Roadside prairie: little strips of sustainability


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Native prairie plants are hardy and beautiful (flickr).

Julia Poska | January 17, 2019

Over the past 200 years, Iowa’s once ubiquitous prairies have been almost totally edged out by farmland and urbanization. Only a fraction of one percent of what used to be remains. It is unlikely that Iowa’s prairies will ever be restored to their full former glory, but some counties are regenerating slivers of native prairie along county roadsides.

The practice, called Integrated Roadside Vegetation Management, cannot reestablish the value of Iowa’s lost prairies, but it does help humans and nature coexist little more sustainably. The strips of prairie:

  • Create habitat for species like pollinators, birds and small mammals
  • Trap pollutants and sediments that would otherwise contaminate water and soil, like motor oil and road salt, while remaining tough enough to withstand harm
  • Promote soil health and reduce flooding by incorporating air and organic matter into the soil structure
  • Give drivers a glimpse at the state’s historic beauty

Counties aim to manage these areas sustainably with minimal use of pesticides, strategically timed mowing and burning. These efforts are funded through the Living Roadway Trust Fund and supported by the University of Northern Iowa Tallgrass Prairie Center. Over 100,000 acres have been planted since the start of the program in 2009.

To learn more about what this program has accomplished and see some pretty flowers, check out this online presentation from the Tallgrass Prairie Center.

 

 

It’s ‘Radon Action Month’ in Iowa (for very good reason)


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The entire state of Iowa is at risk for high levels of radon (Wikimedia Commons).

Julia Poska | January 17, 2019

This week, Gov. Kim Reynolds designated January as “Radon Action Month” for the state of Iowa. Various areas across the country share that designation. Reynolds and the Iowa Department of Public Health encourage people to test their homes for radon and take steps towards resolving the issue if a problem is discovered.

Radon is a colorless, odorless radioactive gas that forms when naturally occurring uranium in soil and rocks decays. It often leaks from soil into homes via water, cracks in foundations and walls, or poorly sealed windows. Long-term exposure to elevated levels of radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers in the U.S.

Iowa has high levels of radon across the board. Every county is listed as EPA Radon Zone 1, meaning over 50 percent of tested households had radon levels above the EPA’s 4 pCi/L (picocuries per liter) threshold for recommended testing. In 2014, testing in some Iowa counties indicated average levels above 10 ppi. The U.S. average is 1.3 pC/I, according to the Iowa Radon Homebuyers and Sellers Fact Sheet.

If a homeowner determines that radon in their home is above 4 pCi/L, public health agencies recommend mitigating the issue. First, call Iowa’s Radon Hotline (1-800-383-5992) for information and guidance. Then contact a registered radon mitigation contractor to determine how to best solve the issue in your home and implement strategies like suction, sealants and pressurization.  According to the Kansas State University National Radon Program Services, such a system typically costs about $800 to $1500 dollars.

RESOURCES

Testing kits can be purchased cheaply your local county health department, at the Iowa Radon Hotline (1-800-383-5992), or online (ratings here).

Information about mitigating a radon issue can be found here.

The Iowa Department of Public Health’s official list of registered radon mitigation specialists can be found here.

Learn about radon data for your locality here.
*** Keep in mind that these data are based on averages from a small sample of homes    in the area, and may not be a useful indicator for radon exposure risk in your home.

More information on radon

The potential hazard of salting roads in winter


Cloesup of road salt with gravel and sand used in icy conditions in winter.
Road salt is essential for winter safety, but it has its detriments. (/stock)

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | January 16th, 2019

Salting roads and sidewalks in winter is absolutely essential to reducing ice and sleet in the winter after streets have been paved. But road salt may have a negative impact on the environment overall.

Road salt is just that–salt, made of sodium chloride. Ferrocyanide, an anti-caking agent, and traces of iron and phosphorus exist in road salt as well. Salt melts and runs off into storm drains, making its way into drinking water; the chloride, specifically, is the biggest offender.

It only takes a teaspoon of salt to contaminate up to five gallons of water.

Salt can also damage soil and affect its ability to retain water. It can hurt plants and make pets and aquatic life ill. Salt is potentially fatal to birds that ingest it as well.

While road salt has a laundry list of environmental offenses, it’s still an imperative part of winter safety. Using less salt generally yields the same ice-melting effects; generally speaking, a coffee cup’s worth of road salt should be enough for a standard driveway.

 

New air quality rules for the EU


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Though air pollution overall is decreasing, it still poses a great threat globally (/stock)

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | January 15th, 2019

The European Union has recently released a new set of guidelines that aim to reduce air pollution. The goal, overall, is to improve air quality globally until it reaches the standards set by the World Health Organization. According to WHO, over 80% of the world’s urban population live with air quality that falls miserably short of these clean air standards.

