Water Quality Identified As Top Environmental Concern In Recent Gallup Survey


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Thomas Robinson | April 20th, 2021

In a recent Gallup survey, Americans were asked about which environmental issues made them the most worried, and the two top responses were drinking water quality, and the condition of lakes, rivers, and reservoirs.

The majority of respondents were greatly concerned about drinking water (56%), and the pollution of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs (53%).  A minority of respondents were greatly concerned about larger environmental issues like climate change (43%) or air pollution (41%).  Water pollution is a problem that could personally affect a respondent in the survey which is attributed as the reason for such high concern over more widespread environmental challenges.  Concerns are likely to be elevated as high profile events such as lead exposure in the drinking water of Flint, MI linger in the minds of the public. 

Overall, opinions on the environment haven’t changed much over the past several years as respondents evaluation of environmental quality has remained about the same over the past 20 years that the survey has been run.  Unfortunately, around 52% of respondents think the environment is getting worse while only 42% of respondents thought environmental quality is improving which suggests that the public’s opinion of environmental quality is declining overall.

Water quality issues are prevalent in Iowa, for example, Iowa’s Racoon River that runs through Des Moines was recently identified by American Rivers as one of the nation’s most endangered rivers.  Poor water quality on both the Des Moines and the Racoon Rivers has required Des Moines’ water utility to install additional treatment to produce safe drinking water.

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.

Warmer Winters Likely To Expand Range For Tropical Species


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Thomas Robinson | March 30th, 2021

A recent review has highlighted that warming winters are likely to result in an expanded range for some tropical plants and animals across the United States.

Scientists have found that multiple tropical plant and animal species, such as mangrove trees and manatees, are already expanding northward resulting in what is called tropicalization.  The largest factor for northward expansion of tropical species is whether they will suffer from freezing conditions or not, and as winter’s have warmed the line where those conditions occur has moved northward.  Extreme cold events, like what happened recently in Texas, function to push back the advancement of tropical species, but these events are happening even less often than they already do which allows species that have expanded northward to become more tolerant of the cold.

Unfortunately, warmer conditions are also expected to allow invasive species such as certain tree beetles to move further north, as well as a few mosquito species.  The mosquitoes pose a threat to public health because they are known to carry diseases such as Zika and yellow fever.  Additionally, researchers are concerned about how the expansion of new species into northern habitats threatens the biodiversity of the invaded ecosystems. Insect populations have been declining across the globe, particularly in the U.S. Midwest, and it is likely that the addition of new and adaptable species will compromise existing insect populations.

Des Moines Water Works Detects Toxic PFAS in Drinking Water


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Nicole Welle | March 29, 2021

Des Moines Water Works recently detected low levels of PFOS, a toxic chemical found in multiple human-made products, in finished drinking water in Des Moines.

PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) is part of a large list of compounds called PFAS (perfluoroalkyl substances), which are commonly found in products like popcorn bags, pizza boxes and clothing. These chemicals repel water and oil, and they are commonly called “forever chemicals” since they do not break down and stay in the environment for a long time. PFAS levels detected in Des Moines drinking water were at 6.5 parts per trillion, which is well below the EPA’s health advisory level of 70 ppt. However, even low levels are a concern and have triggered further investigation, according to a Des Moines Water Works announcement.

PFAS chemicals are known to pose threats to human health and the environment. The EPA has connected them to cancer, low birth weight, immune system problems and thyroid issues. While the levels detected in Des Moines’ drinking water are low, a lot more testing is required before specialists can fully understand how PFAS are affecting Iowa’s water supply.

Des Moines Water Works has reached out to the Iowa DNR, the Iowa Attorney General and Iowa’s Congressional delegation to ask for help in resolving the issue. The Iowa DNR plans to test 50 locations they consider highly vulnerable to pollution for PFAS contamination. The federal Department of Defense is also conducting tests to follow up on high PFAS contamination previously detected in groundwater near the Des Moines and Sioux City airports.

Climate Change Could Lead to Six-Month Summers by the Year 2100


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Nicole Welle | March 22, 2021

A new study found that summers in the Northern Hemisphere could last up to six months by the end of the 21st century if global warming continues at its current pace.

The study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, found that climate change is causing summers to increase in length over time. Researchers analyzed daily climate data from 1952 to 2011 to find the start and end of each season, and they discovered that global warming caused summers to increase from 78 to 95 days over the 60-year period. They then used the data to create a model to predict the length of future seasons, according to an NBC News article.

Climate scientists found that if global warming continues at the current rate, summers will last for six months by 2100, while winters will only last for two. This shift would negatively impact a wide range of areas, including human health, the environment and agricultural production. Scott Sheridan, a climate scientist at Kent State University, warned that shifting seasons would impact many plants’ and animals’ life cycles.

