Health Effects of Acids and Bases:
Acids and bases are examples of corrosive poisons which react
locally on tissue cells. Chemicals that are very basic or very
acidic are reactive. These chemicals can cause severe burns.
Automobile battery acid is an acidic chemical that is reactive.
Automobile batteries contain a stronger form of some of the same
acid that is in acid rain. Household drain cleaners often contain
lye, a very alkaline chemical that is reactive.
Acids and bases are capable of causing severe "burns"
similar to burns produced by heat. These materials act by first
dehydrating cellular structures. Then proteins structures are
destroyed by the action of acid or base which catalyzes the splitting
of peptide bonds. Smaller and smaller fragments result, leading
to the ultimate disintegration of the tissue.
The eyes and lungs are particularly sensitive to corrosive
poisons. The cornea of the eyes is damaged by acid or base burns.
Pulmonary edema (filling with water) occurs when highly concentrated
corrosive pollutants (acute poisoning) reach the lungs. The lining
of the nose, sinuses and lungs become irritated and water logged
(by dehydration of cells). This occurs in an attempt to dilute
the toxic agent. This waterlogged condition prevents the normal
exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. The victim may die of
immediate suffocation, a secondary attack of bacteria leading
to pneumonia, or suffer permanent lung damage. Long term subchronic
acid-base dosage effects are less well understood.
Air pollutants such as sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, chlorine,
and ammonia all have corrosive effects on the respiratory tract.
The solubility of the gases in water determines their fate. The
most soluble gases, such as ammonia and sulfur oxides, are promptly
adsorbed to the moist surfaces of the upper airways causing nasal
and throat irritation. Less soluble gases, such as nitrogen oxides
and chlorine, produce their effects in the depths of the lungs
causing pulmonary edema, pneumonia, and emphysema (loss of elasticity
and surface area).