The Amazon is on fire, again


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By Julia Shanahan | August 23rd, 2019

The Amazon rainforest is on fire. There have been over 74,000 fires in the Brazilian Amazon since January, according to a report from the Washington Post, making for an 85 percent increase in fires since last year.

Researchers at Brazil’s space center, INPE, told Reuters that there is nothing abnormal about climate or the amount of rainfall this year in the Amazon. A majority of the fires were started by farmers in the region preparing farmland for planting season, as natural fires in the Amazon are rare. There were hundreds of recorded fires set by farmers on Aug. 10 in an attempt to clear land and further development, much of which is illegal according to the Washington Post. Farmers often use the land for cattle and soybeans.

The Amazon, sometimes referred to as the Earth’s “lungs,” has an extremely role in releasing oxygen and storing carbon dioxide. The Amazon lost 1,330 square miles of forest cover during the first half of 2019, according to The New York Times. The report says that while climate change did not start these fires, a changing climate can make human-caused fires worse. Fires burn more quickly in dry conditions.

According to the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, the fires have caused a spike in carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide emissions — a serious threat to public health and to global warming.

Iowa representatives criticize EPA’s biofuel waivers


Tyler Chalfant | August 21st, 2019

On Friday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency granted waivers from federal biofuel law to 31 small oil refineries. Members of Congress from Iowa on both sides of the aisle have criticized this move for hurting the state’s renewable fuel industry. 

Under the Renewable Fuel Standard, refineries are normally required to blend biofuels like ethanol into their gasoline, or to purchase credits from those that do so. However, exemptions are available for small refineries that can prove that compliance with the rule would cause significant financial strife.

From 2013 to 2015, the EPA granted no more than eight waivers per year, but since Trump took office, the number of waivers has quadrupled. This latest round brings the total to 85 since 2016, and includes refineries owned by ExxonMobil and Chevron.

13 ethanol plants have recently shut down, three of them permanently, in part due to the loss in demand caused by these waivers. The country’s largest ethanol producer POET blamed the EPA as it was forced to close an Indiana plant on Tuesday.

Senator Chuck Grassley accused the government of not keeping its word and “screwing the farmer when we already have low prices for grain.” Iowa is the leading producer of corn and ethanol production in the U.S., and the industry supports nearly 43,000 jobs in the state.

UI researchers recommend improvements to private well testing program


Tyler Chalfant | August 20th, 2019

The University of Iowa Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination (CHEEC) released a report Monday outlining ways in which Iowa’s program to protect drinking water from private wells can be improved. According to the report, the state’s Grants to Counties program has been severely underutilized, with between 29-55% of the funds awarded to participating counties remaining unspent.

The program was created in 1987 as a part of the Groundwater Protection Act to provide funding for testing private wells for contamination, as well as reconstruction of private wells and plugging of abandoned wells. The US Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate private wells or recommend standards for individual wells, though it recommends testing wells annually for total coliform bacteria, nitrates, total dissolved solids, and pH levels. Nearly 300,000 Iowans rely on private wells as their primary source of drinking water.

CHEEC’s report, published in partnership with the UI Public Policy Center, recommends improving the Grants to Counties program by expanding the contaminants tested for, to include substances such as pesticides, manganese, lead, and copper. It also suggests prioritizing the most vulnerable wells and the counties with the greatest need, which have the greatest number of private wells and least access to Rural Water, and are already those that are most likely to better utilize the funding. Funding could also be used to assist with remedial actions, increase marketing for the program, and close gaps in the inventory to more accurately estimate the number of private wells in the state. 

On The Radio- Drinking water and your health


 

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Kasey Dresser| August 19, 2019

This weeks segment looks at how nitrate pollution in drinking water can affect pubic health. 

Transcript:

The Environmental Working Group released a study that links nitrate consumption through water to an increased risk for cancer.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

In Iowa, nitrate pollution in drinking water remains an everyday threat. The current federal limit for nitrates in drinking water is 10 milligrams per liter, but according to the study, adverse health risks can be caused by a nitrate amount just one-tenth under that federal limit. The Environmental Working Group recommends a nitrate limit of 0.14 milligrams per liter in order for there to be no health risks.

The risks for bladder and ovarian cancers are increased for postmenopausal women. According to the study, nitrate pollution potentially caused over 12,000 cases of cancer in the U.S. – or 300 cases annually – totaling $1.5 billion a year in medical costs.   

The high volume of nitrates in water can be attributed to Iowa’s farm runoff that contains fertilizer and manure. In 2018, IIHR research engineer Chris Jones released a study that said the Des Moines River, Cedar River, and Iowa River combined produced a nitrate equivalent of 56 million people.   

