Contaminants in some Iowa drinking water exceed safe levels


A new database showed some Iowa utilities had water contaminants exceeding health guidelines and government-mandated limits.

Katelyn Weisbrod | July 28, 2017

An environmental group warns that federal standards for contaminants in drinking water may be insufficient in preventing cancer, pregnancy complications, and other health issues.

The Environmental Working Group unveiled a nationwide database of water quality data earlier this week. In Iowa, the database shows 89 contaminants detected by 1,091 utilities between 2010 and 2015.

Of these, four contaminants were found in excess of legal limits in at least 10 utilities, and hundreds more utilities had 10 contaminants exceeding recommended health levels.

The legal limits often exceed the recommended health levels for various contaminants. For example, the recommended safe level of trihalomethanes, which can cause cancer, is 0.8 parts per billion, while the legal limit is 80 parts per million. A common contaminant from agricultural runoff, nitrate, can cause blue baby syndrome and can lead to cancer. Nitrates are considered safe below 5 parts per million, but the legal level is 10 parts per million.

Craig Cox, a senior vice president at Environmental Working Group, told The Des Moines Register the legal levels, which are set by the federal government, can take a long time to adjust to levels deemed safe by new research.

“We think the science has advanced, but the legal limits haven’t been re-evaluated the way they should be,” Cox told the Register.

DNR begins locally led water quality project


The Iowa Department of Natural Resources is employing volunteer “citizen scientists” to monitor water quality. The efforts will be locally-led, delegated from a position that used to exist within the DNR.

Katelyn Weisbrod | July 27, 2017

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has launched a new water quality monitoring program led by local volunteers in communities around the state.

This announcement comes just weeks after the DNR announced several cutbacks as a result of budgetary shortfalls.

Volunteer water quality programs have existed in the DNR since 1998, but the new program focuses more on the local leadership. The old program has been without a coordinator for some time now, and its database has not been updated in two years. The new program aims to delegate the leadership to local leaders, and to keep data in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Water Quality Exchange.

“Volunteer water monitoring is best able to inform local water quality goals if the decision-making and coordination is locally led,” said Steve Konrady with the DNR’s Water Quality Bureau in a press release. “We can help interested communities, watersheds, counties, and regions get started and have an opportunity to take ownership and derive more value from their locally led volunteer water monitoring programs.”

Those interested in participating as “citizen scientists” can get involved on the DNR website.

“It’s pretty simple in the end. If you’ve ever done … a pH test strip, that’s about as hard-core as it gets for the water-quality tests that we do,” Konrady said to The Daily Iowan.

EPA air pollution standards may not be sufficient, study finds


A study found that current EPA air quality standards are still deadly. (flickr/Francesco Falciani)

Air pollution levels previously deemed “safe” may be deadly, a new study shows.

Harvard University researchers found that long-term exposure to ozone and fine particulate matter leads to premature death, even at levels below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards. The study examined data for over 60 million Medicare patients from 2000 to 2012, and found that 12,000 lives could be saved annually by reducing levels of fine particulate matter by 1 microgram per cubic meter below EPA standards.

“It’s very strong, compelling evidence that currently, the safety standards are not safe enough,” lead researcher Francesca Dominici said to NPR.

The study also found that African Americans, men, and poor people are at greater risk for death due to exposure to fine particulate matter, though did not examine why. Exposure can also cause heart attacks, asthma, and decreased lung function.

In an editorial response to the study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, four doctors (Rebecca E. Berger, M.D., Ramya Ramaswami, M.B., Caren Solomon, M.D., and Jeffrey Drazen, M.D.) urged the Trump administration to tighten regulations of air pollutant levels. Trump has signed an executive order dismantling guidelines to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants, and opted to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement.

“Although these actions were primarily intended to undo efforts made by the Obama administration to address climate change, the potentially dire consequences also include increasing people’s exposure to particulate matter,” the editorial said.

Four Iowa water quality improvement projects will soon be scaling up


 

Four projects have received renewed funding to continue expanding their water quality protection efforts, which serve as demonstrations for farmers interested in implementing the practices. (flickr/Victor U)

Katelyn Weisbrod | June 28, 2017

Four Iowa projects aimed at preserving water quality will receive renewed funding, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey announced Monday.

The projects, set in Wapello, Plymouth, Henry, and Montgomery counties, began in 2014 and were set to expire this year, but will receive $1.8 million total from the Iowa Water Quality Initiative to increase the scale of their efforts, and improve evaluation techniques.

The projects serve as demonstrations for water quality improvement practices, all in an effort to advance the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. The strategy was put forth to achieve a 45-percent reduction of agricultural nutrient runoff draining to the Mississippi River and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico.

