Small Increases in Ambient Carbon Monoxide Levels Result in Daily Mortality Increases


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Thomas Robinson | April 13th, 2021

In a recent study, researchers demonstrated that small increases in carbon monoxide can increase number of mortalities the next day.

Scientists have observed a positive connection between daily mortality and ambient carbon monoxide (CO) exposure from 337 cities in 18 countries.  The level of exposure they measured was of a low concentration below current air quality regulations which suggests that current measures may not go far enough in preventing negative public health outcomes from ambient CO.  A major finding in the study was that there seems to be no threshold between CO exposure and mortality, which suggests there is no safe level of exposure to ambient CO.

Carbon monoxide is released into the air from the incomplete combustion of carbon based fuel sources used to run cars or generators for example.  The air pollutant takes the place of oxygen molecules which prevents essential organs from receiving the amount of oxygen they need to function.  At high concentrations carbon monoxide can be fatal, but at lower concentrations it can cause fatigue and chest pains in those with heart problems.

These findings suggest that the global community should revisit current air quality regulations with a focus for how low level exposure to ambient pollutants influences public health.

Chronic Exposure To Air Pollution Likely Increases Risk For Heart And Lung Disease


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Thomas Robinson | February 23rd, 2021

In a new study by the American Heart Association, chronic exposure to low levels of air pollution have been linked to increased numbers of patients admitted to hospitals for heart and respiratory illnesses.

Researchers looked at how long-term exposure to different air pollutants such as fine particulate matter (PM2.5), tropospheric ozone, and nitrogen dioxide affected hospitalizations of Medicare patients across the country.  They found that low concentrations of all studied pollutants increased the risk for negative health outcomes, and was likely responsible for thousands of hospitalizations.  For example, for every additional microgram per cubic meter of air (µg/m3) of PM2.5 researchers found the rate of stroke patients increased by around 2,500 patients.

A key finding from the study was that negative health outcomes were observed even for pollution levels below U.S. standards.  Their finding suggests that current standards are not adequately protecting at risk populations like the elderly. Another important factor to consider, is that predominantly poor communities are exposed to elevated levels of pollutants at much greater rates than more affluent communities which creates a disparity in how air quality affects different populations. More than half of the U.S. population is known to be exposed to low levels of air pollution, which should be of immediate concern for policy makers and health care providers.  

Activists Call on the Biden Administration to Focus on Environmental Racism


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Nicole Welle | January 25, 2021

Environmental justice activists are celebrating President Joe Biden’s executive orders aimed at dismantling the Trump administration’s numerous rollbacks, and they hope he will continue to prioritize environmental justice throughout his term.

The National Black Environmental Justice Network and activists like Catherine Flowers applauded Biden’s decision to nominate Michael Regan to lead the EPA after being urged to do so by environmentalists. They are also encouraged by his willingness to talk about environmental justice and push for diversity in his administration. Biden nominated Rep. Deb Haaland as interior secretary, and she will be the first Native American to hold that position. He also signed an executive order blocking construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, a move that Indigenous leaders have long advocated for, according to a Washington Post article.

A 2017 study revealed that more than one million Black Americans suffer from higher risks of cancer because they live within a half-mile of natural gas facilities. People of color are also more likely to live in regions that suffer from extreme heat, and minority communities are more likely to be centered in areas with high levels of pollution. These issues have been historically overlooked by the federal government.

Activists hope that the Biden administration will continue to focus on environmental racism as it implements future policy changes. The environmental justice movement has gained a lot of traction in recent years, and its influence has extended beyond state and federal governments. The Washington Post reported that many environmental groups are “facing a moment of racial reckoning” and have chosen to address their historical ties to racism and white supremacy. The Sierra Club, for example, issued a public letter denouncing its founder, John Muir, who was known to make racist comments against African Americans and Native Americans. Pedro Cruz, the director of healthy communities at the Sierra Club, hopes to push other big environmental organizations to better address environmental racism as well.

Controversial Aviation Greenhouse Gas Emission Rule Finalized by the EPA


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Thomas Robinson | December 29th, 2020

The EPA has finalized a new greenhouse gas (GHG) emission standard for aviation that was made public in July, the first standard for the country.

