Former UI Student Marcelo Mena Joins a Virtual TED Conference to Discuss the Pandemic and Climate Change in Chile


Joseph Bolkcom and Nicole Welle | June 24, 2020

Marcelo Mena, a University of Iowa graduate and Chilean environmental science leader, appeared in a TED talk May 29 to give his perspective on the relationships between the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change in Chile.

Mena received his MS in 2003 and a PhD in Environmental Engineering at the University of Iowa in 2007. During his time at UI, he helped organize the beginning of sustainability work on campus and hosted a music program on public radio each Sunday night.

“Marcelo was an amazing student and a great example of speaking up and leading by example,” said CGRER co-director and Mena’s PhD advisor, Greg Carmichael.

After graduating, he returned home to Chile as a faculty member and was recruited to join the Chilean government as the Minster of the Environment.  He then went on the work at the World Bank where he was an advisor to the CEO and Practice Manager, Climate Research Analytics, Climate Change Group.

He is currently serving as chair of the new environmental engineering department at Universidad Andres Bello Santiago, one of Chile’s most prestigious institutions and is considering running for president of Chile.

EPA releases FY 2019 Superfund Annual Accomplishments Report


via Flickr

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.   

DNR Sets Stricter Water Quality Thresholds for Iowa Beaches


Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | June 15, 2020

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) decided to follow stricter standards this summer for the amount of toxins found in the water at public beaches.

Microcystin is a toxin produced by cyanobacteria in algae blooms in Iowa’s lakes. It poses health threats to humans and animals that swim at beaches with high levels of the toxin and can cause abdominal pain, blistering, pneumonia and vomiting if ingested. Dogs have also died from being exposed to it, according to an Iowa Environmental Council news release.

In 2006, Iowa DNR began using a threshold of 20 micrograms per liter to issue beach advisories. However, they decided to lower it to 8 micrograms per litre this year after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommended it.

The DNR currently monitors only a small percentage of Iowa’s recreational beaches, but they were able to issue a number of advisories and temporarily close beaches on Lake Macbride, Spirit Lake and Lake Rathbun last year when microcystin levels exceeded the threshold. The number of advisories issued this year is likely to be much higher than past years under the new guidelines.

Three Conservation Groups Intend to Sue the EPA for Failing to Enforce Pollution Rules in Poor Communities


Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | June 4, 2020

The Center for Biological Diversity issued a press release on May 28 announcing a lawsuit against the EPA for delaying the reduction of sulfur dioxide air pollution in a number of communities.

Areas of Missouri, Louisiana, Indiana, Puerto Rico and Guam were included in the lawsuit issued by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Center for Environmental Health and the Sierra Club. The cities and counties listed in the lawsuit are being exposed to dangerous levels of sulfur dioxide, an air pollutant produced by the extraction and burning of fossil fuels.

The Clean Air Act requires the EPA by law to set air quality standards, determine when and where air pollution exceeds the national limit, and ensure that plans are in place to clean up that pollution by a set deadline. In the current affected areas, the EPA has missed these deadlines by anywhere from two months to over four years.

The EPA has already determined that exposure to high levels of sulfur dioxide air pollution can lead to health problems in humans and trigger ecological harm. The people in the areas listed are currently at a higher risk of heart and lung disease, asthma and contracting COVID-19 due to constant exposure to the pollution. Sulfur dioxide pollution also contributes to acid rain and damages lakes, rivers and entire ecosystems.

Young children and the elderly are more vulnerable and at a higher risk, and the problem is made worse by the fact that the areas in the lawsuit include large minority and indigenous populations that are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and air pollution.

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. 

Earth Day in the time of COVID-19: A Message from Co-Director Jerry Schnoor


Jerry Schnoor at Eawag
CGRER Co-Director Jerry Schnoor shares his reflections on the 50th annual Earth Day (contributed photo). 

Jerry Schnoor | April 22, 2020

April 22, 2020, is not just another Earth Day.  It is the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day – the one that changed my life forever.  Naive and over my head as student body president at Iowa State-1970, my world was on fire with righteous indignation against a compulsory draft for an unjust War in Vietnam.  At times I actually thought that it would tear the country apart.

