five years in the early 1990s, ending in 1994. In other words, no new research is publicly available on the conditions of the forests in the fourteen years since. We can hope that the link between sulphur dioxide and environmental pollution hasn’t asserted itself more sinisterly since then. But a lot of wine can be manufactured in fourteen years, and a lot of acid rain can do irreversible damage to the environment