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.

Iowa utility agrees to phase out several coal plants, pay fine

Smokestacks from a coal plant near Council Bluffs, Iowa. (Rich/Flickr)
Smokestacks from a coal plant near Council Bluffs, Iowa. (Rich/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | July 16, 2015

An Iowa utility company plans to phase out several of its coal-fired power plants in the near future.

Interstate Power and Light Co. – a subsidiary of Alliant Energy – announced on Wednesday that it will either close or convert to natural gas five of its coal plants while an additional two plants will be equipped with pollution control technology. The cost for these projects is estimated at $620 million. Wednesday’s announcement marks the 200th closure of a coal plant nationwide over the last five years.

The Sierra Club, the state of Iowa, and other local and federal agencies sued Interstate Power and Light alleging the company was in violation of the Clean Air Act. In addition to the closures and upgrades to its facilities, Interstate Power and Light has also agreed to a pay a $1.1 million civil penalty within 30 days of the settlement. The company will also spend an additional $6 million on other environmental projects including the development of solar facilities, the replacement of traditional utility bucket trucks with hybrid trucks, and the development or expansion of anaerobic digesters.

“For several years, we have been executing a plan to create cleaner and more efficient ways to generate energy for our customers,” Alliant Energy Iowa utility President Doug Kopp said in a press release. “Iowans are already seeing the benefits of our work, and our next projects will deliver even more clean-energy solutions.”

Emission reduction projects will take place on two of the company’s largest facilities in Lansing and Ottumwa while smaller power stations in Burlington and Cedar Rapids will convert to natural gas. Alliant generating stations in Clinton, Dubuque, and Marshalltown have already transitioned to natural gas.

Eastern Iowa gets its first Tesla station

A Tesla electric car being charged (Windell Oskay / Flickr)
A Tesla electric car being charged (Windell Oskay / Flickr)
KC McGinnis | July 14, 2015

Two Tesla cars got their first charge in eastern Iowa last week.

The fully electric cars were part of a ribbon cutting ceremony at a new Tesla charging station at Bass Family Farms along Highway 30 in Mt. Vernon. Tesla owners can use the charging station for free, which draws power from one of the farm’s buildings.

Bass Family Farms, a chemical-free farm, is now part of Tesla’s Destination Charging Program, which partners with businesses like hotels and restaurants to provide destinations for Tesla owners to charge. It’s part of a growing effort to increase electric car traffic in places with charging stations few and far between. A Tesla Model S can go 265 miles on a single charge, and charging can take several hours depending on the power source. Tesla’s growing Supercharger infrastructure boasts half charge times of just 30 minutes.

While road trips through Iowa can be difficult with only a few charging stations spread along the state’s highways, at-home charging is becoming an increasingly viable option. Tesla has partnered with solar energy provider SolarCity to make home solar panel installation more affordable, meaning Tesla drivers could have a zero emission commute.

Study: Fireworks contribute to air pollution, public health issues

A 2008 Fourth of July fireworks show in Des Moines. (Andy Langager/Flickr)
A 2008 Fourth of July firework show in Des Moines. (Andy Langager/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | July 3, 2015

Firework shows have long been a Fourth of July tradition but new research finds that they could be more damaging to the environment and public health than previously thought.

A recent study published in the journal Atmospheric Science found that firework shows lead to a 42 percent increase in concentrations of fine particulate matter in the air on July 4 alone. Researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) looked at data from 315 sites around the country between 1999 and 2013 and found that ten of the sites saw air quality levels that would be deemed unsafe based on Environmental Protection Agency standards. Air quality was found to be poorest between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. on Independence Day with levels generally returning to normal around noon on July 5.

“We chose the holiday, not to put a damper on celebrations of America’s independence, but because it is the best way to do a nationwide study of the effects of fireworks on air quality,” said Dian Seidel, a senior scientist at NOAA’s Air Resources Laboratory in College Park, Maryland. “These results will help improve air quality predictions, which currently don’t account for fireworks as a source of air pollution. The study is also another wake up call for those who may be particularly sensitive to the effects of fine particulate matter.”

Data from EPA shows that high levels of fine particulate matter can cause health issues ranging from heart attacks to respiratory problems.

Check out this interactive map to look at real-time air quality data in your area.