September 2017 record-setting month for hurricanes


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A satellite image of Hurricane Maria. (Sturart Rankin/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | October 4, 2017

September 2017 was a record-setting calendar month for hurricane activity in the Atlantic ocean.

The beginning of September brought Hurricane Harvey, a category four storm which caused unprecedented damage to the U.S.’s fourth largest city, Houston. Five additional hurricanes left paths destruction across the Caribbean and Florida later in September, with Irma and Maria both reaching category five status.

It is common for September to be the most active month for hurricanes because low pressure systems often move across the Atlantic from Africa and meet the tropical waters of the Caribbean at this time, but September 2017 was a cut above the rest. According to Phil Klotzbach of Colorado State University, September 2017 featured 18 “major hurricane days,” beating 1961’s record of 17.25 “major hurricane days.” Last month, the overall intensity and duration of storms, known as “accumulated cyclone energy,” was 175 units, significantly higher than September 2014’s record of 155 units.

While climate change has not been found to cause hurricanes, there is evidence to say that rising sea temperatures cause hurricanes to be more intense.

Drinking water symposium in Des Moines poses tough questions


Jenna Ladd | September 22, 2017

Government officials, college faculty, students of all ages, legislators, farmers and concerned citizens were among the 170 attendees at the Challenges to Providing Safe Drinking Water in the Midwest, a symposium held at Drake University Thursday and Friday.

Organized by the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination, the one-and-a-half day event featured seventeen speakers from across the country and the state of Iowa.

The hypoxic Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico grew larger than ever before this year, totaling 8,766 square miles, an area equal to the size of New Jersey. It is well known that nitrate runoff from agricultural fields is largely responsible for rendering this part of the Gulf unable to sustain aquatic life, but how does nitrate in our water affect the humans that are drinking it?

Citing past and current studies, Dr. Mary Ward of the National Cancer Institute noted that while nitrate itself is not a carcinogen per say, it does interact with compounds in the body to create nitroso compounds, which are known carcinogens. Nitroso compounds have been found to be carcinogenic in 39 animal species including all nonhuman primates, even when nitrate concentration in drinking water is less than 10 milligrams per liter (mg/L), which is the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s limit for nitrate in drinking water.

The Iowa Women’s Health Study, which monitors the health of 42,000 post-menopausal Iowa women—most of whom drink municipal drinking water—found that women who drank water with elevated nitrate levels for a prolonged period of time had twice the risk of ovarian and bladder cancer. There are some protective measures consumers can take to reduce the likelihood that nitrate will become a carcinogenic once in the body. Eating plenty of vegetables and fruits that are rich in vitamin C and antioxidants can block the formation of cancerous nitroso compounds.

Scientists can also say with confidence that nitrate pollution in drinking water significantly increases the likelihood that pregnant women will give birth to babies with neural tube defects such as spina bifida and anencephaly, according to Dr. Jean Brender, professor emeritus at the Texas A&M School of Public Health. Dr. Brender also presented findings that suggested an association between nitrate pollution and children born with cleft palates and limb deficiencies during Thursday morning’s plenary session.

A common thread between most nitrate and human health impact studies is that researchers notice adverse public health effects even when nitrate concentration are at 5 mg/L, which is half of the EPA’s 10 mg/L action level.

After lunch, retired director of the Iowa City Water Department, Ed Moreno, provided the perspective of the water utilities, who work to remove contaminants and provide safe drinking water costing an average of just $0.004 per gallon. Moreno emphasized that drinking water treatment is an increasingly technical process that can be difficult to communicate to the public. With so many health risks related to the consumption of drinking water contaminants, who’s responsibility is it to communicate drinking water quality risks to the public?

Moreno said much of the responsibility lies with the public utility, however, he said, “Explaining the risk is a challenge for us. We need partners, public health people, people who are going to say it like it needs to be said,” Moreno added with a chuckle, “We’re engineers, you know.”

Dr. David Cwiertney, associate professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Iowa, highlighted the EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online, or ECHO, an online database that allows citizens to check their community utility’s compliance with federal environmental regulations free of charge. Cwiertney said, “We should be doing better community education about the resources they have. The internet is a wonderful thing.”

Aside from nitrate pollution, experts in disinfectant byproducts, blue green algae blooms, neonicotinoids, and endocrine disruptors shared their drinking water research at the symposium.

Thursday began with a keynote address from Neil Hamilton, professor of law at Drake University. Hamilton detailed Iowa’s rich history as a nationwide leader in environmental and water quality policy, dating back to the work of Ada Hayden and Aldo Leopold in the beginning of the 20th century. After state legislators failed for the seventh year in a row to approve funding for voter-approved water quality improvement measures, even as Iowans are exposed to heightened risks for cancer and birth defects without it, Hamilton’s closing question echoed loudly in the Drake University conference room, “Has our legacy of leadership become an ephemeral gully of inaction?”

Safe drinking water symposium next week in Des Moines


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Jenna Ladd| September 14, 2017

Water quality has been a growing concern for many Iowans in recent years, primarily due to nitrate runoff from agricultural fields frequently exceeding the EPA’s safe drinking water limits. A safe drinking water symposium will be held next Thursday and Friday, September 21 and 22 in Des Moines to unpack this issue and many others.

