Around 1 in 3 Children Globally Have Blood Lead Levels Above CDC Action Levels


Via Flickr

Thomas Robinson | August 4th, 2020

Around 800 million children globally have blood lead levels at or above 5 micrograms per decilitre according to a new report from UNICEF. 

UNICEF reports that children around the world are exposed to lead on a previously unknown scale. Most of the affected children live in parts of Africa and Asia but there are also affected populations living in Central and South America, as well as parts of Europe.  Children are exposed to lead through the inhalation or ingestion of lead particles from contaminated drinking water or materials such as lead paint.  One particularly concerning route of exposure is from poorly recycled lead-acid batteries.  These batteries are becoming increasingly common as countries begin to develop and introduce vehicles.

Lead is known to have cumulative and adverse health effects on children’s development.  Lead impairs brain functions and can also cause damage to the nervous system and the heart.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describe an actionable level of 5 micrograms per decilitre to identify children with blood levels higher than most.  Unfortunately, no amount of lead is safe as even low blood lead levels have been linked to long term cognitive impairment.    

The United States is not immune from lead contamination in drinking water as can be seen through high profile events such as Flint, MI or Washington, DC.  Recent work in Iowa is looking to determine the extent of lead in local school’s drinking water which can be used to inform schools if they need to replace failing infrastructure.

Researchers Develop a New Method for Capturing Micropastics in Water


Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | July 13, 2020

Researchers at Shinshu University developed a promising new method for removing microplastics from water that involves using acoustics to separate and capture them.

Because microplastics are so small, traditional methods for removing them, like using filters and sieves, have been insufficient in filtering out the majority of microplastics from oceans and rivers. Filters are too big to filter out tiny particles and are prone to clogging, so they need to be regularly cleaned or replaced and are impractical for large-scale use.

Professor Hiroshi Moriwaki and Associate Professor Yoshitake Akiyama at Shinshu University created a device that uses piezo vibrations to collect microplastics and microplastic fibers. By using acoustics at a force and amplitude appropriate for size and compressibility of the microplastics, they found they could successfully collect it in the middle of a three-channel device, according to an ENN article. This device gathers debris in a middle channel while clean water flows out the two side channels.

This process could greatly improve our ability to filter microplastics from oceans and rivers in the future. However, improvements to the device’s draining system and further developments in its ability to capture tiny nanoplastics must occur before it can be implemented worldwide.

New Flood Risk Assessment Suggests Higher Risks Than Previously Thought


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Thomas Robinson | June 30, 2020

A new report from the First Street Foundation shows that flooding risk across the country is likely under represented.

New calculations reported in “The First National Flood Risk Assessment” suggest that almost twice the number of properties have a heightened flood risk compared to the FEMA Special Flood Hazard Area (SFHA) 1 in 100 layer.  The SFHA identifies properties with a heightened flood risk and influences decisions made for flood insurance and housing mortgages. FEMA identifies around 8.7 million properties to be at risk from a 100 year flood while the new risk assessment estimates 14.6 million properties to be at risk. 

To estimate the 14.6 million properties, the new report included small creeks that were ignored on federal maps, rainfall and sea-level rise.  The risk assessment includes areas where flood mapping is either incomplete or out of date which contributes to the increase in the number of at risk properties. 

For Iowa, the report suggested an additional 141,300 properties were at risk in the state compared with the SFHA measure.  The report identified Council Bluffs as the city with the most properties at risk (11,000 properties), followed closely by Des Moines (9,000 properties).

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.

Remnants of Tropical Storm Cristobal Reach Iowa in a Rare Occurrence


Source: NASA earth observatory

Nicole Welle | June 10, 2020

Parts of Eastern Iowa saw heavy rainfall and flash flood warnings yesterday as what was left of Tropical Storm Cristobal moved into the Midwest.

Tropical storms over the Gulf of Mexico usually break up before they reach Iowa, but this one remained a post-tropical depression in an extremely rare phenomenon, according to Meteorologist Brooke Hagenhoff at the National Weather Service. This system brought an abrupt end to the hot, humid weather that eastern Iowans had been experiencing as it was followed by a cold front that brought cooler, dryer conditions, according to an Iowa News Now article.

The post-tropical depression caused heavy rainfall in the state, and flash flooding occurred near waterways and in low areas. Along with posing threats to human safety, flash floods can also raise environmental concerns. Floods have the ability to pick up hazardous chemicals and materials and transport them into waterways. This can threaten the safety of drinking water as well as the plant and animal life that rely on Iowa’s waterways.

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.

A Study Reveals that the Missouri River Basin Was Recently the Driest It’s Been in 1,200 Years


Image via Flickr

Nicole Welle | May 14th, 2020

Between 2000 and 2010, the Missouri River was the driest it has been in 1,200 years, according to a study published Monday.

The study showed that rising temperatures linked to climate change was the cause. The higher temperatures reduced snowfall in the rocky mountains, resulting in reduced runoff into the Missouri River basin. Researchers involved with “The Turn-Of-The-Century Drought Study” studied instrumental data on water levels collected over the last 100 years but had to rely on tree rings to give them an idea of when droughts occurred and how severe they were over previous centuries. This study concluded that the Missouri River has not been that low since a single drought event in the 13th century.

Continued droughts could be disastrous for farmers in the Midwest who rely on the Missouri River for crop irrigation and municipalities that use it as a fresh water source. Species of freshwater fish and waterfowl, tourism industries, and hydropower production along the Missouri River could also be negatively impacted, according to a Washington Post article.

This study only focussed on the years between 2000 and 2010, but data from more recent years shows that droughts in the Midwest are likely to increase in frequency and severity in coming years due to climate change.

Climate Change Could Improve Hydropower Generation


via Flickr

Thomas Robinson | May 12, 2020

Researchers suggest that climate change will result in a larger benefit to hydropower generation if the 1.5˚C Paris climate goal is met, than if it is exceeded.

The researchers modelled how climate change would influence hydropower production for the tropical island of Sumatra and found a 40% increase in the ratio of hydropower production to demand at the 1.5˚C mark compared to 2.0˚C.  The model used by the researchers included both climate, and economic factors which were used to explore how increased temperatures would influence hydropower potential.  The study emphasized the importance of finding optimal locations for new hydropower plants considering the reality of a changing climate. 

Hydropower is an essential resource for the world’s carbon free energy supply and is expected to be an important component for improving energy systems around the world. In Iowa, wind and solar energy make up a larger fraction of Iowa’s renewable energy than hydropower.  In 2018, only 1.5% of Iowa’s electricity was generated from hydroelectric sources but it is thought that approximately 5% of the state’s electricity usage could come from hydropower if changes were made. 

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.