Around 1 in 3 Children Globally Have Blood Lead Levels Above CDC Action Levels


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Thomas Robinson | August 4th, 2020

Around 800 million children globally have blood lead levels at or above 5 micrograms per decilitre according to a new report from UNICEF. 

UNICEF reports that children around the world are exposed to lead on a previously unknown scale. Most of the affected children live in parts of Africa and Asia but there are also affected populations living in Central and South America, as well as parts of Europe.  Children are exposed to lead through the inhalation or ingestion of lead particles from contaminated drinking water or materials such as lead paint.  One particularly concerning route of exposure is from poorly recycled lead-acid batteries.  These batteries are becoming increasingly common as countries begin to develop and introduce vehicles.

Lead is known to have cumulative and adverse health effects on children’s development.  Lead impairs brain functions and can also cause damage to the nervous system and the heart.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describe an actionable level of 5 micrograms per decilitre to identify children with blood levels higher than most.  Unfortunately, no amount of lead is safe as even low blood lead levels have been linked to long term cognitive impairment.    

The United States is not immune from lead contamination in drinking water as can be seen through high profile events such as Flint, MI or Washington, DC.  Recent work in Iowa is looking to determine the extent of lead in local school’s drinking water which can be used to inform schools if they need to replace failing infrastructure.

US Reaches Ten Billion-Dollar Disaster Mark Earlier Than Any Year Prior


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Thomas Robinson | July 28th, 2020

As of July 8th, the US has already experienced ten weather and climate disasters where the losses exceed one billion dollars.

Billion-dollar disasters are weather or climate events that result in losses reaching, or exceeding, one billion dollars in damage costs.  In a concerning trend, the past five consecutive years have all had ten or more billion-dollar events averaging almost fourteen severe events per year.  There have been ten billion-dollar disasters so far in 2020 occurring earlier than any other year prior.   

Climate projections suggest that severe storms will increase in both frequency and intensity supporting the need for increased disaster relief funding to address the prevalence of expensive disaster clean-up.  Surprisingly, the storms responsible for almost half of the billion-dollar disasters since 1980 have been severe thunderstorms rather than hurricanes or floods.

Iowa has recently been involved in the billion-dollar disaster figure with the 2019 Missouri river floods which caused around $1.6 billion in damages.  As weather patterns become more severe, the likelihood storms reach the billion-dollar mark will increase making events like the 2019 floods more common events for Iowans.

Widespread Dicamba Injury Observed Across Iowa in 2020


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Thomas Robinson | July 21st, 2020

An Iowa State University scientist says that 2020’s crop injury from dicamba exposure has been the most widespread since the pesticide’s introduction in the 1960s.

A recent blog post by Iowa State University professor Bob Hartzler describes the likely reasons behind the unusually high amounts of dicamba damage seen in 2020.  Agronomists across Iowa have observed extensive dicamba damage to non-resistant soybeans which can compromise the crop entirely. Dicamba is a commonly applied pesticide that is increasingly used to address weeds that have become resistant to other groups of pesticides.  Unfortunately, dicamba is volatile and can form drifting clouds which can result in damage to nearby crops like soybeans which are sensitive to the pesticide.

The first factor which led to high dicamba damage is that the 9th  U.S. circuit court of appeals ruled the EPA had understated the risks of dicamba application to crops creating uncertainty for the future use of dicamba products.  The second factor was that poor environmental conditions for dicamba application were prevalent during June when the pesticide needed to be applied.  High wind speeds and heat can allow the pesticide to volatilize and early June had limited times when conditions were right. These two factors likely led to dicamba applications in non-ideal conditions that resulted in extensive volatilization and damage to crops.

Crop injury from dicamba has been found in many areas of the Midwest where the pesticide is applied and concerns about the pesticide’s safety have been growing in recent years.  Crop damage can result in agricultural losses for farmers and disputes over the pesticide have even escalated to murder.

Des Moines Registers Worst Air Quality In The Country After July 4th


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Thomas Robinson | July 14th, 2020

After July 4th celebrations earlier this month Des Moines had the worst air quality in the country measured at an Air Quality Index (AQI) of 588.

Fireworks shot off overnight on July 4th triggered an air quality advisory from July 5th into the morning of July 6th.  The highest reading occurred early in the morning on the 5th with conditions returning to safer levels later on that day.  The poor air conditions were caused by a high pressure weather system with slow moving air that prevented the movement, and dissipation, of pollutants away from Des Moines.

The AQI is a national metric used to describe air quality through reporting on common air pollutants listed in the Clean Air Act.  There are six AQI levels which range from good (0-50) to hazardous (301 and above).   Local air quality can be found using AirNow, which supplies the AQI and also which pollutant is primarily responsible for any poor air quality.

When the AQI is as high as it was in Des Moines (588) pollution in the air poses a noticeable risk to human health.  Symptoms of poor air quality can include irritation of eyes or nose, shortness of breath and coughing.  When poor air quality conditions like in Des Moines persist outside activity should be avoided to limit inhalation exposure to pollution.

Dakota Access Pipeline Is Ordered To Shutdown Pending Environmental Impact Statement


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Thomas Robinson | July 7th, 2020

The Dakota Access Pipeline has been ordered to shutdown for additional environmental review after a Washington D.C. court ruling on Monday.

After more than three years post completion, a judge has ordered the Dakota Access Pipeline be emptied within 30 days to allow for further environmental review.  The judge argued that the U.S. Corps of Engineers had failed to satisfy the provisions required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) before granting an easement required for the pipeline’s construction. 

NEPA is a broad environmental law that requires environmental consideration in project planning as well as community input for federal projects.  The Trump administration has been attempting to enact changes to NEPA which would narrow the scope of the law to better assist business interests. 