Challenges to Providing Safe Drinking Water in the Midwest” will feature Iowa-based and nationally-recognized speakers and discussion panels related to local, regional and national water quality issues. A few of the topics to be discussed are the Health Impacts of Nitrate in Drinking Water, Drinking Water Treatment Concerns, New and Emerging Drinking Water Threats, and Communicating with the Public on Drinking Water Issues.

The one-and-a-half-day event is co-sponsored by several centers at the University of Iowa, Drake University, the University of Northern Iowa as well as the Iowa Association of Water Agencies, and the Central Iowa Drinking Water Commission.

The event, which will be held at the Drake University Shivers Facility, is open to the public. Additional information regarding agenda, registration, hotel, and parking is available at https://cph.uiowa.edu/ehsrc/drinking-water-symposium-2017.html.  Alternatively, call (319) 335-4756 to speak with an organizer.

What: Challenges to Providing Safe Drinking Water in the Midwest: A Symposium

When: September 21 from 8 am to 5 pm, September 22 from 8 am to 12 pm

Where: Drake University, Shivers Facility, Des Moines

Wildfires bring smoke to Iowa


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Smoke from a wildfire this May billows over a local road. (flickr/Michael Lusk)
Jenna Ladd| September 5, 2017

A yellowish haze blanketed most of eastern Iowa this Labor Day weekend thanks to wildfires in the western U.S. and Canada.

Wildfires throughout Montana, Manitoba and Saskatchewan are credited with much of this weekend’s smoke. Just this Sunday, evacuations were ordered for Glacier National Park in Montana and 140 campers were rescued from a smoldering forest on Sunday in Oregon.

As the climate changes, wet areas become wetter and dry areas become drier, allowing for longer wildfire seasons in many parts of the western U.S. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, compared to the 1980’s, wildfires now last nearly five times as long, occur almost four times as often and burn more than six times the land area on average.

National Weather Service meteorologist Dave Cousins said that this weekend’s haze cut visibility at Davenport Municipal Airport by two and a half miles.

A report out of Dubuque revealed that the Air Quality Index (AQI) in the area is moderate to unhealthy for individuals sensitive to poor area quality.

Interactive tool to predict future days above 100 degrees


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With a new web-based platform, users can see hot day projections for many U.S. cities and towns. (Climate Central)
Jenna Ladd| August 18, 2017

By now it’s common knowledge that as greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in our atmosphere, intensely high temperatures are likely to occur more frequently.

But Climate Central, a climate research and news organization, has developed a way for residents of the continental U.S. to see exactly how much their communities will be affected. The interactive tool allows users to type in the name of their city or town and view the average number of days that will exceed specific temperature thresholds in 2050, 2075 and 2100.

The analysis includes data for nearly 30,000 cities and towns of various sizes from across the continental U.S. Each graph provides two possible outcomes: one in which greenhouse gas emissions continue as usual and one in which they are moderately curtailed.

Researchers based their projections on aggregated data from 21 global climate models.

At present, Des Moines experiences an average of zero days per year when the actual temperature is above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. According to this study, the city will likely see 15 days annually that exceed the temperature threshold in 2050 and up to 30 per year in 2100.

This year is on track to be the hottest year ever, followed by 2016, 2015, and 2014, respectively.

Lyme disease more common due to climate change


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Deer ticks thrive in hot and humid forested areas. (flickr/Joslyn Gallant)
Jenna Ladd| August 17, 2017

As temperatures and humidity rise in the United States, conditions are becoming more favorable for disease-carrying deer ticks.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that climate change has expanded the geographical range of ticks. Deer ticks specifically are most active when temperatures are above 45 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity is at least 85 percent. As temperatures and humidity rise in many parts of North America, so too are tick populations. The EPA reports that the incidence of Lyme disease in the U.S. has doubled since 1991.

The Northeastern U.S. has experienced the sharpest increase Lyme disease transmission. This part of the country is becoming more humid, making conditions better for ticks to emerge from the ground and latch onto hosts. New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont have seen the largest spike in Lyme disease incidence since 1991, followed closely by Delaware and Massachusetts. On average, the EPA reports, these states now see 50 to 100 more cases per 100,000 people than they did in 1991.

In the future, deer tick populations are expected to double in the U.S. and become up to five times more numerous in Canada.

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Incidence of Lyme disease per 100,000 people. (EPA)

On The Radio – PCB sources located in schools


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Researchers found concentrations of PCBs to be higher indoors regardless of the school’s location. (Gordon Lew/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| July 31, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses a recent University of Iowa study which revealed that dated building materials in schools release PCBs into the air.

Transcript: In the largest study of its kind, UI Researchers recently made important discoveries related to the presence of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in schools.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Led by the Iowa Superfund Research Program, the study tested indoor and outdoor air samples from six schools for PCBs. PCBs are a class of manmade organic chemicals known to cause cancer as well as immune, endocrine and reproductive system problems in humans.

The study found that regardless of the school’s location, from Columbus Junction in rural Iowa to heavy industrial areas of East Chicago, concentrations of PCBs were higher indoors. PCBs were commonly used in construction and manufacturing through 1979. The research article, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, points to old window caulking and light ballasts as likely sources of PCBs in schools.

Research has shown that exposure to PCBs during childhood can cause significant neurological deficits, visual impairment and learning difficulties. Schools in the U.S. are not currently required to measure PCB concentrations.

For more information or to read the full study, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.