University of Iowa professor appointed to USDA task force

University of Iowa associate professor of chemical and biochemical engineering Charles Stanier has been appointed to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Air Quality Task Force. (IIHR – Hydroscience & Engineering/University of Iowa)
Nick Fetty | January 28, 2016

University of Iowa associate professor of chemical and biochemical engineering Charles Stanier has been appointed to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Air Quality Task Force (AAQTF).

Stanier – who is member of the UI’s Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research and also an associate research engineer at IIHR-Hydroscience and Engineering – will serve a two-year on AAQTF beginning in 2016 and ending in 2018. AAQTF is composed of 35 members from 20 different states representing a wide range of fields from academia and government to agriculture and industry.

AAQTF aims to promote USDA research efforts and also identify cost-effective ways to improve air quality in the agricultural industry. Additionally, AAQTF aims to better coordinate activities and resources among USDA agencies and other federal partners including the Environmental Protection Agency.

“The Agricultural Air Quality Task Force is another example of USDA’s continued commitment to developing science-based solutions and conservation measures that not only reduce the agriculture industry’s environmental impact, but in many ways enhance our natural resources through improved agricultural practices,” said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. “Bringing together a variety of perspectives and scientific insights to this task force will help reach solutions to resolve air quality challenges.”

Hongwei Xin, professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering at Iowa State University, served as an Iowa representative on AAQTF prior to Stanier’s appointment. Stanier along with Chris Peterson – who serves on the Board of Directors for the Iowa Farmers Union – are the two Iowa representatives currently on the task force.

AAQTF was formed by Congress in 1996 to address agricultural air quality issues.

UI researcher helps rural Indians cook more efficiently, improving health and reducing emissions

H.S. Udaykumar
H.S. Udaykumar
KC McGinnis | December 17, 2015

A small metal cooking insert developed by a University of Iowa researcher may help improve the health of thousands of women and children in rural India while reducing emissions and firewood consumption.

UI Professor of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering H.S. Udaykumar visited the western Indian region of Rajasthan earlier this year to see how he could prevent deforestation in a region where most cooking is done with firewood. The harvesting of firewood from nearby forests has led to decreases in biodiversity, including the disappearance of tigers in the area.

The solution he found, however, may also have substantial positive effects on the health of residents of the area, especially the people who use firewood to cook.

Women in the Rajasthan region use three stone hearths to do most of their cooking, which release smoke and soot that are emitted into the air and which settle in the poorly ventilated homes, often causing lung disease. Udaykumar hoped to introduce high-efficiency cookstoves to the women in the region, but many refused because of the cost. His answer: small grates that could be inserted into the stoves.

These grates increase the efficiency of the stoves, decreasing wood consumption by 60 percent and emissions by as much as 90 percent. The inserts cost about $1 apiece.

While reducing smoke and soot in rural homes is the most visible effect of the grates, reducing carbon emissions will on the whole create better public health conditions. Higher carbon dioxide levels in the air lead plants to produce more pollen, causing dramatic increases in childhood asthma since the 1980s.

Udaykumar hopes to continue researching on the effectiveness of these grates this winter. See more about his work in Iowa Now.

Iowa school districts receive EPA grant to improve buses

Nick Fetty | December 16, 2015

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Monday that two Iowa school districts will receive $60,000 to retrofit or replace school buses with more fuel efficient models.

The IKM-Manning Community School District in Manning, Iowa will receive $40,000 for two buses while the Sioux City Community School District will receive $20,000 for one bus. This funding is part of a $7 million nationwide project to replace and retrofit 400 inefficient dispersal school buses through EPA’s Diesel Emissions Reduction Act (DERA) funding.

“Schools and other organizations that install clean diesel technology are doing more than just saving money – they’re creating cleaner, healthier air for children and all community residents,” said Christopher Grundler, director of EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality. “This program continues to help thousands of children breathe easier and lead safer lives year after year.”

The new and retrofitted buses are expected to reduce nitrous oxide and particulate matter emissions which can contribute to health complications such as asthma and lung damage. DERA has provided funding for more than 650 clean diesel projects across the country which has led to emissions reductions in more than 60,000 engines since 2008.

In 2012, seven Iowa school districts received more than $280,000 to improve fuel efficiency as part of a joint project between EPA and the Department of Natural Resources.

School buses travel approximately four billion miles each year and provide transportation for more than 25 million American school children each day, according to EPA data.

US lags behind EU in regulating lethal solvent

A barrel once containing methylene chloride now serves as the base for a street light in Hong Kong. (Georgia/Flickr)
A barrel once containing methylene chloride now serves as the base for a street light in Hong Kong. (Georgia/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | September 30, 2015

A recent investigative story by the Center for Public Integrity analyzes a lethal solvent found in various industrial products and how the United States has been slow to take regulatory measures to ban the chemical.

The article points out that accidental exposure to methylene chloride has led to at least 56 deaths since 1980. Methylene chloride is common in products such as paint strippers, degreasers, and carpet cleaners. Fatal exposures to the chemical date back to the 1940s. Around that same time researchers at Iowa State University were studying methylene chloride as a way to extract oil from soybeans.