Beginning in 2022, farmers’ use of fertilizer will be restricted, and certain types of stoves and vehicles will be more heavily regulated. The move comes during a wave of new studies emphasizing the dangers of air pollution; it’s been linked to dementia, early miscarriage, and heart conditions. An estimated 7 million people globally die of pollution-related causes every year.

Despite these new and stricter regulations, the UK may be exempt from the EU’s air pollution guidelines after Brexit. Many UK citizens are concerned with air pollution, however, as it is the fourth largest threat to public health. If the EU guidelines end up un-enforceable, citizens of the UK will have to press their representatives for different rules.

On The Radio- The impacts of climate change on the Midwest


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A midwest sunset (Sue Varga/flickr)

Kasey Dresser| January 14, 2019

This weeks segment looks at the affects of climate change on the Midwest covered in the Fourth National Climate Assessment. 

Transcript: 

Increased heat and rain will strike Midwest agriculture from multiple directions. 

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus. 

The Fourth National Climate Assessment, released in November, details the impacts of climate change for the Midwest. Productivity in the agriculture sector is a top concern.

The Midwest has long sustained an ideal climate for growing crops, but projections forecast rising temperatures and more intense rainfall in the region, far from optimal for the healthy growth of corn and soy.  

Warmer winters will also encourage survival of pests season to season, and rising temperature and humidity in spring may increase disease outbreaks in crops. 

More intense rainfall will also increase soil runoff, already a major issue in the region. When soil washes off of fields and into waterways, there are fewer nutrients for plants in the field and more in the water, which can fuel harmful algae blooms. 

Scientists project a 5 to 25 percent drop in corn productivity throughout the Midwest by mid-century. Soy yields may fall about 25 percent in the southern Midwest, but could increase in northern states. 

For more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

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

Report details health effects of exposure to common road material slag


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Slag is used to cheaply supplement gravel on roads like this one (flickr). 

Julia Poska | January 11, 2019

A report from the Iowa Department of Public Health has stirred up concern in Muscatine County and around the state this week over the health effects of steel slag, a cheap waste product from steel manufacturing that’s used to supplement gravel on rural roads.

Muscatine County has used slag in county roads for over 5 years, and many private homes and businesses use the material as well. Residents have complained to the county about bits of metal in the roads and health concerns about slag dust for years, but this report was the first official indication of risk. It found that children up to 18 years old are exposed to potentially dangerous levels of metals like manganese when playing near slag-supplemented roads.

The Muscatine County Board of Supervisors will vote Monday on whether to stop using slag in county roads, and will likely formulate a plan to remove existing slag. A local slag opposition group will collect samples from households before then to determine current levels of dangerous metals.

Many people are upset that the state and county allowed slag to be used in roads to begin with, and are unhappy with Muscatine County’s initial response to the report.

“I suppose that all county boards and city councils have problems, but our county leaders just seem to care about making themselves look good and it makes all the people who they represent look like idiots,” one Muscatine woman write in a letter to the Des Moines Register, who wrote about the issue in depth earlier this week.

The news has alarmed people in other Iowa counties as well. Engineers in Marion, Warren, Winnebago and other counties have since conducted tests for dangerous slag on their own roads.

 

From humid air to clean water: new innovation in sustainability


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Cacti inspired a recent study on water condensation, with potential implications for water-stressed areas around the world (flickr).

Julia Poska | January 10, 2019

Ohio State University researchers believe clean drinking water can be harnessed from nighttime air, when water is more prone to condensing. They have been developing methods for capture with the aid of some unusual experts: desert lifeforms.

The pointy tips and sharp spines on cacti collect water from nighttime fog and funnel it town to the plants roots. Desert grasses do the same with pointed blades.  Beetles collect water on their backs, which feature water-repellant and water-attracting spots that push the water towards the bugs’ mouths. These features help the plants and insects survive in harsh, low-water conditions.

The researchers, led by Bharat Bhushan, professor of mechanical engineering at Ohio State, have been experimenting with materials, shapes and textures using 3D printed models in foggy enclosures. They have already determined that conical shapes and grooved textures are efficient water collection methods and hope to test prototypes in deserts outside the lab as they continue to develop designs. They published their findings so far in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in late December.

The final products of their work could have implications for water-scarce areas, where strife over clean water will only worsen with climate change. Water captured by such devices could supplement the drinking water supplies of private homes or whole communities.

“Water supply is a critically important issue, especially for people of the most arid parts of the world,” Bhushan said in a Science Daily report. “By using bio-inspired technologies, we can help address the challenge of providing clean water to people around the globe, in as efficient a way as possible.”