Don’t Think It Won’t Happen Just Because It Hasn’t Happened Yet

Bad News.

Someone called it Disaster Chic. We see it in our movies; we hear it in our music. Instead of writing out a check to our local Red Cross as granddad might have done, we savor the latest catas­trophe (real or imagined) and wonder what’s coming next.

Americans seem to be developing an appetite for doom. For the gourmands of apocalypse among us, then, we here­with serve up three homegrown, de­lectable disasters.

NUMBER ONE:

A soft drizzle is falling, etching billboards and severing tree limbs from their trunks. On parking lots and freeways, autos quietly dissolve to hissing heaps of steel; the edges of distinguished public buildings begin to melt away. Another rainy night in Corpus. Goodbye, Corpus.

On the Texas Gulf Coast, the world may end not with a bang but a fizz if the worst expectations of atmospheric scientists prove true. One type of serious pollution that has been mercifully rare in Texas—until now—is sulfur dioxide ( SO2), a pungent, colorless gas produced by combustion of sulfur-laden fuel oils. It combines easily with water vapor and oxygen to become sulfuric acid (H 2SO4), a substance so corrosive that even a high school chemist knows to handle it with care. Put enough sulfur dioxide in the air and, a few chemical reactions later, you’ve left behind a fine mist, an ambient acid mist, capable of etching not only billboards but also softer things like lungs.

Medical authorities shudder at the thought. Sulfuric acid is widely regarded as just about the most unhealthy kind of air pollution possible; one specialist in environmental medicine says flatly, “Sulfuric acid at just about any level is harmful.”

In the past, the industrial Gulf Coast has escaped this particular scourge be­cause the vast petrochemical industry has used natural gas as its principal source of fuel. But gas shortages are forcing a conversion to fuel oil—and even the cleanest fuel oil has ten times more sulfur content than gas. Within the next decade, the Texas Air Con­trol Board ( TACB) estimates that 90 per cent of the major industrial fur­naces that now use gas will convert to fuel oil.

The resulting emissions, says the TACB, “will have an enormous impact in the highly industrialized areas of Texas.” A staff member currently grappling with the problem predicts “the whole coastal area from Beaumont to Corpus

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