Areas Devastated by Wildfires Face Emerging Water Contamination Challenge


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Thomas Robinson | October 6th, 2020

Attention is being drawn to municipal water contamination in Californian towns after exposure to devastating wildfires.

After the Camp fires ravaged California in 2018, testing of municipal water systems revealed widespread contamination by volatile organic compounds (VOCs).  Unfortunately, it isn’t known exactly how VOCs infiltrate the water pipes, however, it is thought that potentially melted plastics, or contaminated air and broken pipes could be the cause. Another issue for the recovering areas is that many water pipes in California are polyethylene based, which can melt during fires.  These pipes can absorb VOCs flowing through them and release them over a longer time period at lower concentrations.

One chemical measured in water tests that could be absorbed and leeched over time is Benzene, a known human carcinogen.  Benzene showed up at levels over two thousand times the federal level in drinking water samples after the Tubbs fire in 2017.  Benzene is part of a family of contaminants called BTEX which are connected to petroleum products. 

Fire damaged drinking water systems pose another challenge for struggling families returning to their homes after wildfires.  Contamination at the levels observed after wildfire events can lead to acute and chronic health outcomes, which will leave their mark on the affected communities for years to come.

UI Chemists Study Nanomaterials in Batteries and their Effects on Plant Health


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Nicole Welle | September 28, 2020

The Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology (CSN) recently received new funding to continue studying how some nanomaterials in rechargeable batteries and phones can harm the environment and now other nanoparticles can improve soybean plant health.

The CSN is a multi-institutional venture and includes the University of Iowa where Sara E. Mason, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry, led a group that determined how toxic metal ions released by batteries dissolve in water. The sophisticated models used in her studies can be used in designing rechargeable batteries with fewer negative effects on the environment in the future, according to an Iowa Now article.

The CSN received an initial grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation in 2012. The new round of funding will last through 2025 and allow Mason’s group to work with a new partner, the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, to expand their research. At the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, researchers recently discovered that copper oxide nanomaterials can help soybean plants with fungal infections recover and return to a healthy growth cycle. Mason’s team was able to combine their modeling system with this new information to discover which class of nanomaterials worked best to improve the plants’ health. The journal Nature Nanotechnology has accepted the results of their research.

The team will continue to learn more about nanomaterials in batteries and their effects on plant health, and they are currently searching for undergraduates to join in on their efforts.

Half of Soil Phosphorus Losses Attributed to Erosion


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Thomas Robinson | September 15th, 2020

According to a recent study, global phosphorus levels in soils are declining despite high levels of applied chemical fertilizers and soil erosion is to blame.

Researchers have analyzed global phosphorus levels in soils and found that all continents, except for Asia, Oceania, and Australia, have net negative soil phosphorus balances.  Phosphorus loss from soils poses a challenge to the global food supply because without phosphorus, an essential plant nutrient, crops are more susceptible to disease, and are likely to have stunted growth.  The most striking finding in the study was that around 50% of phosphorus losses from soils was attributed to soil erosion, a preventable but commonly neglected aspect of agriculture. 

Unfortunately, the phosphorus lost because of soil erosion poses another threat in the form of eutrophication. Eutrophication is caused by high levels of nutrients in aquatic ecosystems and is associated with declining water quality.  The increased nutrient concentrations promote large populations of algae, which consume large quantities of oxygen when they die and decompose.

Soil erosion in Iowa is a large concern as millions of tons of Iowa’s soil runs off tilled fields and into the rivers across the state each year.  Since soil erosion has now been identified as a leading cause for phosphorus losses in soils, Iowa is not only losing tons of topsoil per year, but also losing appreciable amounts of phosphorus as well.

Iowa DNR Proposes Budget Increase for Lake Restoration and Water Trails


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Nicole Welle | September 14, 2020

The Iowa Natural Resource Commission endorsed a budget for the DNR with increases for lake water quality projects, water trails and park infrastructure.

The Department of Management ordered the Iowa DNR to use the current budget as a baseline for the 2021-2022 proposal. DNR complied by doubling the budget in those three areas while keeping spending the same elsewhere. Most of the money in the budget comes from fees and grants rather than the state’s general fund, according to a DesMoines Register article.

All of the budget increases will come from the state’s gambling tax receipts if it is approved by the legislature. If the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission approves the current proposal, it will become a baseline for Gov. Kim Reynolds’ next proposal for the department.

