CGRER Looks Forward: Chemist Betsy Stone


Julia Poska| April 19, 2019

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Betsy Stone, contributed photo.

Betsy Stone looks at the very air she breathes every day on a microscopic level.

“Since I started my career here at the University of Iowa, I’ve been amazed at the very interesting air quality events that we’ve been able to study here locally,” the associated professor of chemistry and chemical engineering said.

Her group has researched the environmental impact of a massive tire fire at the Iowa City landfill in 2012 and the ongoing impact of biomass incineration at the University of Iowa Power Plant. Earlier this month, they embarked on a new project to study pollen fragmentation in the local atmosphere.

Listen to learn about Stone’s findings on the air quality impacts of the university’s Biomass Project. 

Stone explained that pollens are fairly large particles and tend to settle out of air quickly. If humans inhale them, they immediately get stuck in the nostrils. Rain events often wash pollen out of air, but in 2013 Stone observed an unusual phenomenon; after thunderstorms, pollens fragmented into much smaller particles and their concentration in the air greatly increased.

Other researchers had observed this phenomenon elsewhere, but never in the Midwest.

“We’re able to follow up with a very heavily instrumented field campaign that we think is going to answer a lot of the burning questions that we have about this type of event,” Stone said.

She’s hoping to learn more about the conditions for fragmentation, the species of pollens present and how they fragment. To do so, the group will use a large suite of equipment—including a meteorological station, an aerosol biosensor, particulate matter monitors and particle samplers—stationed at the university’s cross country course.

Stone said this research has implications for understanding the effects of climate change.

Stone studies air quality variation across space. Hear her speak on some key differences between rural and urban areas.

“Part of the reason this research is so important to do right now is that we’re starting to observe changes in our seasons as well as increases in the intensity of thunderstorms,” she explained.

Pollen season is starting earlier, and increased storms mean fragmentation could happen more frequently. Higher temperatures increase pollen loads, too. That’s bad news for people with allergies or asthma, especially since small fragments can travel deeper into the respiratory tract.

Particulate matter can impact the temperature, too. Atmospheric particles can scatter incoming sunlight, creating a cooling effect, but can also absorb energy like greenhouse gases do. Cloud droplets form around particulates, and the quality of the particles impacts the longevity and precipitation cycles of the clouds.

Stone’s group researches more distant phenomena as well, mainly sea spray aerosol collected at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California.

Chemical reactions in the atmosphere can create new particles. Hear Stone talk about Secondary Organic Aerosols.

Ocean bubbles release particles into the air when they burst, which contain both salt and organic matter. Stone’s lab seeks to understand what type of organic matter is present and how it chemically transforms in the sky. This too has implications for understanding climate.

“It’s really important to understand a natural source of particles like the ocean because we have a lot of uncertainty associated with aerosol loadings and composition in preindustrial times,” she said. Thus, our estimates of past climates are not especially accurate.

Understanding natural sources of particulate matter, like pollen and sea spray aerosols, helps provide a baseline to measure climate variation over time. Data on particulate matter can provide a baseline for measuring the success of emission reduction plans and other policies as well, she said.

 


***This post is part of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a blog series running every other Friday. We aim to introduce readers to some of our members working across a wide breadth of disciplines, to share what the planet’s future looks like from their perspectives and the implications of environmental research in their fields. ***

 

 

 

Celebrate Earth Day in Iowa!


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The Earth is worth celebrating! 

Julia Poska| April 18, 2019

On April 22, people around the world celebrate Earth Day, spending time cleaning, greening and appreciating the life-giving planet we too often take for granted.

Iowa, of course, will join in on the party. Read below about Earth Day events cities in Iowa will host next week, as well as some activities you can do individually to make a difference.

Des Moines: Festivities in the state capital will begin this weekend. On Friday, Des Moines Parks and Recreation will host an Earth Day Trash Bash, where registered teams will pick up trash around the city. Everyone is welcome to join in on the kick-off party and several other events hosted Friday and Saturday as part of the bash, including a Downtown Earth Day Tour through the science center, botanical garden and riverwalk. A number of other events  on Saturday and Monday include wildlife restoration, crafting and stream cleanup.