The first Earth Day strangely diverted my immediate attention, and the diversion would last a lifetime.  Brainchild of Senator Gaylord Nelson and organized by Denis Hayes as a national Teach-In, Earth Da

 

y spawned immense bipartisan gatherings of 20 million people in the streets for one unifying goal – a healthy Planet Earth.  Earth Day ignited in me a realization that my chemical engineering education from ISU could morph into something green and more fascinating, that is, trying to understand water quality, biodiversity, and the biogeochemistry of Earth’s processes.  Discerning remedies for the massive disruptions that 7.7 billion people and an $80 trillion GWP can inflict on the earth has proven even more challenging.

This year we celebrate Earth Day with digital gatherings due to coronavirus.  It’s not the same, but perhaps the pandemic can teach us some valuable lessons.  Some people were slow to accept the dismal science of a spreading pandemic – they lacked trust in health professionals’ recommendations for social distancing, staying home, and closing businesses, sporting events, churches and social gatherings.  But the flattening curves of Wuhan, South Korea, Singapore, and even Italy, Spain, and New York bear testament to the wisdom of their call.

Our national plan for the pandemic Covid-19 was non-existent, like the Emperor’s new clothes, plain for all to see.  Pandemics are “global disease outbreaks” and they require national plans and concerted global action.  As recently as 2003-2004, WHO mitigated much more rapidly a similar virus, SARS, by careful messaging and international cooperation of 11 labs in 9 different countries.  U.S. and Chinese scientists together developed a vaccine within a year.  Far too little cooperation exists today, both at home and abroad.  Politics and hyper partisanship are disastrous in a time of global need.  We can do better.

Analogies between climate change and our pandemic response are obvious.  We have no national plan for either.  As a young egg-head professor at the University of Iowa, I published my first modeling paper on climate change and its consequences in 1994, many years after others had done so.  It projected (surprisingly accurately) the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today with business-as-usual.  That’s exactly what happened – business as usual.  If you had told me that the U.S. would still not have comprehensive climate change and energy legislation in 2020, I would have told you, “you’re crazy”.

But it’s in the history books.  We have failed to listen to the science and failed to reduce our gargantuan greenhouse gas emissions — the planet cannot take it anymore.  Now it really is a Climate Emergency.  What’s more, we are threatening to extinct 1 million species in the next generation as well – the Biodiversity Crisis.

Coronavirus humbles us all.  How can one not be moved by the sight of doctors, nurses, custodians, and admissions clerks risking their lives for the rest of us?  How can one not weep to see the miles of cars lined-up at food banks because families have nowhere else to turn?  Playing out in the richest country in the world gives great pause.

Yes, we need science-based decision making on coronavirus and on climate change, but we need compassion and understanding as well.  Noted columnist Sarah Van Gelder writes, “Changing hearts and opening minds begins when we listen”.  Imagine the world we want, where everyone is safe and healthy, where the air is clean and the water is pure. Then, let us celebrate the 50th Anniversary of that spontaneous, bipartisan, original Earth Day by speaking from the heart and listening to each other.

Jerry Schnoor is professor of civil and environmental engineering and co-director of the Center for Global and Regional Research at the University of Iowa.

 

COVID-19 Mortality Risk Increases with Increased Exposure to Poor Air Quality


(Image via Flickr)

Thomas Robinson | April 14th, 2020

A recent Harvard study has presented a link between air pollution and a heightened mortality risk from COVID-19. Models developed by the researchers predict a 15% increase in COVID-19 death rates if the concentration of fine particulate matter increased by a small amount (1 microgram per meter cubed).

Particulate matter in the air comes from sources of dust or sooty emissions, such as agricultural fields or factories.  There are two common sizes of particle pollution, PM10 (large) and PM2.5 (fine), where the number indicates the average diameter of the particles in micrometers.  For reference, an average human hair is approximately 70 micrometers in diameter, meaning that a PM2.5 particle is about 30 times smaller than a human hair.

It is well known that air pollution has harmful effects on human health, and that air pollution measures such as the Clean Air Act have a positive influence on human health outcomes.  What is becoming more apparent as COVID-19 continues to affect the globe is that improvements in air quality can result in measurable improvements for human health moving forward.  For example, the study suggests that if the long-term average PM2.5 in Manhattan had been reduced by 1 µg/m3 there might have been 248 fewer deaths associated with COVID-19 as of April 4th in New York County.

Three ways to stay calm, go green while spending time at home


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Microgreens are an easy, sustainable foray into indoors home gardening (via flickr).

Julia Poska | March 23, 2020

Over the last several weeks, people everywhere–including Iowa–have been increasingly encouraged or ordered to stay home in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. Below are three ways to keep caring for Mother Nature while you care for yourself and your community during these unprecedented times.