The Dakota Access Pipeline crosses diagonally across Iowa and was recently approved to double the amount of oil that flows through the pipeline in Iowa.  Oil pipelines in Iowa have had issues previously, such as the spill that occurred in Worth County back in 2017. That spill is just one of 28 spills that occurred between 2000 and 2017 on pipelines owned by Magellan Midstream Partners in Iowa.

New Flood Risk Assessment Suggests Higher Risks Than Previously Thought


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Thomas Robinson | June 30, 2020

A new report from the First Street Foundation shows that flooding risk across the country is likely under represented.

New calculations reported in “The First National Flood Risk Assessment” suggest that almost twice the number of properties have a heightened flood risk compared to the FEMA Special Flood Hazard Area (SFHA) 1 in 100 layer.  The SFHA identifies properties with a heightened flood risk and influences decisions made for flood insurance and housing mortgages. FEMA identifies around 8.7 million properties to be at risk from a 100 year flood while the new risk assessment estimates 14.6 million properties to be at risk. 

To estimate the 14.6 million properties, the new report included small creeks that were ignored on federal maps, rainfall and sea-level rise.  The risk assessment includes areas where flood mapping is either incomplete or out of date which contributes to the increase in the number of at risk properties. 

For Iowa, the report suggested an additional 141,300 properties were at risk in the state compared with the SFHA measure.  The report identified Council Bluffs as the city with the most properties at risk (11,000 properties), followed closely by Des Moines (9,000 properties).

Arctic Circle Experiences Record Setting Temperatures Over the Weekend


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Thomas Robinson | June 23, 2020

The Arctic Circle likely experienced a record setting temperature of 100 °F over the weekend in Siberia during a historically unusual period of high heat for the region.

The Siberian town of Verkhoyansk measured a temperature of 38 °C (100 °F) on June 20th likely setting a new temperature record for the region.  The high temperature occurs as the Arctic Circle has been experiencing a heat wave that brought temperatures up to 10 °C above average throughout the months of March to May.  Unfortunately, the Copernicus Climate Change Service reports this past May was the warmest May on record, suggesting that more high heat events are likely for the Arctic in the future.

As higher average temperatures become common in the Arctic Circle, the surface albedo, an index that describes how reflective a surface is, will decrease because of snow and ice melt.  As the snow and ice continue to melt, a positive feedback loop is created which heats the Arctic further and will likely make record setting temperatures more common.

EPA releases FY 2019 Superfund Annual Accomplishments Report


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Thomas Robinson | June 16th, 2020

The EPA has released their annual accomplishment report for fiscal year 2019 and Iowa has two sites mentioned in the report. 

The Superfund Annual Accomplishment Report summarizes the work the EPA has done to clean up contaminated sites on the National Priorities List (NPL).  The report also details the efforts being taken to improve the Superfund program based on recommendations made by the Superfund Task Force.  In FY 2019, the EPA fully deleted 12 sites and partially deleted 15 sites across the country.  There were 6 less deleted sites and 11 more partially deleted sites in 2019 over 2018.

Iowa saw two Superfund sites deleted from the NPL in 2019, one completely deleted, and the other only partially deleted.  The Electro Coating Inc. site in Cedar Rapids was deleted, making it the first Superfund site in Iowa to be closed since 2005, while the Shaw Avenue Dump site in Charles City was partially closed.  A partial closure means that some portions of the site still require clean up, while other portions are no longer a hazard to human health.

Superfund is the informal name for the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) passed in 1980.  CERCLA allows the EPA to clean up contaminated sites across the country and to engage those responsible for the contamination.  Since CERCLA was passed, 424 sites have been removed from the list out of 1335 sites total.   

Perchlorate Contamination Is More Dangerous Than Previously Thought


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Thomas Robinson | June 9th, 2020

In a new study, researchers have suggested that perchlorate, a chemical commonly found in fireworks, is more dangerous to human health than was previously thought.

Perchlorate is a highly mobile chemical that can be found in many contaminated sites across the country.  In their study, the researchers discovered that perchlorate poses a greater threat to human health than previously thought because it can reduce the amount of iodide that accumulates in thyroid cells.  Low iodide concentrations can interfere with hormone production which can negatively influence human metabolism and development.

Perchlorate has both synthetic and natural routes into the environment, but a common source for the chemical is from fireworks displays.  A different study demonstrated that after fireworks displays, perchlorate levels in adjacent bodies of water spiked up to 1028 times above the mean baseline concentration.

Iowa has experienced perchlorate contamination in Hills, IA, where the chemical has been detected in the communities well water since 2001.  Thankfully, perchlorate levels have decreased after the installation of expensive reverse osmosis water units.  Unfortunately, considering the risk perchlorate likely poses to human health, the EPA has yet to decide on a maximum contaminant level (MCL) for perchlorate in drinking water.

Global Heat Health Information Network Promotes New Information Series


Thomas Robinson | June 2nd, 2020

A new informational series has been released by the Global Heat Health Information Network (GHHIN), with input from experts around the world such as CGRER member Professor Gregory Carmichael, to inform decision makers on how to best address high heat events during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The series covers a diverse range of topics and highlights current issues facing healthcare workers, as well as individuals who might be facing COVID-19.  Global experts address challenges such as how best to mitigate the influence wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) has on how hot workers become, and how vulnerable populations can work to protect themselves from the combined risk COVID-19 and high heat present.

Hot weather is a pressing risk during the pandemic because it can result in a worsening of COVID-19 health outcomes.  As temperatures rise over the summer, communities will need to face the challenges both high heat events and the COVID-19 pandemic introduce. The information provided by the GHHIN hopes to better inform essential decision makers, so that they will have a well researched, scientific reasoning for difficult decisions.