Researchers Develop a New Process for Detecting and Removing Harmful Wastewater Pollutants


Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | June 29, 2020

A group of researchers at Swansea University came up with a new, more efficient way to detect and remove pollutants found in wastewater that come from pharmaceuticals and personal care products.

The research, published in Analytical Science Advances, outlines a one-step process for quantifying and separating a range of chemicals and pharmaceuticals commonly found in medicine and personal care products that often end up in wastewater sludge. This new method could increase our understanding of which pollutants may be released from these products and help reduce their effects on the environment, according to a Science Daily article.

Contaminated wastewater makes its way into rivers and streams or is recycled as fertilizer to be used on fields. Chemicals from certain pharmaceuticals have been found to negatively impact human health and some animal species that come into contact with them. For example, multiple species of vulture in Asia have become critically endangered after being regularly exposed to components of Diclofenac, a common non-steroidal inflammatory drug. Fish populations around the world are also decreasing after being exposed to female contreceptives that cause the feminization of male fish.

The new method will allow the detection and extraction of harmful compounds using one process where multiple where needed before. Researchers hope that this process will allow for future advances in the wastewater treatment process that will ensure these harmful pollutants are degraded or removed before they come into contact with humans and wildlife.

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.   

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!

 

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.

 

UI enters final year for 2020 sustainability goals


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UI EV vehicle charging station (via a 2018 Office of Sustainability Report. )

Julia Poska | January 1, 2020

In 2010, former University of Iowa President Sally Mason announced the 2020 Vision: The University of Iowa’s Sustainability Targets. It laid out out sustainability goals to reach within the next decade, which began today. 

The goals were as follows:

1. Become a Net‐negative Energy Consumer

This goal indicated that the university should consume less energy in 2020 than it did in 2010, despite projected growth. Building energy consumption reports from The Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS) indicate energy energy consumption growth from 2005 to 2013 and 2013 to 2018. A 2018 presentation to the campus faculty council, though, provided data indicated that energy consumption was below the baseline, if baseline included projected consumption for new buildings.

2. Green Our Energy Portfolio

The document indicated that the University would consume 40% renewable energy in 2020. Since 2010, the university has increased production of energy through renewable biomass sources like oat hulls and miscanthus grass in the on-campus power plant. A 2018 presentation to the campus faculty council reported 17% renewable energy in 2017.

3. Decrease Our Production of Waste

This goal indicated that the university would “divert” (meaning recycle or compost” 60% of waste by 2020. The Office of Sustainability has since implemented a “tiny trash” program to encourage recycling and a dorm room composting program. The most recent data, for 2017, indicates a 38% diversion rate.

4. Reduce the Carbon Impact of Transportation

The university aimed to reduce per-capita fossil fuel emissions from campus transportation methods by 10%. A 2018 report to the university’s staff council reported a 14% reduction in per-capita transportation emissions, due in part to the campus’s fleet of electric vehicles and solar charging station.

 

5. Increase Student Opportunities to Learn and Practice Principles of Sustainability

6. Support and Grow Interdisciplinary Research in Sustainability‐focused and Related Areas

7. Develop Partnerships to Advance Collaborative Initiatives, both Academic and Operational

The last three goals provided qualitative measures, more difficult to measure and assess directly. The university undoubtedly provides  sustainability opportunities for students, in both practice and research, and has fostered numerous collaborative initiatives.

Stay tuned over the next 364 days to see whether these goals are fully met.

 

 

Chronic wasting disease confirmed in Iowa


 

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Deer (flickr/roseofredrock)

Kasey Dresser| November 25, 2019

 

Chronic wasting disease is a highly contagious disease fatal to deer, elk, and other cervids. Similar to Mad Cow, the disease is caused by an abnormal protein called a prion. A contaminated animal will show no symptoms of chronic wasting disease until around 18 months and will die shortly after showing symptoms.

On the Van Buren County Farms in Southeast Iowa, two white-tail deer were confirmed to have contracted chronic wasting disease. The Iowa Department of Agriculture is working to find the contaminant source and contain it.  The farms will be prevented from accepting deer, elk or moose for five years.

Chronic wasting disease has been confirmed in four other Iowa Counties including, Allamakee, Clayton, Dubuque, and Wayne. The disease has also been very prevalent in neighboring states, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Hunters are encouraged to bring their deer to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to have the animals tested for chronic wasting disease.

