Iowa DNR Issued Water Quality Warnings for Half of State Park Beaches This Summer


Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | September 17, 2020

The Iowa DNR issued advisories for over half of state park beaches this summer due to unsafe levels of E. Coli bacteria or microcystins in the water.

DNR conducted weekly tests Memorial Day through Labor day, and 39 state park beaches had at least one week during the summer where toxin levels were high enough to trigger a warning. They reported a total of 118 advisories over the summer, an increase from the 79 advisories issued in 2019, according to a Cedar Rapids Gazette article.

E. Coli, which indicates the presence of feces in the water, was responsible for most of the warnings. However, elevated levels of microcystins, which caused 12 advisories, can lead to a range of health problems in people exposed to them. These include gastroenteritis, allergic reactions and potentially life-threatening liver damage. Microcystins are produced by certain types of freshwater blue-green algae.

Studies have shown that much of the bacteria and toxins causing the warnings come from manure runoff and contaminates from nearby fields. Sandy beaches also tend to have higher levels of bacteria from manure from geese and other animals. Higher levels of toxic algae blooms, however, can have a variety of causes. Weather, temperature, nutrient availability and other environmental stressors are all factors, according to Dan Kendall, and environmental specialist in charge of the beach monitoring program.

The DNR’s Lake Restoration Program has plans to begin reducing bacteria in some of Iowa’s lakes that have been most heavily affected and continue testing each summer to monitor toxin levels.

Microplastics In Farm Soils Have Adverse Effects On Wheat Crops


Via Flickr

Thomas Robinson | September 8th, 2020

Microplastics in soils have recently been linked to increased cadmium uptake and root damage in wheat plants.

Researchers at Kansas State University have demonstrated that crops grown in the presence of microplastics are more likely to be contaminated with cadmium than crops grown in the absence of microplastics.  Cadmium is a heavy metal that is known to be carcinogenic and is commonly found in the environment from industrial and agricultural sources.  The researchers also found that microplastics were able to damage the roots of the wheat plants by clogging soil pores and preventing water uptake.

Microplastics are fragments of plastic products that are 5 millimeters or less in length, which is about the size of a sesame seed.  The influence these particulate plastics have on the environment and human health is still not well understood, and they are a growing environmental concern.  While most of the attention microplastics have received is in relation to the amount found in the oceans, a study published in 2016 demonstrates that microplastics actually accumulate more on land surfaces. 

Unsurprisingly, there have been microplastics found in Storm Lake, Iowa.  These pollutants can be found almost everywhere in the world which suggests we need a better understanding of microplastics and their effect on the environment. We also need to make changes to our behavior to prevent further pollution on top of what plastics have already been deposited across the globe.

Des Moines Registers Worst Air Quality In The Country After July 4th


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Thomas Robinson | July 14th, 2020

After July 4th celebrations earlier this month Des Moines had the worst air quality in the country measured at an Air Quality Index (AQI) of 588.

Fireworks shot off overnight on July 4th triggered an air quality advisory from July 5th into the morning of July 6th.  The highest reading occurred early in the morning on the 5th with conditions returning to safer levels later on that day.  The poor air conditions were caused by a high pressure weather system with slow moving air that prevented the movement, and dissipation, of pollutants away from Des Moines.

The AQI is a national metric used to describe air quality through reporting on common air pollutants listed in the Clean Air Act.  There are six AQI levels which range from good (0-50) to hazardous (301 and above).   Local air quality can be found using AirNow, which supplies the AQI and also which pollutant is primarily responsible for any poor air quality.

When the AQI is as high as it was in Des Moines (588) pollution in the air poses a noticeable risk to human health.  Symptoms of poor air quality can include irritation of eyes or nose, shortness of breath and coughing.  When poor air quality conditions like in Des Moines persist outside activity should be avoided to limit inhalation exposure to pollution.

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.