Cedar Rapids: The city’s 10th annual EcoFest will be on Saturday, April 20. The day’s events include performances, presentations, hands-on activities, tours, awards and more. Last year over 4,000 people attended!

Dubuque: The Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium will participate in a nationwide Party for the Planet event Saturday. Visitors attend presentations, meet animals and do hands-on activities to learn about environmental conservation. Participation in the celebration will be included with general admission and free for children 3 and under.

Davenport: Visit the Freight House Farmer’s Market Saturday morning for speakers, demonstrations, music and activities to learn about problems facing the planet and how you can help fight them. 

Iowa City: You can celebrate for days on end in Iowa City! On Monday, compete in Earth Day Eco Trivia at the East Side Recycling Center. Tuesday, celebrate the 100 Grannies for a Livable Future 7th anniversary. Plant trees at the Terry Trueblood Recreation Area Wednesday, and on Friday talk to UI scientists at the Sciences Library. Saturday join Parks and Rec for an Earth Day festival.

University of Iowa student organizations have been hosting Earth Month events for weeks, and still have more to come. Consider visiting the Student Garden Open House Saturday, April 27 for food and DIY Chia Pets with the UI Gardeners and attending an environmental benefit concert the following night with the UI Environmental Coalition.

If you’d like to celebrate on your own or with friends consider these activities:

  • Picking up trash in your neighborhood or at a local park
  • Planting something yummy
  • Starting a home compost pile
  • Going for a nature walk
  • Attempting to make zero-waste for one whole day
  • Cooking a plant-based meal

 

 

The good and the bad of the UN’s GEO


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Natalia Welzenbach-Marcus | April 17th, 2019

The UN recently released their Global Environmental Outlook report, and the news is a mixed bag. There are some negatives, but a few, if small, positive points.

The Global Environmental Outlook report is one of the most thorough environmental assessments, taking data from almost 200 global experts who compiled their research over the course of 18 months to bring to light a better picture of our climate.

The GEO paints something of a grim picture of our globe’s health, but it also offers up solutions and some definitive proof that reducing the use of fossil fuels greatly improves the health of different populations.

The bad news is that many of our climate issues have already reached some considerable extremes. Air pollution affects 6 to 7 million people’s lifespans, causing premature deaths, and the most common forms of agriculture are unsustainable at best and actively harmful at worst. Through these in depth reports and assessments, we get a better picture of our planet’s health and wellbeing. We also get a warning, a sign that we need to further improve our environment through the tools we’re given.

Nitrate breakdown: understanding our water pollution


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The Midwest generates significant amounts of our nation’s nitrate pollution | Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Pexels.com 

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | April 16th, 2018

As residents of the Midwest, we often talk about nitrate levels in our streams and waterways. But these discussions of nitrate pollution can be hard to picture and process without accurate data and descriptive imagery, two things that will help us break down and understand the magnitude of our nitrate pollution problem.

Nitrate is a groundwater contaminant, and it’s regulated in our drinking water. High levels can cause a host of health issues, especially in infants. The presence of nitrate in the body alters our hemoglobin–the compound in our blood that transports oxygen to our cells for cellular respiration. When altered, our hemoglobin cannot effectively carry oxygen. In adults and older adolescents, the immune system is typically able to fix this issue; infants have less developed defense mechanisms.

In the Midwest, a huge portion of nitrate pollution comes from the runoff generated by different crop fertilizers, making us one of the largest contributors to general nitrate pollution.

Data from 2018 shows us that nitrate load generated in Iowa in 2018 alone reached 626 million pounds, enough to fill about 4,800 railroad tanker cars. This isn’t even the largest yearly scope of nitrate pollution. In 2016, we generated over a billion pounds of nitrate.

These levels are measured and cataloged by IIHR (the Iowa Institute of Hydraulic research–Hydroscience & Engineering). Many universities and research facilities are dedicated to bringing down our nitrate levels through different methods–for now, however, monitoring and understanding how much nitrate we truly produce will help us clean up our waterways.

Iowa passes new bill on advanced plastic recycling


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Pyrolysis technology can recycle the bottles inside these bags AND the bags (flickr).

Julia Poska| April 12, 2019

The Iowa Legislature and Governor Reynolds passed a bill this week in support of chemical recycling facilities for plastic in the state.

