Report details health effects of exposure to common road material slag


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Slag is used to cheaply supplement gravel on roads like this one (flickr). 

Julia Poska | January 11, 2019

A report from the Iowa Department of Public Health has stirred up concern in Muscatine County and around the state this week over the health effects of steel slag, a cheap waste product from steel manufacturing that’s used to supplement gravel on rural roads.

Muscatine County has used slag in county roads for over 5 years, and many private homes and businesses use the material as well. Residents have complained to the county about bits of metal in the roads and health concerns about slag dust for years, but this report was the first official indication of risk. It found that children up to 18 years old are exposed to potentially dangerous levels of metals like manganese when playing near slag-supplemented roads.

The Muscatine County Board of Supervisors will vote Monday on whether to stop using slag in county roads, and will likely formulate a plan to remove existing slag. A local slag opposition group will collect samples from households before then to determine current levels of dangerous metals.

Many people are upset that the state and county allowed slag to be used in roads to begin with, and are unhappy with Muscatine County’s initial response to the report.

“I suppose that all county boards and city councils have problems, but our county leaders just seem to care about making themselves look good and it makes all the people who they represent look like idiots,” one Muscatine woman write in a letter to the Des Moines Register, who wrote about the issue in depth earlier this week.

The news has alarmed people in other Iowa counties as well. Engineers in Marion, Warren, Winnebago and other counties have since conducted tests for dangerous slag on their own roads.

 

Carbon dioxide makes food less nutritious


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Less nutritious crops could pose health problems for many people worldwide who rely heavily on rice as their main food source. (Rob Bertholf/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | April 5, 2018

The changing climate is forcing farmers to adapt, but how do rising greenhouse gas levels impact the food on our dinner plates?

A Harvard School of Public Health study looked at how more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere affects nutrient levels in six primary food crops: wheat, rice, field peas, soybeans, corn and sorghum. The researchers split plants of the same crop up between two groups. The first group was cultivated in an environment with between 363 and 386 parts per million carbon dioxide (CO2). This was the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere at the time of the study, in 2014. The second group of plants grew up in an environment with between 546 to 586 parts per million of the greenhouse gas in the air. This is roughly the concentration of CO2 expected to be in Earth’s atmosphere within fifty years.

When it was time, the scientists harvested the crops and measured levels of key nutrients in them. They looked specifically at zinc, protein and iron. The study found that plants grown in environments with higher concentrations of CO2 were less nutritious than their counterparts. Wheat, rice and soybeans were all found to have lower levels of zinc, protein and iron in the higher CO2 conditions.

Animal products are the primary source of protein for most people in the U.S., but people in other parts of the world rely heavily on rice and wheat as their main protein providers. These foods are naturally low in protein and further deficiency could be devastating. One study in the Journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that these projected impacts could cause an additional 150 million people worldwide to be protein deficient by 2050. Protein deficiency can cause low birth weight and other health problems that stunt growth and development.

Allergy season longer because of climate change


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Pollen from ragweed is a common allergen for people with seasonal allergies. (Stacey Doswell/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | March 21, 2018

Tuesday was the first day of spring, but that is not good news for everyone. Last year was the worst year for seasonal allergies and experts expect this year to bring more of the same. Climate change is allowing for pollen-producing plants to bloom early and stay alive longer as warmer seasons grow in length.

Allergen and pollen counts are skyrocketing and the length of allergy season is growing around the country thanks to higher average temperatures. Since 1995, the length of ragweed allergy season in Iowa has increased by 15 days according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Center for Disease Control reports that more than 50 million U.S. citizens now have seasonal allergies each year, and that number is growing. Medical experts have reported that many people are beginning to suffer from seasonal allergies for the first time during adulthood. Allergy symptoms can range from itchy eyes and sneezing to potentially life-threatening anaphylactic shock. It is estimated that these symptoms cost the U.S. healthcare system $3.4 billion and $11.2 billion every year in direct medical expenses, and keep many Americans home from work.

Dr. Joseph Shapiro, an allergist and immunologist from California told CBS news, “A recent study showed that pollen counts are likely to double by the year 2040, so in a little more than 20 years we’re going to see a significant increase [in seasonal allergies].”

More common and intense seasonal allergies are just one of the human health consequences of climate change. Studies have shown that U.S. residents can also expect increased incidences of heat-related illness, higher risk for diseases from vectors like ticks and respiratory complications related to poor air quality. A complete map of climate change’s effect on human health in specific regions of the U.S. can be found here.

German court gives cities authority to ban diesel vehicles


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Munich is one of the German cities that routinely exceeds European Union NOx emission limits. (Vladimer Shioshvili/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | March 1, 2017

Germany’s federal court ruled on Tuesday that cities can ban diesel vehicles in order to lower air pollution.

