Tulane researchers studying mockingbird songs to gauge effects of lead pollution


 

A mockingbird perched on a branch in Mexico. (Dennis Jarvis/Flickr)
A mockingbird perched on a branch in Mexico. (Dennis Jarvis/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | January 20, 2015

Researchers at Tulane University in New Orleans are studying songs sung by mockingbirds to determine the effects of lead levels in the environment.

Dr. Renata Ribeiro – an adjunct professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology – has been studying the Northern Mockingbird. As the name implies, these birds often imitate the songs sang by other birds as well as car alarms, emergency sirens, and other sounds. The singing ability of male mockingbirds is crucial to finding a mate.

Ribeiro and other researchers are studying how the Northern Mockingbird and its songs are affected by lead pollution which contaminates much of the soil in The Big Easy. A 2011 study by Tulane University found that nearly two-thirds of New Orleans homes and yards contain “dangerous” levels of lead. Researchers attributed the high levels of lead to the demolition and renovation of houses after Hurricane Katrina as well as the large number of homes constructed before lead was banned from house paint in 1978. The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality has also reported air quality concerns in the state’s biggest city. Exposure to unsafe levels of lead and other environmental pollution has been tied to learning disabilities in children as well as neurological damage in animals.

Ribeiro’s efforts are part of a one-year study sponsored by the Morris Animal Foundation. She and her team will return to the field next month as the birds become more active again in preparation for mating season.

On the Radio: Iowa ahead of new smog standards


The Des Moines skyline at dusk (Jason Mrachina / Flickr)
The Des Moines skyline at dusk (Jason Mrachina / Flickr)

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at early assessments of Iowa’s ozone emissions, which suggest that the state is one step ahead of upcoming new emission standards. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

Transcript: Ozone standards

Iowa is one step ahead of new national ozone emission standards.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

In November, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a draft proposal to drastically reduce ozone emissions from power plants and other sources by 2025. All 99 of Iowa’s counties are set to meet the new standards, according to data collected by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

The EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee earlier this year recommended ozone levels be reduced to between 65 and 70 parts per billion, down from the current practice of 75 parts per billion.

Iowa already meets the EPA standards, with monitoring stations showing average ozone levels between 61 and 69 parts per billion. The Iowa DNR supplies data to the EPA’s Air Quality Index, which provides air quality conditions in real time.

For a link to the Air Quality Index, visit IowaEnvironmentalFocus.org.

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

http://www.airnow.gov/index.cfm?action=airnow.local_city&mapcenter=0&cityid=271
http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/money/business/2014/11/26/epa-ozone-smog-proposal-iowa-counties/19539559/
http://www.iowadnr.gov/InsideDNR/RegulatoryAir/MonitoringAmbientAir.aspx

Iowa Environmental Focus: Best of 2014


(palo/Flickr)
(palo/Flickr)

As 2014 comes to a close, it’s time to look at some of the Iowa Environmental Focus’s most shared and talked-about blog posts of the year. These are the posts that helped spur conversation on important environmental topics in Iowa and around the world. Thanks for your support, and Happy New Year!

Climate and health experts discuss effects of climate change on Iowans – The Iowa Environmental Focus visited the 2014 Iowa Climate Science Educators Forum in October, to learn how climate change is affecting Iowa’s air quality, water quality and public health.

Large solar energy project coming to Mitchell county in northern Iowa – This project could be one of the largest in the state, with 1,200 solar panels.

Iowa Climate Statement 2014: Impacts on the Health of Iowans – The 4th annual Iowa Climate Statement was released in October, highlighting the health effects of climate change on Iowans. The blog  took photos and video of the event, which took place at the Des Moines statehouse.

University of Iowa research examines health effects of frac sand mining – A look into the research on the health effects of frac sand mining, or fracking, in Iowa.

MIT engineers discover way to create efficient solar panels using lead recycled from car batteries – The future of solar power could lie in old car batteries, according to engineers at MIT.

Grinnell College blown off course on campus wind energy project  – The Iowa Environmental Focus covered a setback at Grinnell College, where plans for a 5.1-megawatt wind farm were halted in October.

Proposed oil pipeline would run through 17 Iowa counties – An 1,100-mile oil pipeline was proposed to run from Lyon County in the northwest corner of Iowa to Lee County in the southeast.

Ottumwa meat plant is Iowa’s top waterway polluter – A report that showed, among other concerns, that one Iowa meat plant dumped three million pounds of chemicals into the Lower Des Moines River in 2012.

Iowa’s Allamakee county looks to implement nation’s strictest fracking ordinance – In June, the Allamakee County (Iowa) Board of Supervisors voted 3-0 to approve what looks to be “the most strict frac sand mining ordinance in the nation.”

Hemp advocates announce 6th Annual Hemp History Week – This event, taking place in 2015, aims to bring attention to hemp as an environmentally sustainable crop with both nutritional and medical uses.

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.