EPA announced a ​new proposal to update the Lead and Copper Rule


 

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Irrigation (flickr/UTDNR)

 

Kasey Dresser| October 14, 2019

After nearly 30 years of a stagnant Lead and Copper Rule, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a new proposal to update the regulation. The new regulations are aimed to increase lead identification, sampling, and strengthen treatment by increasing the number of hours a service provider needs to notify a customer that their water is contaminated with lead.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental activists have expressed concern that the new regulation allows communities more to time to replace the lead service lines, indicating these regulations may be weaker than the previous. The new proposal also establishes a lower “trigger level” of lead to 10 parts per billion from 15 parts per billion. The main counterargument is health experts have never established that any level of lead can be sustainable. “Even low levels of lead can cause harm to developing brains and nervous systems, fertility issues, cardiovascular and kidney problems, and elevated blood pressure. Pregnant women and children are particularly vulnerable,” the NRDC said in a statement.

The last major lead pipe exposure in Iowa outbreak was December 2016. More than 6,000 Iowans were exposed to contaminated water for over six months. The issue brought up major incongruency in the method to solve the problem between University of Iowa engineers or Iowa Departments of Public Health and Natural Resources.

The world’s protein companies still failing to address their environmental impact


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(Mike Myers/flickr)

Kasey Dresser| September 9, 2019

The Coller FAIRR Protein Producer Index, in its second active year, just released their report analyzing the environmental, social, and governance risks of meat, dairy, and farmed fish producers. One large take away from this year’s study was the lack of attention given to environmental and animal welfare by some of the world’s largest protein producers.

The FAIRR Index looked at 60 different companies and found evidence of lacking sustainability efforts for greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, food waste, conditions for workers, antibiotic use, and animal welfare. Only 30% of the analyzed companies were able to give the researchers specific environmental strategy plans which focused only on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. One-quarter of the companies refused to even disclose their use of antibiotics on their animals.

As more research regarding climate change emerges, this isn’t just a problem for consumers. The conversation is shifting toward some of the financial consequences of severe weather for these large companies.

“What we’re seeing is that companies in the sector are contributing to many of the risks we discuss in the report, but they’re also deeply vulnerable…to the impacts of climate change,” says FAIRR’s Head of Research, Aarti Ramachandran. In an interview with Forbes, Ramachandran gave an example of an Australian Agricultural Company that lost over $100 million in damages due to extreme flooding.

Ramachandran does leave the report on a positive note acknowledging the increased investments in plant-based proteins by meat and dairy companies. He stated, “we think that, overall, there should be a rebalancing of protein so that animal protein consumption doesn’t continue to grow at the same trajectory, and so that there is a sustainable balance between plant-based and animal-based food.”

On The Radio- Ohio’s bug invasion


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Mayfly (Paul/flickr)

Kasey Dresser| August 26, 2019

This weeks segment looks at the dramatic increase in summer mayflies in Ohio. 

Transcript: 

Part of northeastern Ohio went through a mayfly invasion this summer like never before. 

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus 

The Mayfly swarm was so dense that weather radars picked up the swarm of mayflies as they moved out of Lake Erie into the nearby cities. 

Mayflies covered cars, buildings, and storefronts. Mayflies are not uncommon for Ohio residents; however, the high volume of mayflies that have descended on some areas is undoubtedly out of the ordinary. 

Mayflies like clean water and they love to hatch their eggs in Lake Erie.  They lay their eggs on top of the water surface and they sink into the lake sediment. In about a one to three years, they ascend to the surface, emerging fully winged and ready to take flight. 

Mayflies do not have a long-life cycle. Individual mayflies live up to two days after they emerge. A swarm of mayflies typically lasts about a month. 

According to The Ohio State University, Sea Grant College Program this is a good thing because a swarm is a sign of healthy water in the Great Lakes. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency uses insect population data to determine how clean the water is in the Great Lakes.

For more information, visit Iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org. 

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E. Mason.

Experts encourage towns to invest in composting


Photo by Plan for Opportunity, Flickr.

By Julia Shanahan | August 2nd, 2019

Composting all organic waste could eliminate one-third of materials sent to landfills and trash incinerators, according to a study from Composting in America, U.S. PIRG Education Fund, Environment America Research, and Policy Center and Frontier Group.

The reports says that each year the U.S. disposes of enough organic material  to fill 18-wheelers stretching from New York to Los Angeles ten times over. Only 326 U.S. towns nationwide provide curbside food pickup, leaving people no option but to throw food scraps in the trash.

The report says that increasing composting would help replenish soil and prevent erosion, reduce the need for chemical fertilizers, and help combat climate change. Composting excess organic material would help pull carbon out of the atmosphere and return nutrients to the soil. 

In Iowa, some small compost facilities are exempt from solid-waste permits, but must adhere to a list of requirements: facilities must be greater than 500 feet away from any inhabited residence, outside of wetlands, 200 feet away from any public well, and runoff from the composting operation must be correctly managed – according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

The national report lists several things that would make composting more accessible and user-friendly, saying that towns should offer curbside pickup for organic waste, make composting programs affordable, require commercial organic-waste producers to compost excess materials, and to encourage local markets to buy back compost materials to distribute to public projects or community projects.