The showcased practices include cover crops, installed wetlands, terraced slopes, land retirement, and other techniques.

“These projects are hitting their stride in terms of engaging farmers, getting practices on the ground and coordinating with partners and stakeholders,” Northey said in a press release. “We have always understood that it would take a long-term commitment to improvement in these watersheds and I’m excited to continue to learn from these projects as we work to scale-up and expand water quality efforts across the state.”

 

Suicide rates for farmers exceed rates for all other occupations


More farmers are taking their lives than any other occupation in the country, University of Iowa researchers have discovered. (flickr/Daniel Brock)

Katelyn Weisbrod | June 27, 2017

The rate of suicide among farmers is drastically higher than any other occupation, according to a study done by University of Iowa researchers.

From 1992 to 2010, 230 American farmers committed suicide at an annual rate ranging from 0.36 per 100,000 to 0.92 per 100,000. Comparatively, no other occupation exceeded 0.19 suicides per 100,000 workers for any year during this same period.

Co-author of the study Corinne Peek-Asa, a professor in the UI College of Public Health, said in a UI press release that financial issues related to economic or weather conditions can contribute to the suicide rate, as well as other stressors like physical pain from labor, societal isolation, and inaccessible healthcare. Peek-Asa also said a farmer’s job is a large part of his or her identity, and he or she may take failure extremely personally.

“They struggle with their ability to carve out the role they see for themselves as farmers,” Peek-Asa said in the release. “They can’t take care of their family; they feel like they have fewer and fewer options and can’t dig themselves out. Eventually, suicide becomes an option.”

The number of farmer suicides has significantly declined since the farming crisis of the 1980s, when grain trade with the Soviet Union halted and millions of farms went under. Over 1,000 farmers took their lives that decade.

Although the suicide rate has declined since the 1980s crisis, another agricultural disaster could be on the horizon. As the effects of climate change set in through increased temperatures and precipitation, farmers could soon face serious setbacks.

In a press release issued after President Trump announced his intent to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said, “We cannot sustain a viable food system if climate change is left unchecked … Increasingly unpredictable and destructive weather [will] wreak havoc on family farm operations, future generations, and food prices and availability for years to come.”

Iowa’s biggest solar power operation is under construction


Dubuque will soon be home to the largest solar power operation in Iowa. (zak zak/flickr)

Katelyn Weisbrod | June 21, 2017

Construction for the biggest solar power operation in the state is underway.

Alliant Energy is building 15,600 solar panels on 21 acres near Dubuque to produce enough energy to power 727 Iowa homes every year. The $10 million project should be up and running by August.

The energy company is working with the city of Dubuque and the Greater Dubuque Development Corporation to establish the operation. Another smaller solar site will be constructed closer to downtown Dubuque, and will have an educational component for visitors. The city of Dubuque has been a leader in sustainability in Iowa, and is a member of the Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities through the University of Iowa.

Alliant, which serves customers in Iowa and Wisconsin, already owns several renewable energy operations, including other solar projects, four wind farms, and a few hydroelectric dams.

“We see the cost of solar going down and the efficiency going up, and we anticipate more and more customers who demand renewable energy,” Alliant’s vice president of generation operations Terry Kouba said to the Associated Press. “Alliant will invest in more solar projects in the future, and we will look back at this Dubuque project and say, ‘This is where it began.'”

 

With May data in, 2017 is on its way to becoming the hottest year ever


May 2017 was the third hottest May on record. (Lima Andruška/flickr)

Katelyn Weisbrod | June 20, 2017

May 2017 ranked among the hottest months on record, new data shows.

This May was the third-hottest May ever, coming in behind May 2016 and May 2015, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Global oceanic temperatures were also third highest on record for any month of May.

The month also ranked No. 18 for warmest months ever, based on deviation from average temperatures, among all months in the NASA database.

The high spring temperatures were not felt so strongly in Iowa. High temperatures throughout the month averaged 69 degrees Fahrenheit in Des Moines — more than 3 degrees lower than the average high for the month of May in the capital city, according to data from AccuWeather.

2017 is well on its way to being the hottest year on record — a title currently held by 2016, and previously held by 2015 and 2014. January, February, and March of this year all took top 10 positions for the warmest months ever, and April is currently tied with May for No. 18.

Rising global temperatures can have grave environmental effects, such as rising sea levels and more intense natural disasters, like forest fires, hurricanes, and droughts, according to NASA. Closer to home, effects on the Midwest include more flooding events of greater magnitude, and other disturbances that can lead to crop failures and reduced yields, according to the National Climate Assessment.