The new GHG standard works to regulate U.S aviation emissions into compliance with similar standards made by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).  The new standards have not been projected to reduce emissions, and the EPA believes that any changes made by manufacturers were likely to happen regardless of the implementation of new standards.

Unfortunately, critics argue that the new rule will fail to effectively address climate change and represents a continuation of the “do-nothing” status quo.  Toxic contaminants and particulate matter are not addressed in the new rule, both of which can result in negative health outcomes for communities close to airports.  In October, the EPA was charged by 11 states to strengthen the finalized rule which has been described as “entirely insufficient.”

Approximately 2% of all anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) is emitted by the aviation industry.  While significant advances have been made recently in alternative fuels and fuel efficiency, the U.S has observed growth in the aviation sector which will only increase GHG emissions.

Alissia Milani and Dr. Betsy Stone Discuss Exciting New Research


Nicole Welle | November 30, 2020

University of Iowa undergraduate Alissia Milani recently led a group of researchers in discovering a new compound in the atmosphere that can help track the effects of personal care products (PCPs) on air quality.

Common PCPs, like antiperspirants, shampoos and hairspray, contain colorless and odorless chemicals called cyclic volatile methyl siloxanes. These chemicals can quickly evaporate into the atmosphere after they are applied, and Milani’s group worked on identifying a secondary aerosol tracer called D4TOH in urban environments like Houston and Atlanta to better understand the impact of pollution from PCPs. D4TOH is the oxidation product of D5, one of the most prominent methyl siloxanes found in PCPs, according to the group’s new article.

Graphical Abstract from ScienceDirect article

The health and environmental impacts of PCP use are not yet fully understood, but this work will help provide a new way for researchers to begin tracing and assessing those impacts. Milani hopes that her work will allow researchers across the globe to begin detecting this compound and use it to better understand how PCPs can affect air quality in both urban and rural environments.

This crucial work is only the first step toward better understanding the health and environmental implications of PCP use, but there are steps the public can take in the meantime. Milani says that people should look into the chemicals that make up the products they use and think about what they might be exposing themselves and others to. Some potentially harmful chemicals found in PCPs are not currently regulated, so it is important for people to learn about those chemicals and seek out alternatives that work best for them.

Milani received support from the Iowa Center for Research by Undergraduates and was joined in her work by Dr. Betsy Stone, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Iowa. The article outlining their work was accepted on November 11, 2020.

Trump Pushes For Further Environmental Deregulation During Final Weeks in Office


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Nicole Welle | November 19, 2020

The Trump administration is using its final weeks to push through dozens of environmental rollbacks that weaken protections for migratory birds, expand arctic drilling and increase future threats to public health.

One proposed change would restrict criminal prosecution for industries that cause the deaths of migratory birds. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 currently protects over 1,000 species of bird including hawks and other birds of prey, and it is used to recover damages in situations like the BP oil spill in 2010 that killed more than 100,00 seabirds, according to an AP article. The Trump administrations wants to ensure that companies face no criminal liability for preventable deaths such as this in the future. Officials advanced bird treaty changes to the white house two days after news organizations declared Joe Biden’s win.

Another recent proposal put forth by the Trump administration would set emission standards for dangerous particles of pollution emitted by refineries and other industrial sources. Others would allow mining and drilling on public lands around the Chaco Canyon National Historical Park in New Mexico and in Alaska.

Most of these proposed changes directly benefit gas and oil industries, and some of them could be difficult for President-elect Joe Biden to reverse once he takes office. Biden could easily reverse some with executive action, but others, like putting protected lands up for sale or lease, could pose a bigger challenge.

Most of the proposed changes will go quickly through the approval process. It is not unusual for presidents to push rule changes through at the tail end of their terms, but many environmentalists and former officials believe this environmental deregulation reflects a pro-industry agenda taken to the extreme. It could have serious negative impacts on the safety of imperiled wildlife, climate change and human health.

Alliant Energy Announces Plans to Shutter Iowa Coal Plant and Begin Transitioning to Renewable Energy


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Nicole Welle | November 2, 2020

Alliant Energy announced the Clean Energy Blueprint for Iowa last week, a plan that will transition one of their coal-burning plants to nuclear energy and shut down the Lansing Generating station altogether.