“If seasons start changing, everything isn’t going to change perfectly in sync,” Sheridan said in a statement to NBC. “If we take an example of flowers coming out of the ground, those flowers could come out but bees aren’t there to pollinate yet or they’re already past their peak.”

Plants coming out of the ground earlier than normal could have serious implications for farmers who rely on a regular planting season. In fact, a “false spring” in March of 2014 caused peach and cherry crops to spring from the ground early, only to be destroyed when temperatures plummeted again in April. Events like this will become more common as climate change continues to alter Earth’s seasons, and they may force us to rethink our methods of food production in the near future.

High Quality Waters At Risk From Proposed Manure Plan


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Thomas Robinson | March 2nd, 2021

A proposed plan for a manure application has come under scrutiny for the potential harm it could cause in some of Iowa’s high quality waters.

Supreme Beef, a cattle company in northeastern Iowa, has applied to spread cow manure in a 30 mile area around their operation near Monona IA.  Critics have warned that the plan may threaten water quality in the region, and pose a risk to the brown trout, a popular Iowa fishing attraction.  The plan proposed by Supreme Beef has been targeted for the likelihood for manure overapplication as well as a failure to include required conservation practices.

The area where manure would be spread is close to the headwaters of Bloody Run Creek, an area where brown trout reproduce, which presents a threat to water quality because of northeastern Iowa’s karst topography.  Karst topography is characterized by easy groundwater flow, which means that any manure seepage or contamination from the surface could easily influence the water quality of the region. Iowan’s in the area have needed to address similar issues previously, particularly for private well owners.

Currently the DNR is accepting written comments for the plan until March 8th before they will issue a decision for Supreme Beef’s manure application.

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.  

Climate Driven Increase In Bat Species Richness Likely Connected To COVID-19


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Thomas Robinson | February 9th, 2021

In a new study, researchers have published a link between climate driven shifts in bat populations, and the emergence of COVID-19.

Researchers mapped the global range of bat populations, as well as changes in global vegetation within the past 100 years to determine how changes in global bat species richness were driven by climate change. There were many regions across the globe that experienced local increases in bat populations, such as parts of Brazil and eastern Africa, however a major hotspot was the Yunnan province in southern China.  Over the 100 year time span, around 40 bat species flocked to the province, which is a significant concern as it is known that the number of coronaviruses in a region is closely linked to local bat species richness.  Researchers point out that the Yunnan province is also the likely place of origin for both SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2. 

Bats are studied because they are known to carry the largest amount of zoonotic diseases out of all mammals, and both the SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2 outbreaks have been attributed to bat populations.  Zoonotic diseases are illnesses that are transferred to humans by animals when both populations begin to interact. As human’s develop and expand into animal habitats these interactions become more common, especially as climate change drives the spread of disease vectors such as mosquitoes.  In a separate study, it was shown that over 60% of emerging infectious diseases, like COVID-19, are linked to animal to human transmission.

Vitamin B1 Deficiency May Be Linked To The Decline Of Multiple Animal Species


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Thomas Robinson | February 2nd, 2021

Scientists are concerned that a Vitamin B1 (Thiamine) deficiency is contributing to the decline of wildlife populations across multiple ecosystems in the northern hemisphere.

In 2016, scientists hypothesized that the decline of animal populations across multiple ecosystems may be linked to thiamine deficiency since the declines are occurring faster than expected, and thiamine deficiencies have been measured around the world. Thiamine deficiency has been known to negatively influence fish populations since 1995, and bird populations have been shown to be similarly affected.  Scientists in the 2016 study highlighted a staggering decline in animal populations such as the global decline of seabird populations by 70% from 1950 to 2010, and the decline of marine vertebrates by 50% from 1970 to 2012.

Unfortunately, it seems that humans are likely to blame as climate change is thought to have made thiamine less available to animals higher up on the trophic level. The current hypothesis is that warming oceans have negatively influenced the populations of both microorganisms and smaller fish that either produce or are rich in the vitamin making them less available to animals higher up on the food chain. Not only is less thiamine likely to reach the top of the trophic level, more thiaminase, the enzyme used to consume thiamine, is likely being transferred from the populations of fish or microorganisms that take over from older populations. Thiaminase is a concern because when predators eat prey high in thiaminase, they can experience similar thiamine deficiencies as the enzyme breaks down thiamine in their bodies.

Thiamine is an essential nutrient for life as it is responsible for cellular energy production and cellular development.  Our supply of the vitamin comes from our diet and deficiencies in thiamine can result in weight loss, muscle weakness, and wasting.  For many animals, deficiency results in sublethal effects, however, these sublethal effects can be just as devastating as lethal effects on the population, especially since they are easily missed over long periods of time.

Our unknowing changes to the environment have severe consequences for global ecosystems that we still don’t fully understand.  While we work to gain a better understanding of how our decisions influence global populations, an emphasis must be placed on what implications future development and technology may have on already stressed ecosystems.

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.