Natural Christmas trees could be a green alternative this holiday season

A family at a Christmas tree farm (Mass Office of Travel / Flickr)
A family at a local Christmas tree farm (Mass Office of Travel / Flickr)

With the holiday season in full swing, natural Christmas trees grown in Iowa may provide a greener way to deck the halls.

Each year, around 100 Iowa farmers grow various pines, spruces and firs for holiday decor on more than 1,500 acres of farmland, much of which is unsuitable for other crops. Unlike artificial Christmas trees made of plastic and synthetic materials, natural Christmas trees produce minimal waste, can be recycled as mulch, and absorb carbon dioxide while producing oxygen during their lifetime, usually 6 to 12 years before harvest. While artificial trees remain in landfills for centuries after use, natural Christmas trees can be reused as decoration or sunk into fishing ponds to make refuges for fish. They can also be used as sand and soil erosion barriers near river beds.

Iowa tree farmers saw a rebound in tree growth this year, after drought in 2012 killed off crops across the state. Growers must constantly monitor their trees for insects and leaning to ensure proper balance and form. Iowans harvest about 39,500 Christmas trees each year, mostly by selecting and cutting down the trees themselves at the farm. For a list of Christmas tree growers in your area, visit the Iowa Christmas Trees website. City utilities often provide information and services about tree pickup and recycling.



New ozone emission standards on the horizon

Extreme smog over Los Angeles from a 1995 archive photo. (Metro Library/Flickr)
Extreme smog over Los Angeles, as seen in an archival photo from 1995. (Metro Library and Archive/Flickr)
KC McGinnis | November 26, 2014

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is set today to release a draft proposal that could dramatically reduce ozone emissions from power plants and other sources by 2015.

At the stratospheric level, ozone acts as an important natural filter, blocking out the sun’s ultraviolet rays. At the ground level, however, ozone released from power plants is the main component of smog, a pervasive problem in urban areas that can lead to asthma and other serious pulmonary conditions. The new proposal would lower how much of this ground-level ozone is considered healthy to breathe.

The EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee earlier this year recommended ozone levels be reduced to as low as 60 parts per billion, down from the current standard of 75 ppb set in 2008 under the Bush administration. This would require power plants to implement new strategies and technologies that could accommodate those standards, leading one business group to call it “the most expensive regulation ever imposed.”

The EPA committee, however, argues that the health benefits from the measures would lead to economic benefits that would offset the costs of implementation. These benefits include increased productivity due to reduced morbidity and mortality from pulmonary conditions caused by smog and pollution. The American Lung Association supports the ozone-lowering measures recommended by the EPA, citing the gas as “the most widespread air pollutant,” with effects ranging from coughing and wheezing to low birth weight in newborns.

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA must issue a new ozone proposal by next week, which environmental groups hope will be as strong as the one Obama struck down in 2011, just before the 2012 presidential election. A 60 ppb ozone standard, or a more likely standard in the 65-70 ppb range, would be a significant step toward reducing ground-level ozone to what scientists view as a healthier, more sustainable level.

Photos + Video: Iowa Climate Statement 2014

The 4th annual Iowa Climate Statement, signed by 180 researchers and scientists from 38 colleges and universities across the state, was released last month during a press conference at the state capitol. The Iowa Climate Statement 2014: Impacts on the Health of Iowans examines public health risks associated with climate change. Video from the event is now available below, along with photos (above). Please feel free to share the video using the share buttons attached.

Study: Vitamin B12 may be key to removing PCBs, other toxins released into environment

Researchers at the University of Manchester may have found a way to remove PCBs and other toxins from the environment (Flickr/Seth Anderson)
Researchers at the University of Manchester may have found a way to remove PCBs and other toxins from the environment (Flickr/Seth Anderson)

Nick Fetty | October 21, 2014

A 15-year study by researchers at the University of Manchester finds that vitimin B12 could be the key to removing PCBs and other harmful pollutants already released into the environment.

“We already know that some of the most toxic pollutants contain halogen atoms and that most biological systems simply don’t know how to deal with these molecules,” University of Manchester professor David Leys said in a press release. “However, there are some organisms that can remove these halogen atoms using vitamin B12. Our research has identified that they use vitamin B12 in a very different way to how we currently understand it.”