The bill defines gasification and pyrolysis, two chemical recycling methods, as processes that convert waste plastics into raw materials like crude oil, gasoline and other chemicals by heating and melting them in oxygen-deficient environments then processing them accordingly.  Those materials can be used to make new plastic products or as “feedstock” to fuel industrial processes. Plants conducting these activities in Iowa will be regulated more like manufacturing plants than solid waste disposal facilities, according to the trade publication Plastics Recycling Update.

There are obvious benefits to recycling plastics. Transforming plastic waste into useful materials will keep it out of landfills, rivers and oceans. A National Geographic story on plastic recycling said that pyrolysis plants can handle filmy plastic bags, which most traditional recycling plants cannot. Recycling also reduces the amount of new material that must be manufactured to meet demands.

Recycling Today reported that five advanced recycling facilities could generate $309 million annually by converting 25 percent of Iowa’s plastic waste into industrial feedstocks or transportation fuel. According to National Geographic, however, it is still cheaper to make diesel from fossil fuel than plastic. The article said pyrolysis startups have closed in the past because they haven’t been able to make money or meet pollution control limits.

Burning plastics releases carbon and toxins into the atmosphere, albeit at fairly low rates  according to industry experts. Michigan State University Extension says gasoline and diesel produced from plastic appear to contain more energy and less carbon that traditional fossil fuels, too.

Plastics Recycling Update said the Iowa Recycling Association had been opposed to the bill but did not say why. This post will be updated if and when the Iowa Environmental Focus is able to learn more.

Environmental groups suing for Raccoon River water quality


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The Raccoon River in Des Moines (Michael Leland on flickr).

Julia Poska| April 11, 2019

Two environmental groups filed a lawsuit against Iowa late last month over degraded water in the Raccoon River, a drinking water source for 500,000 people.

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Food & Water Watch are suing the Iowa Departments of Natural Resources and Agriculture and  two state environmental boards, according to the Des Moines Register. They are seeking a ban on building or expanding animal feeding operations in the Raccoon River watershed until nutrient reduction compliance for farmers becomes mandatory.

“There’s too much at stake to bet on voluntary practices,” the plaintiffs wrote in an op-ed for the Register. “We want to force elected officials to think about a food and farm system that works for farmers, workers, eaters and the environment, not just industrial interests.”

Runoff of fertilizer and manure from farms contributes to harmful algae blooms, which  leech toxins into local waters and create a lifeless Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico.  The environmental groups say the state has failed to uphold the “Public Trust Doctrine,”  which states that the government must protect certain natural resources for public uses, like drinking and recreation. As of now, tried-and-true nutrient reduction strategies like planting cover crops are incentivized but not mandated for farmers.

Others, like the Iowa Soybean Association CEO and the Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig, told the Register the “potentially divisive” lawsuit disappointed them. For many, this case recalls the 2015 Des Moines Waterworks lawsuit against drainage districts in three north Iowa counties, which attempted to force compliance with federal clean-water standards for “point-source” polluters but was ultimately dismissed.

 

Floodwater and contamination


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Photo by Tom Fisk on Pexels.com | The Mississippi is an especially large source of possible floodwater contamination

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | April 10th, 2019

Most floodwater is unsanitary at best and infested with dangerous bacteria at worst, experts find, and recent storms in Davenport have brought to light the issues with rising water levels and contamination.

River water is a typical site for sewage and stormwater runoff. It’s also a source of energy, transport, and water for commercial and residential use; the Mississippi alone provides drinking water for some 18 million people.

But flooding disrupts the water purification process and pushes much of the contaminated water out, especially when storm drains become compromised. Spring typically brings heavy rain and an increase in water levels, but concentrated snowfall and changing weather patterns have caused the Mississippi to spill over in several cities. In Davenport, citizens know not to wander in the water: floodwater around the Modern Woodman park baseball stadium tested positive for E. Coli.

Most bacteria found in floodwater causes gastrointestinal issues, and staying safe from these contaminants is one of the recommended ways to deal with flooding, according to OSHA. Infection and sickness are just some of the risks following any natural disaster that causes floods, and staying out of the water is the best way to stay safe.