Some raised questions about how an increase in the budget would affect possible cuts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. DNR Director Kayla Lyon said that she has not heard of any across-the-board cuts at this time, but it is possible that departments will have to consider reductions in spending later on.

The new budget will be submitted to the Department of Management by Oct. 1.

Microplastics In Farm Soils Have Adverse Effects On Wheat Crops


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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.

EPA Rolls Back Effluent Limits for Coal Power Plants


Graphic of a coal power plant
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Nicole Welle | September 7, 2020

EPA recently announced it was finalizing the “Steam Electric Consideration Rule,” a rule that will roll back requirements limiting toxic discharge from coal power plants

EPA adopted standards to limit this discharge in 2015, but they extended the compliance date to the completion of this new rule. Now, the new rule is set to adopt weaker standards, provide a further extension for compliance and exempt facilities that will switch fuel sources or are scheduled to retire within a set time period, according to an article published by the Iowa Environmental Council (IEC).

The rule outlines new “effluent limit guidelines” under the Clean Water Act for nitrogen and toxic metals like mercury, arsenic and selenium. These guidelines set water quality standards for industrial discharges based on “the best technology that is economically achievable” for power plants. Instead of setting a strict technology-based standard, this allows facilities to determine what treatment to install that will meet discharge limitations.

“Regulations are meant to be protective of the environment, not the industries that cause pollution,” said IEC Water Program Director Ingrid Gronstal Anderson in an IEC article. “Over the last several years, EPA has been rolling back environmental standards in favor of economic interests. This abdication of regulatory responsibility is a clear danger to public health and the environment.”

EPA claims the new rule will do a better job of reducing pollution than the 2015 rule. However, they base their calculations off of the assumption that facilities will instal better technology and achieve more reductions than the rule actually requires.

Des Moines Water Works Calls For Water Conservation In Face of Drought


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Thomas Robinson | September 1st, 2020

Des Moines Water Works is struggling with low water levels and poor water quality leading to calls for water conservation.

Des Moines Water Works, is asking city residents to change their lawn watering schedules to help alleviate high water demand and an abnormally low supply.  The utility is asking that customers who live at even-numbered addresses water their lawns on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays, while odd numbered addresses water on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Residents are also asked to water before 10 am or after 5 pm to avoid water evaporation from their lawns. 

Iowa is facing serious drought conditions across most of the state which has resulted in low river levels in many of Iowa’s waterways.  Des Moines Water Works uses two rivers, the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers, as the primary source for the city’s water.  Low river levels on the Raccoon river are making it difficult to pump water into the city’s treatment plant. To address the issue, flashboards were installed near the Des Moines Water Works’ treatment plant to raise the river level.

Under normal conditions, the water utility would be able to draw from the Des Moines River as well to meet water demands. Unfortunately, the Des Moines River is currently suffering from a toxic algal bloom that has limited the amount of water drawn from that river.  Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) can contaminate waters with toxins, like microcystins, which can cause vomiting, stomach pain, and even pneumonia.

New Study Supports Complete Loss of Arctic Sea Ice by 2035


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Nicole Welle | August 13, 2020

A new study used evidence from a warm period around 127,000 years ago to support predictions that the Arctic could be free of sea ice by 2035.

An international team of researchers used the UK Net Office’s Hadley Centre climate model to compare arctic sea ice conditions from the last interglacial with present day conditions. The new model allowed researchers to better understand how the Arctic became sea ice-free during the last interglacial and to more accurately create model predictions for the future.

The new climate model involves studying shallow pools of water that form on the surface of sea ice in the spring and early summer called melt ponds. Melt ponds are important because they affect how much sunlight is absorbed by the ice and how much is reflected back into space, according to a Science Daily article. Melt ponds facilitate further sea ice melt by creating surfaces that are less reflective and better suited to absorb sunlight.

Researchers discovered that, during the last interglacial, intense sunshine in the spring created large numbers of melt ponds. Because melt ponds heavily impact the rate at which sea ice melts, they were able to compare that model to current conditions and predict that the Arctic may be ice-free by 2035. Scientists working on the study hope that sea ice processes like melt ponds will be further incorporated into climate models in the future, and they are using their findings to emphasize the importance of achieving a low-carbon world as fast as possible.

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


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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


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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.