Environmental Action Germany has been filing lawsuits against cities for years to encourage municipalities to implement policies that curb air pollution. German government statistics reveal that some 6,000 people die each year from nitrogen oxide pollution, 60 percent of which comes from vehicles on the road. Diesel engines in particular spew more NOx than gasoline engines and are more popular in Europe.

The ruling does not require communities to ban diesel driving, rather it grants them the legal authority to do so if air pollution in their city remains above the European Union limit for NOx in the air. Seventy German cities surpassed that threshold at least once last year.

Banning diesel vehicles would have negative implications for the country’s automotive industry. Since the ruling, the German government has proposed some measures to decrease pollution and avoid the ban, which include providing free public transportation and refitting existing diesel vehicles to meet clean air standards. However, it is unclear how the government would pay for such measures.

Germany is merely the latest country making a move away from diesel engines. Paris, Madrid, Mexico City and Athens have policies in place to ban diesel vehicles from city centers before 2025.

Trump administration works to reverse over 65 environmental policies


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The federal government no longer requires new infrastructure projects to meet flood protection guidelines. (Melissa Galvez/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | February 7, 2018

Since taking office about a year ago, the Trump administration has moved to eliminate over 65 environmental regulations and policies, according to a report from the New York Times Climate Team.

The report aggregated data from climate deregulation policy trackers from the environmental law programs at Harvard University and Columbia University to come up with a total of 67 environmental regulations that the administration has sought to rollback. Reporters split the policies into three categories: those that have already been overturned, those that are on their way to being overturned and those whose fate is unclear due of court actions.  The largest category of 33 rules are those that have already been reversed.

There are a few among them that are most relevant for Iowans. First, the administration has reversed an Obama-era regulation that required federal buildings and infrastructure projects to be constructed in accordance with higher flood protection standards. Under this rule, new projects in flood plains would have had to be either elevated or flood proofed at a minimum of two feet above the 100-year floodplain. Recent research from the University of Iowa’s Flood Center found that as the climate continues to warm, the risk of flooding in Iowa and the northern U.S. is increasing.

The administration has also opted to reject the Environmental Projection Agency’s research on a particular pesticide and allow for its further use. Following the EPA’s study of the pesticide chlorpyrifos, which found to pose a risk for fetal brain and nervous system development, the Obama administration proposed a ban of the pesticide. Trump-appointed EPA administrator Scott Pruitt argued that further study of the chemical is needed prior to a ban.

The list of environmental policies reversed by the administration goes on, and just three have been successfully reinstated after environmental groups sued the Trump administration.

On The Radio – California lists glyphosate as a carcinogen


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Glyphosate is an active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup. (Mike Mozart/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | December 18, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses how some farm groups are suing California for considering glyphosate a cancer causing chemical. 

Transcript: Iowa and a dozen other state farm groups are suing California for listing glyphosate as a cancer causing chemical.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

California’s Proposition 65 law from 1986 requires the state to protect drinking water from chemicals that can cause cancer or reproductive harm. And businesses must warn their users about potential chemical danger.

Glyphosate is a herbicide used in 250 crops and a key ingredient in Monsanto’s top selling weed killer, RoundUp. Back in 2016 Monsanto sued California to block the glyphosate listing but in July of this year, California made the decision to list glyphosate as a carcinogen.

This decision will cost Iowa farmers around 5 billion dollars. Crops with glyphosate will have to be separated, meaning extra time and labor costs not to mention a drastic drop in sales. Products with even trace amounts of glyphosate will be required to be labeled by 2018 in the state of California.

Glyphosate is believed to be one of the safer herbicides. It was approved by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the 1970s and is frequently re-tested. However, the International Agency for Research on Cancer determined glyphosate as a potential cancer causing substance in 2015.

The debate about glyphosate and its effects on human health will likely continue following California’s actions.

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

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

On The Radio – United Nations Environment Programme seeks to tackle air pollution


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The United Nations warned of the many human health impacts pollution poses. (United Nations/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | December 11, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses how the United Nations released an anthology with suggested methods for reducing pollution worldwide. 

Transcript: As global pollution increases, action is needed now more than ever. 

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus. 

United Nations Environment Programme recently released The Executive Director’s Report: Towards A Pollution-Free Planet, an anthology that pulls environmental data from every continent and suggests general methods for reducing pollution globally. 

The report suggests that nobody is free from the effects of global pollution. Around one in four deaths globally are caused by environmental degradation, and governments must take action to reduce pollution in all its forms if they want to reduce the negative side effects of a damaged environment. 

Every aspect of global environmental damage must be examined and monitored, from waste disposal to the burning of fossil fuels. The people most effected by pollution are working class laborers in cities, since around 80% of big cities internationally do not meet the UN standards for clean air. 

Children, elderly and other vulnerable populations are disproportionately affected by air pollution. 

The statistics are sobering, but the report suggests that with better government control and a serious approach to pollution, we can all work together to better the environment and our health. 

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

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

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