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.   

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.

Perchlorate Contamination Is More Dangerous Than Previously Thought


Via Flickr

Thomas Robinson | June 9th, 2020

In a new study, researchers have suggested that perchlorate, a chemical commonly found in fireworks, is more dangerous to human health than was previously thought.

Perchlorate is a highly mobile chemical that can be found in many contaminated sites across the country.  In their study, the researchers discovered that perchlorate poses a greater threat to human health than previously thought because it can reduce the amount of iodide that accumulates in thyroid cells.  Low iodide concentrations can interfere with hormone production which can negatively influence human metabolism and development.

Perchlorate has both synthetic and natural routes into the environment, but a common source for the chemical is from fireworks displays.  A different study demonstrated that after fireworks displays, perchlorate levels in adjacent bodies of water spiked up to 1028 times above the mean baseline concentration.

Iowa has experienced perchlorate contamination in Hills, IA, where the chemical has been detected in the communities well water since 2001.  Thankfully, perchlorate levels have decreased after the installation of expensive reverse osmosis water units.  Unfortunately, considering the risk perchlorate likely poses to human health, the EPA has yet to decide on a maximum contaminant level (MCL) for perchlorate in drinking water.

Drowning of Coastal Marshland in Louisiana is Likely Inevitable


Via Flickr

Thomas Robinson | May 25th, 2020

Coastal marshes in the Gulf of Mexico have been shown to have tipping points in a new study.  Tipping points, are when coastal marshes are unable to keep up with the rate of sea-level rise and become submerged over time destroying the marsh ecosystem.

Sediment cores were used from the Mississippi Delta to investigate how coastal marshes reacted to changes in their environment over the past 8,500 years.  Researchers found that even a small increase in the rate of sea level rise would result in large areas of coastal marshland becoming submerged.  Researchers found that rates above 3 millimeters per year is the likely threshold for coastal marshes to survive.  Unfortunately, current rates of sea-level rise are beyond that threshold suggesting that the remaining marshes in the Delta will likely drown within the century.

Coastal wetlands, such as marshes, are one of the most valuable ecosystems in the world.  They are extremely productive regions that have significant environmental and economic benefits.  They provide homes for diverse ecosystems that can benefit species diversity which results in robust fisheries.  Coastal wetlands also provide flood protection and erosion control for coastal areas which help to reduce the effect storms have on the coastline.

As coastal wetlands in the Mississippi River Basin are stressed from sea-level rise, they are also inundated with sediment and nutrients flowing from upstream.  Iowa is a major contributor to this issue and even though efforts are underway to alleviate the stress, coastal wetlands will be negatively affected by the state’s agriculture for years to come.

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.

 

EPA Suspends Enforcement of Environmental Compliance Reporting During COVID-19 Pandemic


(Image via Flickr)

Nicole Welle | April 16th, 2020

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released an order on March 26 announcing the suspension of the enforcement of environmental compliance reporting in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before this change, businesses were required to report and limit all air emissions and water discharges, meet requirement for hazardous waste management and maintain standards for safe drinking water. Businesses that failed to meet these EPA-issued standards could face fines.

The recent order states that factories, power plants, and other facilities are encouraged to keep records of any instances of non-compliance with EPA instituted regulations. However, they will not face any fines for violations as long as the EPA agrees that the COVID-19 pandemic, rather than intentional disregard for the law, is the cause.

In its order, the EPA did not designate an end date for the suspension or address the potential ramifications this decision could have for public health and safety. Allowing industry to police itself could cause air and water pollution to go unchecked and put the safety of drinking water at risk, according to the Iowa Environmental Council.

Compromising access to clean water could make it more difficult for the U.S. healthcare system to provide the sanitary conditions necessary for fighting the COVID-19 pandemic according to the IEC. The Washington Post also reported that the wording of the EPA’s order is broad enough that companies could get away with practices that put public health at risk well into the future.

Dakota Access Pipeline to double its oil under Iowa


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The path of the Dakota Access Pipeline (via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

Julia Poska | March 30, 2020

Oil flowing under Iowa through the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline will soon double, as permitted by the Iowa Utilities Board Friday.

Where there were previously 550,000 barrels of oil daily, there will be 1.1 million barrels,  according to the Des Moines Register.  The Register reported that the state determined risk of increased spill probability or volume to be low.

The Dakota Access Pipeline, which carries oil from the Dakotas to Illinois, was heavily protested in 2016 and 2017 by the Standing Rock Sioux and allies. Critics feared that the pipeline, which passes under the Missouri River, would contaminate water supplies on the Standing Rock Reservation.

The Iowa Utilities Board order occurred two days after a federal judge on Wednesday ordered a major environmental review of the Dakota Access Pipeline to more thoroughly assess risk of environmental contamination.

 

Mussels as water cleaning ‘ecosystem engineers’


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Mussels play helpful roles in river ecosystems (via Creative Commons). 

Julia Poska | March 12, 2020

A group of citizens in Muscatine, Iowa are pushing to restore the over harvested Mississippi River mussel population. The “Mussels of Muscatine” group hopes to create learning opportunities, reverse damage to the river ecosystem and improve water quality.

The group wants to convert a dilapidated pump house into a mussel research and propagation facility, according to the Des Moines RegisterThat plan faces several logistical hurdles, but the idea that mussels could help reverse some of Iowa’s water quality degradation is valid.

CGRER member Craig Just, a University of Iowa associate professor of environmental engineering described mussel’s role as ‘ecosystem engineers’ to the Register. As the molluscs filter nutrients from the water to feed, they remove pollutants like nitrogen. Just said mussels can also remove microorganisms like algae and phytoplankton, which are harmful to ecosystems when their populations explode.

Just pointed to several challenges to restoring the Mississippi mussels as well. Iowa soil erodes into waterways at high rates, which would bury mussels and prevent them from reproducing. Mussels also must eject their larvae into fish gills, a difficult process to recreate in a lab or propagation facility.

EnvIowa Podcast: Talking climate and contamination with Co-Director Jerry Schnoor


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Jerry Schnoor speaking at the release of the 2019 Iowa Climate Statement (photo by Kasey Dresser). 

Julia Poska |March 2, 2020

This week’s episode of EnvIowa features a discussion with CGRER co-director Dr. Jerry Schnoor. He is, among other things, a professor of civil and environmental engineering with a long career studying climate change, water quality and environmental toxicology. Listen to hear Schnoor discuss the urgency of climate change, his efforts to clean up chemical pollution using plants and why he wants our youth to get angry.