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.

On the Radio: Clean Power Plan health benefits

Kim Seng/Flickr
Kim Seng/Flickr

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at the potential health benefits of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

Transcript: Clean Power Plan health benefits

Thousands of lives and billions of dollars could be saved under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recently proposed Clean Power Plan.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

According to EPA scientists, as many as 6,000 premature deaths and 3,000 heart attacks are projected to be avoided in 2030 as air quality improves under the Clean Power Plan. Current standards limit the amount of certain pollutants such as arsenic and mercury. However there is no limit on carbon. Carbon emissions contribute to air pollution which presents health risks, particularly for children, elderly, and low-income individuals.

The plan is also projected to reduce as many as 150,000 asthma attacks in children. Moreover, the plan expects a reduction of nearly half a million missed school or work days as well as about 3,000 fewer hospital admissions.

Economically, the plan has public health and climate benefits estimated at up to $93 million per year in 2030.

For more information about the Clear Power Plan, visit


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

New analysis spells out risks of climate change on Midwest business

A page from the Risky Business Report's section on the Midwest, which highlights the effects of warming temperatures on the region.
A page from the Risky Business Report‘s section on the Midwest, which highlights the effects of warming temperatures on the region.

An extensive risk analysis report released Tuesday outlines what a warmer climate could mean for U.S. private and public sectors, with significant shifts in store for the Midwest.

The report was released by the Risky Business Project, an effort to apply risk assessment principles to climate change in the U.S. The project’s new report looks at the risks associated with rising temperatures and sea levels on business, infrastructure and agriculture in various regions of the country up to the year 2100.

For the Midwest, the report focuses on the region’s role as an important agricultural resource for the rest of the country. It assesses what rising temperatures could mean for the region’s commodity crops if the country continues at current carbon emission rates. Farmers would adapt, the report says, but agriculture would move north into Minnesota and Canada. Iowa would see a 10% decrease in crop yields over the next twenty years and a stunning 66% decrease by 2100.

The bipartisan project aims to convince corporations and businesses to view climate change as another business threat like any other, without going into detailed, highly-politicized solutions. Its Risk Committee includes former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Cargill CEO Gregory Page, three former U.S. Secretaries of the Treasury and various public and private officials.

For the compete report and for statements from the co-chairs of the project, visit

New climate plan asks for cooperation from states

Nick Fetty | June 3, 2014
Photo via Matt; Flickr

A new plan proposed by President Obama to cut carbon pollution will rely on states to set and meet their own emissions standards.

The plan aims to “cut carbon pollution from power plans by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.” Similar to the President’s health care initiative, individual states will be responsible for devising unique plans to meet the standard set by the federal government.

The article cites that farmers in Iowa and Minnesota currently generate up to 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources – such as solar and wind – while states in the southeast utilize nuclear energy. Critics say the new proposal will eliminate jobs and raise utility costs.

For more information, visit the EPA’s website. Also check out this infographic released by the White House.