The team from the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology used x-ray crystallography to study 3D models of how halogen atoms are removed from organisms. These particular organisms are “microscopic deep sea creatures” which are also found in rivers and ponds.

While humans use vitamin B12 to maintain a functioning brain and nervous system, certain micro-organisms and bacterium are able to use it as a detoxifying agent. The rapid reproduction rate of these bacterium means they can remove “a huge quantity of chemical in a few weeks.”

Often times these toxins pollute the air and the water through direct disposal onto land and waterways as well as through burning household waste.

The study was published this month in the journal Nature. The project was made possible with funding from the European Research Council.

University of Iowa research examines health effects of frac sand mining

A frac sand mining operation in Wisconsin in 2012. (Carol Mitchell/Flickr)
A frac sand mining operation in Wisconsin from 2012. (Carol Mitchell/Flickr)
Nick Fetty | October 9, 2014

Crystalline silica – a compound used in frac sand mining – is a known carcinogen and has been for centuries according to a University of Iowa researcher.

Dr. Peter Thorne – head of the UI’s Department of Occupational and Environmental Health – was in Decorah last week for a Winneshiek County Board of Supervisors meeting where he discussed health consequences associated with frac sand mining. Unlike hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracking) which drills deep into the earth’s surface to extract oil, frac sand mining is the practice of mining sand to be used for fracking.  The sand – which consists of crystalline silica – acts as a proppant  “to keep the fissures open and thereby aid extraction [of oil].”

Last fall the UI’s  Environmental Health Sciences Research Center was awarded a $124,868 grant to study how frac sand mining affects air quality and the associated public health risks. Thorne and his collegues have conducted their research in Winneshiek and Allamakee Counties in Iowa in addition to parts of southeast Minnesota and southwest Wisconsin. The study will look at air quality and inhalation toxicology from silica particulates associated with the mining operation itself as well as transportation of the silica.

Earlier this year the Allamakee County Board of Supervisors passed what may be the nation’s strictest frac sand mining ordinance while Winnishiek County recently passed a moratorium on frac sand mining  effective through October 15, 2015.

Study predicts more days of extreme heat in the future

Los Angeles' infamous smog is just one example of climate change's effects on public health. (Flickr)
Los Angeles’ infamous smog is just one example of climate change’s effects on public health. (Flickr)
Nick Fetty | September 26, 2014

A University of Wisconsin study has found that the number of extremely hot days in midwestern and eastern U.S. cities is expected to triple by mid-century.

The study – which was published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association – predicts Milwaukee and New York City will see three times their current average of days that reach 90 degrees of higher by 2050. It also examined the ripple effects that hotter days and the resulting increase of storms would cause on public health. These effects include increased risk for waterborne and other infectious diseases as well as health risks associated with greater air pollution and a more carbon-intensive diet.

To combat these adverse effects on public health, the study suggests a number of measures including: reducing fossil fuel consumption, designing sustainable cities, and eating less meat. The study drew on experts from the studies of public health, air quality, and climate science.

The study cited the 1995 Chicago heat wave which led to more than 700 deaths. Since 1982, extreme heat in Wisconsin has killed more people than all other natural disaster combined. Extreme heat throughout the country has also killed thousands of cattle and other livestock in recent years. Statistics about heat-related fatalities in Iowa were unavailable, however by 2100 Des Moines is estimated to have 85 days with temperatures of 90 degrees or higher and 30 days of 100 degrees or higher.

On the Radio: Carbon emission reductions under the Clean Power Plan


This week’s On the Radio segment looks at how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan will reduce carbon emissions in Iowa and across the country. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

Transcript: Clean Power Plan carbon reductions

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan aims to significantly reduce power plant carbon emissions by 2030.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Power plants are currently the largest source of carbon pollution in the U.S., accounting for roughly one-third of heat-trapping gas emissions. There are about 1000 fossil fuel-powered plants in the U.S. and 37 plants in Iowa that are impacted by the plan.

The plan proposes to cut carbon emission from the power sector by 30 percent nationwide, which is equal to the emissions from powering more than half the homes in the United States.

This includes a 25 percent reduction in pollutants that contribute to soot as well as smog which are known to cause asthma, heart disease, and other health problems.

 Iowa has until June 30, 2016 to draft and submit a plan for reducing power plant emissions in the state.

For more information about the Clear Power Plan, visit


From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Jerry Schnoor.