Roughly three decades later, two medical researchers at the University of Wisconsin wrote a report outlining the dangers of the chemical and the criticizing various agencies for not taking action against it. The authors wrote: “The legal responsibility for protecting the public currently rests with the Consumer Product Safety Commission. It has remained mute, as did the governmental agency originally responsible, the Environmental Protection Agency, when in 1971 the CH2C12 hazard was formally called to its attention.”

The article also points out industry leaders have lobbied against regulations on the chemical and have advocated for its industrial effectiveness.

Faye Graul, executive director of the Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance, a trade group that includes methylene chloride manufacturers, said the way to stop the string of deaths is simple: “Proper use of the product.” Labels on the cans warn against using in areas that aren’t well ventilated.

Among those fatalities included in the Center for Public Integrity’s analysis is Traci Sheibal who in 2012 died using the solvent to clean a bathtub while working in Council Bluffs.

Study: Farming major contributor to air pollution deaths

China has the most air pollution fatalities worldwide at 1.4 million. (Chris Aston/Flickr)
China has the most air pollution-related fatalities worldwide at 1.4 million. (Chris Aston/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | September 16, 2015

A recent study finds that farming is a major contributor to air pollution-related deaths in industrialized countries.

The study, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, was a collaboration among scientists from Germany, Cyprus, Saudi Arabia, and the University of Harvard. The researchers used health statistics and computer modeling to analyze the main causes of air pollution. Of the 54,905 deaths caused by soot and smog in the United States in 2010, 16,929 were attributed to power plant pollution followed by farming with 16,221.

Worldwide there were 3.3 million deaths caused by air pollution with 1.4 million in China alone. India was next with 645,000 followed by Pakistan with 110,000. The United States ranked seventh.

Farming attributed to 664,100 of the deaths worldwide, second to over 1 million fatalities caused by pollution from wood and biofuels used for cooking and heating in developing nations. The study predicts that at its current rate, air pollution will contribute to nearly 6.6 million deaths worldwide by 2050.

The DNR provides current about current air quality conditions for Iowa and the rest of the country.

Midwest researchers come together for research project

Doug Schnoebelen, left, explains early 20th century mussel production along the Mississippi River during the CZO-IML conference on July 29, 2015. (Photo by Nick Fetty)
Doug Schnoebelen explains early 20th century mussel production along the Mississippi River during the CZO-IML conference on July 29, 2015. From left, Schnoebelen, Praveen Kumar, Thanos Papanicolaou, and Chris Wilson. (Photo by Nick Fetty)

Nick Fetty | July 30, 2015

Roughly 30 students, professors, and researchers from six different institutions met in Muscatine this week to discuss a collaborative research effort to improve land, water, and air quality in the Midwest.

This Midwestern project is part of a nation-wide project known as the Critical Zone Observatory (CZO) an effort by the National Science Foundation to “[study] the zone where rock meets life.” The Midwestern project is called the CZO-IML (Intensely Managed Landscapes) and focuses on watersheds and lands in Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota.

The Lucille A. Carver Mississippi Riverside Environmental Research Station (LACMRERS) in Muscatine hosted the IML-CZO conference which began Tuesday and ends today. This marked the second annual meeting for what will be a five year project.

“The first year was a lot of planning and field campaigns. The second year we’ve collected some data will be able to get that back to look at the results. We finally have some things to discuss, some real science,” said LACMRERS Director Doug Schnoebelen.

Schnoebelen, who also serves as a contributor for the IML-CZO project as well as a member of CGRER, said he hopes this research will be helpful not just for farmers and watershed managers but also for the general public.

“We’re hoping to look at an integrated approach and that’s what the Critical Zone is, being able to say something about water movement, soil conservation, transformation of carbon and energy in the environment. All of these things are really critical to the soil, the water, and the way we live.”

The conference brought together researchers from Indiana University, Northwestern University, Purdue University, University of Illinois, University of Iowa, and University of Tennessee. Schnoebelen said this emphasis on collaboration over competition has been key to the success of the project. He added that he is also grateful the CZO chose to support a Midwestern research project since much of the CZO’s other research takes place on the coasts.

“I think it was important when the national team came out and they realized how managed our landscape was and how important this research really was. It’s not just flyover country in the Midwest, it’s a critical part of our economy for food and energy.”

Iowa companies fined for environmental violations

Nick Fetty | July 24, 2015

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has issued fines against roughly a dozen Iowa companies for environmental violations.

The announcement was made earlier this month and includes a $10,000 fine for air quality violations against the Mason City-based ethanol production facility Golden Grain Energy LLC. The DNR cites that the company (1) exceeded permitted emission limits and failed to properly maintain required records, (2) failed to properly maintain equipment, (3) failed to continuously operate an emissions monitoring system, and (4) failed to continuously monitor thermal oxidizer temperature. In 2012, the company was fined $5,750 for air quality violations.

Other consent orders issued by the Iowa DNR include a $5,000 fine for Farm Nutrients LLC (Kossoth County) for manure runoff into state waters, a $6,500 fine for Twilight Investments LLC (Fremont County) for manure application violations, $5,575 for Smith Ag Inc. (Mitchell County) for manure discharge violations resulting in a fish kill, $8,000 for M.G. Waldbaum Company (Hancock County) for past permit violations, and $1,000 for Porter Farms, Inc. (Jefferson County) for manure disposal.

A full list of actions taken by the Iowa DNR is available on its website.