1. No paper towels? No worries

With mass panic-buying wiping store shelves clean in recent weeks and non-essential excursions strongly discouraged, some households may worry about fulfilling their regular demand for paper products.

While disposable paper towels are great for the messiest of messes, consider using reusable cloths and rags are a more eco-friendly option for household cleaning.

2. No need for bottled water

While stocking up on bottled water might be tempting, there is no reason to believe the pandemic will impact household tap water. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources released a statement encouraging Iowans to continue using tap water as much as they can.

3. Grow your own microgreens

Doing some indoor home gardening will not only keep you busy, but create a hyper-local produce supply you don’t have to venture to the store for. Growing microgreens –seedlings of edible plants– is among the easiest ways to get started.

Spread potting soil in a shallow tray (consider reusing packaging from a container of berries or salad mix) sprinkle a layer of seeds on top and cover with a very thin layer of soil. Kept in a sunny spot and sprayed with water to keep the soil damp, you can yield a microgreen crop every two weeks or so.

Sunflower, sweet pea and radish seeds (available online) are great options for getting started. The seedlings take on the flavor of the mature fruit or vegetable, making a great salad base or addition to other dishes. Get creative!

 

DNR confirms further spread of deer disease through Iowa


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Deer testing positive or chronic wasting disease in Iowa since 2013, via the Iowa DNR. 

Julia Poska | February 14, 2020

Forty-three deer killed by hunters and vehicles in Iowa during the 2019-2020 hunting season tested positive for chronic wasting disease, also known as “zombie deer disease.”

This brings the total number of confirmed cases in Iowa’s wild deer population to 89 since 2013, according to an Iowa Department of Natural Resources press release. That’s a 93% increase in one year.

Chronic wasting disease is a 100% fatal neurological disease found primarily in deer and elk that causes loss of bodily functions. An abnormal protein causes the infection, spread via bodily fluids from deer to deer. Some symptoms include excessive salivation, weight loss, listlessness and drooping ears and head.

The disease is in the same family as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as Mad Cow Disease. The Centers for Disease Control reports that there is no conclusive evidence of the disease transferring to humans, but the center recommends avoiding contacts with infected venison.

The Iowa DNR collected samples from about 7,000 deer hunted or killed by cars across the state during the 2019-2020 hunting season. Samples from Woodbury, Winneshiek, Fayette and Decatur counties tested positive for the first time.

Officials have identified chronic wasting disease in wild deer populations in eight counties overall. Deer in several captive populations have tested positive as well (see this interactive map for more information).

For more information on how hunters can help limit the spread of chronic wasting disease, check out this flyer.

AP story showcases tension in Iowa over factory farming


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Large animal feeding operations (via Creative Commons). 

Julia Poska | February 13, 2020

A news story published last week featured an Iowa farmer who illegally built to un-permitted barns containing about 2,400 hogs. State officials were unaware of the concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) for years. 

That farmer and others are fighting in what Associated Press correspondent John Flesher called a “battleground” in Iowa. Questions of pollution and regulation have inspired lawsuits, anti-CAFO alliances and neighborly tensions throughout the state, as animal feeding operations continue to proliferate.

Below are four key takeaways from Flesher’s in-depth report. Read the full-length story on apnews.com.

  1. The federal government relies state data for animal feeding operation data. In many cases, states keep tabs on only the largest operations (in Iowa, a true “CAFO” has a minimum of 1,000 species-variable “animal units” per confinement). The EPA counted about 20,300 CAFOs nationwide in 2018.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates there are about 450,000 animal feeding operations–places animals are raised in confinement (of any size)– nationwide.
  2. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources discovered thousands of previously undocumented animal feeding operations in 2017.  Some point to this case as proof of under-regulation, but state regulators said the discoveries indicated a well-functioning system.
  3. Under the 1972 Clean Water Act, especially large livestock operations need permits for discharging waste into waterways. Since such discharges are often unintended, however, state and federal environmental agencies can only mandate permits for operations caught discharging waste. In some cases, farmers have been able to make spill-proofing improvements instead of applying for permits.
  4. Studies show that livestock operations and anaerobically decomposing waste release massive amounts of ammonia and greenhouse gases. Because such emissions are difficult to measure, though, they are unregulated by the Clear Air Act. Studies have additionally correlated these emissions to human health issues such as childhood asthma. Cause/effect is impossible to prove, however.