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Effects of Acid Rain - Automotive Coatings

 Image: Cars driving on the highway

Over the past two decades, there have been numerous reports of damage to automotive paints and other coatings. The reported damage typically occurs on horizontal surfaces and appears as irregularly shaped, permanently etched areas. The damage can best be detected under fluorescent lamps, can be most easily observed on dark colored vehicles, and appears to occur after evaporation of a moisture droplet. In addition, some evidence suggests damage occurs most frequently on freshly painted vehicles. Usually the damage is permanent; once it has occurred, the only solution is to repaint.

The general consensus within the auto industry is that some form of environmental fallout causes the damage. “Environmental fallout”—a term widely used in the auto and coatings industries—refers to damage caused by air pollution (e.g., acid rain), decaying insects, bird droppings, pollen, and tree sap. The results of laboratory experiments and at least one field study have demonstrated that acid rain can scar automotive coatings. Furthermore, chemical analyses of the damaged areas of some exposed test panels indicate elevated levels of sulfate, implicating acid rain.

The popular term “acid rain” refers to both wet and dry deposition of acidic pollutants that may damage material surfaces, including auto finishes. These pollutants, which are released when coal and other fossil fuels are burned, react with water vapor and oxidants in the atmosphere and are chemically transformed into sulfuric and nitric acids. The acidic compounds then may fall to earth as rain, snow, fog, or may join dry particles and fall as dry deposition. All forms of acid rain, including dry deposition, especially when dry acidic deposition is mixed with dew or rain, may damage automotive coatings. However, it has been difficult to quantify the specific contribution of acid rain to paint finish damage relative to damage caused by other forms of environmental fallout, by the improper application of paint or by deficient paint formulations. According to coating experts, trained specialists can differentiate between the various forms of damage, but the best way of determining the cause of chemically induced damage is to conduct a detailed, chemical analysis of the damaged area.

Because evaporation of acidic moisture appears to be a key element in the damage, any steps taken to eliminate its occurrence on freshly painted vehicles may alleviate the problem. These steps include frequent washing followed by hand drying, covering the vehicle during precipitation events, and use of one of the protective coatings currently on the market that claim to protect the original finish. However, data on the performance of these coatings are not yet sufficient.

The auto and coatings industries are fully aware of the potential damage and are actively pursuing the development of coatings that are more resistant to environmental fallout, including acid rain. The problem is not a universal one—it does not affect all coatings or all vehicles even in geographic areas known to be subject to acid rain—which suggests that technology exists to protect against this damage. Until that technology is implemented to protect all vehicles or until acid deposition is adequately reduced, frequent washing and drying and covering of the vehicle appear to be the best methods for consumers who wish to minimize acid rain damage.

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