There are currently no state or federal regulations for farmers in terms of controlling agricultural run off. Some political leaders and farm groups support the voluntary Nutrient Reduction Strategy of 2013, which aims to eliminate 45 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus that contribute to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

For more information, visit Iowa Environmental Focus dot org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E Mason.

FDA did not find contamination in Yuma romaine lettuce, PMA calls for investigation into environmental causes


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By Julia Shanahan | August 16th, 2019

The Food and Drug Administration announced this week that it did not find any contamination in romaine lettuce from the Yuma, Arizona, area. Five sometimes deadly outbreaks have been tied to Yuma since 2012, the FDA said this week.

The FDA tested 118 lettuce samples for shiga toxin-producing E.coli and salmonella. One test came back positive for STEC, but the agency determined it was not pathogenic. According to a report from Politico, the Produce Marketing Association said it’s not taking the results as a sign that everything is fine.

Bob Whitaker, Chief Science and Technology Officer at PMA, said, according to Politico, that due to the limited scope of the sampling, the FDA should not be encouraged to slow down investigations into food-borne pathogenic outbreaks. He added that the industry needs to dig into the role of the changing environment on food and contamination, according to the report.

The World Health Organization reported in 2018 that climate change is likely to have a big impact on food contamination, putting public health at risk. With increasing rainfall, temperatures, and extreme weather, bacteria, parasites, and harmful algae will persist, along with their patterns of corresponding food-borne diseases. Chemical residues of pesticides will be affected by the changes in pest pressure, and the risk of food contamination from organic pollutants and metals in crop soil will be affected as well.

The WHO study also said the risk for food contamination will not be even across the board. While some countries will see an increase in food production, other countries, particularly those that are lesser developed, will see negative impacts from climate change on food security. Climate sensitive illnesses will be one of the largest contributors to global food-related diseases and mortality, WHO reported.

It is currently unknown if climate change had any significant impact on contamination tied to the Yuma region.

Microplastics found in Arctic snow


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By Julia Shanahan | August 15th, 2019

Pieces of microplastic were found in arctic snow just weeks after World Meteorological Organization and Copernicus Climate Change program announced July 2019 was the hottest month ever recorded, period.

Microplastics are falling from the sky via atmospheric transfer and are landing in remote places in the Arctic in substantial amounts, according to a study from Science Advances published on August 14. Scientists studied ice floes in Fram Strait, an unpopulated expanse of ocean near Greenland, and compared it to populated European sites. The study showed that the populated areas had a higher concentration of microplastics, but that the amount in remote areas was still high.

According to a report from National Geographic, scientists from Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research and the Swiss Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research said the amount of microplastics in the atmosphere could potentially pose a risk to public health.  Temperature fluctuation among other things can cause plastics to break down into smaller fragments, which then produces the microplastics.

These institutes have been studying microplastics in the Arctic region since 2002 and have noticed drastic increases over the years. In the Arctic water column they found 6,000 microplastic particles in every 2.2 pounds of mud. In every 34 ounces of melted sea ice, they found 12,000 particles.

The report from Science Advances projects annual waste production to reach 3.4 billion MT in the next 30 years. Additionally, mismanaged plastic waste could reach 265 million MT by 2060. The report also highlights the fact that microplastics are ubiquitous in almost all ecosystems – freshwater, urban areas, terrestrial areas – because plastic is designed to be durable.

Climate change threatens food production


Tyler Chalfant | August 14th, 2019

A report released Thursday by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that climate change will make crops scarcer and less nutritious. Even as the global population rises, the number of people without enough to eat has been shrinking in recent decades, but rising temperatures, increased flooding, and more extreme weather patterns could reverse that progress.

Staple crops like wheat have been found to offer less protein, iron, and other important nutrients when grown at high carbon dioxide levels. A study earlier this year found that the world is already losing 35 trillion calories from crops each year. That amounts to about 1% of all food calories, or enough to feed 50 million people. 

The effects of climate change vary by region, however, with the greatest loss of food production happening in Europe, Southern Africa, South Asia, and Australia. While Illinois has seen an 8% production in corn yield, Iowa has actually seen gains in production due to climate change, according to Deepak Ray, a senior scientist with the University of Minnesota. 


A part of the problem is that food production contributes to the very process that is harming it. Depending on the accounting method, the industry contributes somewhere between a quarter and a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. That footprint can be reduced by farming in ways that are better for the land, including limiting the use of fertilizers and planting crops that add carbon to the soil, rather than releasing it into the atmosphere.