High Quality Waters At Risk From Proposed Manure Plan


Via Flickr

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


via Flickr

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


Via Flickr

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.

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.

New Report Suggests Human Health is Threatened by Plastics


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Thomas Robinson | December 22nd, 2020

A recent report by the Endocrine Society, and the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) presents a concerning summary of the widespread health effects from plastic pollution.

Within the report, around 144 hazardous chemicals are highlighted because they are used in plastics for a variety of purposes, such as flame retardants, and because they are hazardous for human health.  These chemicals can leach from the plastic products throughout the entire lifespan of the material increasing the potential for human exposure.  Unfortunately, human exposure has been measured and the study reports that nearly everyone tested for endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), tested positive.  While testing positive for EDCs doesn’t mean the person tested has acute health risks, little is known about what chronic exposure to a mix of the 144 chemicals culminates in.

Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that influence how hormones in the body behave and are commonly linked to developmental and reproductive issues.  Some of these chemicals are widely known, such as Bisphenol A (BPA), while others, such as Per- and Polyfluoroalkly substances (PFAS) are beginning to capture attention.

It is projected that plastic production is likely to increase within the next six years, and as plastic production increases, so too does human exposure to these harmful chemicals.  Effective public policy is needed to gain a better understanding of how the chemicals used in plastic manufacturing influence human health, and how to address human exposure to them.

Iowa Supreme Court Hears Arguments in Farm Pollution Case This Week


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Nicole Welle | December 17, 2020

The Iowa Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday on whether a lawsuit filed against the state of Iowa for allegedly allowing factory farms to pollute the Raccoon River should go to trial.

Food and Water Watch and Iowa Citizens for Community improvement filed the case back in 2019. The lawsuit claims that state officials and lawmakers are denying citizens’ rights to clean water for drinking and recreation under the Public Trust Doctrine by allowing crop and hog farmers to pollute the Raccoon River watershed, according to an Iowa Now article.

The Raccoon River is the main source of drinking water for 500,000 Iowans, and Des Moines water works is currently forced to run expensive treatment systems to maintain acceptable nitrate and other pollution levels. The river has exceeded federal nitrate limits for safe drinking water on multiple occasions over the past ten years and poses a health risk for for people and wildlife that rely on it as a safe water source. If the case goes to trial, it will urge the court to replace the state’s current policy allowing farmers to implement environmental practices voluntarily with mandatory limits on nitrogen and phosphorous pollution. It would also ask for a moratorium on new and expanding hog confinements to help limit manure runoff into Iowa’s waterways.

The state argued for the dismissal of the case on the grounds that, because the Iowa Constitution places responsibility of farmers’ interests and water quality on the legislature and executives, the court should not intervene in policy considerations on the matter. A judge denied the state’s motion to have the case thrown out back in September of 2019, and the court will likely make a decision on wether it will allow the case to go to trial in the next few months.

Any attempts to regulate agriculture in Iowa have been historically met with heavy opposition. Iowa leads the nation in corn and pork production, but a system that has such devastating effects on the environment and jeopardizes Iowans’ health and safety cannot continue without substantial reform. Environmental groups in Iowa have long called for policy changes that put mandatory limits on agricultural pollution. If this case is allowed to move forward and succeeds at trial, those changes could finally become a reality and move the state closer to to solving its contaminated water problem.

Lead in School Drinking Water: Opportunities for Improving Public Health in Iowa’s Schools


With permission from Amina Grant

Thomas Robinson | December 15th, 2020

In a legislative presentation Tuesday morning, David Cwiertny, Director of CHEEC, and Dr. Michelle Scherer, a professor at the University of Iowa, presented their work on lead in Iowa’s drinking water. 

CHEEC, the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination, has worked with schools around the state to assess the amount of lead in drinking water through their Grants to Schools program.  The program provides $10,000 for schools to sample every drinking water outlet, and then take steps to address any potential lead or copper contamination.  On average, they’ve found it only takes $2,800 for testing and remediation suggesting that more can be done for Iowa’s schools without breaking the bank.  Cwiertny emphasized the large cost to benefit ratio seen for lead interventions, where for every $1 invested there is around a $10 benefit.  Unfortunately, COVID-19 has created concerns about school drinking water as stagnation can increase lead and copper levels in drinking water. As schools begin to operate drinking fountains again there may be an increased chance for lead and copper exposure.

Dr. Michelle Scherer discussed her research group’s efforts to test drinking water from both municipal systems, as well as private wells in Iowa.  Recent work by graduate students Amina Grant, and Danielle Land has found that some Iowans are potentially being exposed to lead in their drinking water.  Shockingly, they found that potentially 65,000 Iowans had drinking water that exceeded the EPA action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb).  Dr. Scherer’s take-away message was that we need to know more about the challenge facing Iowa.  She emphasized that in home lead and copper testing needs to be more prevalent and available to properly evaluate the issue. Similarly to work being done in Illinois, Iowa needs to map lead service lines (LSLs) so that consumers can be made aware of potential exposures. Currently the Center for Disease Control (CDC) suggests that public health interventions need to happen at 5 microgram per deciliter blood lead levels in children and Dr. Scherer suggested that in the face of recent work these interventions should happen at lower blood lead levels. To better address the lead challenge facing Iowa both speakers stressed the importance of filter first legislation that could help reduce lead exposure in children.

Children are particularly vulnerable to lead as there is no safe level of exposure without potential health risks.  In Iowa, 1 in 5 newborns have elevated blood lead levels, and there is no difference between rural and urban populations.  Traditionally, lead is thought to come from paints, air, and soils, however, it is becoming more apparent that drinking water is a prevalent source for lead exposure.  Lead in drinking water is difficult to control and regulate since most contamination comes from the distribution system and not providers.  Currently, there are many different guidelines and regulations for lead contamination. Unfortunately, Iowa is on the back end where water outlets are taken out of service only if lead levels exceed 20 ppb, which is 4 times the level accepted for bottled water (5 ppb).  Iowa needs a health based lead regulation that can be used by consumers to evaluate whether their drinking water is safe, and it isn’t unreasonable for a low level like 1 ppb to be the goal.

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.