The Iowa Environmental Council (IEC) and the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC) have publicly announced their support of the plan. By shuttering the Lansing Generating Station by 2022, converting the Burlington plant to nuclear energy and constructing more solar plants and battery storage stations, Alliant Energy will eliminate 487MW of coal-generated power in Iowa by 2026, according to an IEC news release.

Not only will eliminating coal plants reduce pollution, it will also save Alliant customers money. When Alliant Energy requested a 24% rate increase on residential customers in 2019, the ELPC and IEC contracted Uday Varadarajan, an expert data analyst, to examine the economics of Iowa’s coal plants and examine the cost of alternative forms of energy. He found that maintaining the coal plants was more expensive than both clean energy alternatives and buying power from the wholesale market. Retiring the Lansing plant and committing to expanding solar power will help prevent rate increases for customers in the future and help them avoid more that $300 million in costs over the next 35 years, according to an Alliant Energy press release.

Environmental activists hope that positive changes like this will spark further discussion and push companies throughout the Midwest to move away from carbon-based energy. Future efforts to move Iowa towards 100% renewable energy will benefit the environment and help save Iowans money.

Climate change clearly linked to increased wildfire severity


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Thomas Robinson | September 29th, 2020

In a review of recent climate science, researchers have demonstrated that climate change increases the risk of wildfires across the globe.

Their review makes it clear that the influence of anthropogenic climate change on fire weather is moving beyond what can be accounted for by normal climate variations. Locations around the world have seen an increase in the severity and extent of fires, such as Australia or the Amazon and fire trends are only worsening. Models suggest that the length of fire season in the higher latitudes may increase by more than 20 days per year by 2100.

An unsurprising finding from the report is that fire weather only results in fires if natural or human sources of ignition occur. One way for humans to influence the frequency of wildfires is to manage burnable areas and address potential ignition sources.

These observations come as California is facing the worst fire season in the state’s history that is currently threatening the wine country. Climate conditions have led to drier vegetation and longer periods of drought that have resulted in these severe wildfires that have burnt more than a million of acres and displaced around 200,000 people.

New Study Highlights Environmental and Financial Benefits of Diversifying Crop Rotations


Graphic of an Iowa corn field
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Nicole Welle | September 3, 2020

A new study from researchers at Iowa State University and the University of Minnesota found that diversifying crop rotations keep farms profitable while greatly reducing the negative environmental and health impacts of farming.

Farmers have practiced corn and soybean crop rotation for a long time. However, this new research found that adding more crops, like oat and alfalfa, to the rotation can improve soil quality and the productivity of farmland. It also benefits the environment and human health by reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers.

The study used data from a long-term field experiment at Iowa State University’s Marsden Farm. This experiment began in 2001 and compared performance characteristics of a two-year corn-soy rotation with a three-year corn-soy-oat rotation and a four-year corn-soy-oat-alfalfa rotation. They used this information to better understand the amount of pollution and fossil fuel use associated with each cropping system, according to a Phys.org article.

By looking at pollution from both farming and the supply chain, researchers found that the production of synthetic fertilizer requires a lot of fossil fuel. Its application also produces poor air quality by emitting greenhouse gases and pollution. Less fertilizer is required when small grains and forages are added into rotations, and the addition of just one small grain crop can reduce fossil fuel use and pollution by half, according to the study.

While it may take time for farmers to further diversify their crop rotations, this information could provide long-term success for farmers, the public and the environment.

Unhealthy Levels of Pollution Spread Across Western U.S. as California Wildfires Burn On


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Nicole Welle | August 24, 2020

More than 600 individual fires and some of the largest wildfire complexes in California’s history are still burning after thousands of lightning strikes triggered them last week.

Unhealthy levels of pollution have been reported across the state in the last few days. The large number of individual fires and the size of the fire complexes has caused an unusually high amount of of smoke to enter the atmosphere, and the smoke has spread across parts of the western United States and the Pacific Ocean. Atmospheric testing showed that Northern California had the worst air quality in the world on August 19.

Extremely hot and dry conditions in California could cause the smoke to stay in the air longer. The black carbon particulates in the air will cause health problems for humans and animals as they enter the lungs and bloodstream, and they play a role in global warming, according to an article published by NASA. The National Weather Service issued a poor air quality alert for California’s Central Valley until the fires are extinguished.