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.

Researchers use climate data to predict Zika outbreaks


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The Aedes aegypti mosquito transmits many diseases including Zika. (Sanofi Pasteur/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| July 25, 2017

Zika virus spread rampantly throughout the Americas in 2014 and 2015. While the infection itself presents with few noticeable symptoms, it has been linked to an increased number of babies born with microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can result in paralysis.

So far, there have been 5,932 cases of the virus reported in the U.S. and nearly 40,000 in U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico. Zika is transmitted by the Aedes mosquito and human sexual contact.

In a study published recently in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology, researchers developed a way to predict Zika outbreaks before they happen. The scientists used climate data from Zika-prone areas to build computer models for Aedes mosquito populations.

One of the study’s authors, Dr. Ángel Muñoz of Princeton University, said, “Both the mosquitos that transmit Zika and the virus itself are climate-sensitive.” He continued in an interview with E & E news, “High temperatures, like the ones observed during the record-breaking years 2015 and 2016, generally increase the virus replication rates and also the speed of mosquito reproduction. The overall effect of high temperatures is an increase in the potential risk of transmission.”

The researchers used their computer model to test how well their projections of the virus spreading matched with what actually occurred in 2014 and 2015. They found that their model could consistently predict a Zika outbreak one month before it occurred. In some areas, the model predicted an epidemic three months in advance.

Their computer model is not without its limitations. First, the study notes that scientists can only confidently make predictions for entire countries and regions, not cities or towns. Second, Aedes mosquitos also carry dengue and chikungunya, so the model does not distinguish whether the mosquitos are carrying Zika or another vector-borne disease. It simply indicates when conditions for disease transmission are highly suitable.

Dr. Benjamin Beard is deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Vector-Borne Diseases. Referring to the changing climate and increased international travel, he said in an email, “We are seeing an accelerated threat from mosquito-borne diseases overall. Over the past few decades, we have seen a resurgence of dengue and the introduction of West Nile, chikungunya, and now Zika virus into the Western Hemisphere.”

PCB sources located inside schools


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School buildings built in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s that have not been remodeled are most likely to contain high concentrations of PCBs in the air due to dated building materials. (Kevin Jarrett/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| July 11, 2017

In the largest study of its kind, UI researchers have detected polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in six schools throughout the midwest.

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are a class of manmade organic chemicals that were heavily used in construction and industry from 1929 until they were banned in 1979. PCBs are now known to cause cancer as well as immune, endocrine and reproductive system problems.

The Iowa Superfund Research Program took indoor and outdoor air samples from six schools from 2012 through 2015. While none of the schools had enough PCBs in the air to surpass the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s action level, the researchers did make new discoveries about the main sources of PCBs in schools.

The study, which was published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, revealed that regardless of the school’s location: rural areas of Columbus Junction, Iowa or heavy industry areas of East Chicago, concentration of PCBs were higher indoors.

Project leader and UI College of Engineering Professor Keri C. Hornbuckle said in an interview with Iowa Now, “This is the first time we’ve been able to pinpoint the source of PCBs inside schools. This study shows that the indoor air is contaminated, and that contamination is due to materials that remain in use in the school buildings.” The study points to florescent light ballasts, calking and oil-based paints as likely sources.

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 PCBs concentrations but concern is growing.

Dr. Peter Thorne is the principal investigator on the study. He said, “Our nation’s schools must provide a safe and healthy environment for growing and learning. In addition to protecting children from risks such as asthma and obesity, schools need to be free of elevated exposures to persistent pollutants, including lead and PCBs.”

Iowa DNR warns of health effects caused by fireworks


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Fireworks were legalized in Iowa for the first time since the 1930’s this year. (flickr/Jorgen Kesseler)
Jenna Ladd | June 30, 2017

A wide array of fireworks are now legal in Iowa, but officials warn that the festive explosives can have consequences for human health.

Iowa Department of Natural Resources released a statement this week encouraging people to sensitive to poor air quality to stay upwind and a safe distance away from firework smoke. Fireworks contain a fine black powder that allows for explosion and metals that provide their vibrant colors, both substances can get trapped near the ground, often accumulating to unhealthy levels.

A monitor in Davenport revealed unhealthy levels of fine particles in the air near Independence Day in 2008, prior to this year’s legalization of a much broader range of fireworks. The elderly, pregnant women, children and people with respiratory conditions like asthma are most likely to be affected. The statement recommended these populations stay indoors if they are unable to avoid areas with smoke accumulation and to contact their physicians if they experience any difficulty breathing.

2017 locavore index released, Iowa slips in ranking


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(Strolling of the Heifers)
Jenna Ladd | May 18, 2017

For the sixth year in a row, Iowa’s position on the state locavore ranking has continued to slide downward.

Strolling of the Heifers, a farm and food advocacy organization out of Vermont, ranks the 50 states (plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia) by their dedication to local food each year. This year the group used seven metrics to rank states: farmers markets per capita, community-supported agriculture per capita, farm-to-school food programs, food hub programs, direct farmer-to-consumer sales, USDA local food grants per capita, and hospitals sourcing local foods.

The state of Iowa was ranked 18th in 2017, a far cry from its second place ranking in 2012. Iowa has slid down the list each year, ranking 10th in 2014, 13th in 2015, and 14th last year. According to this year’s report, Iowa ranked in the top ten for farmers markets per capita and community-supported agriculture per capita. However, the state ranks 50th for local food-to-school programs. Iowa performs in the middle of the pack when it comes to direct farm-to-consumer sales and USDA local food grants per capita.

The 2017 index features a new metric: hospitals sourcing local foods relative to the state’s population. Hospitals and local food organizers in Vermont have led the way, but the report notes that healthcare centers across the country have been pushing for 10 to 20 percent locally-sourced food in recent years.

Steven R. Gordon is President and CEO of Brattleboro Memorial Hospital in Brattleboro, Vermont. He said,

“Brattleboro Memorial Hospital is proud to be a leader in supporting local farms and producers of fresh and healthy food. Sourcing local produce not only supports our local economy but also helps our patients heal faster. Often times, when a person is ill or on various medications, their appetite diminishes and their tastes are altered. Providing our patients with in-season and locally-produced food allows us to provide meals with high flavor and nutrition.”

The state of Iowa ranked just inside the top 20 for local foods served in hospitals. The Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems explains their journey to a more sustainable food system for hospitals and the benefits they’ve reaped thus far in the video posted below.

Top doctors say climate change harms human health


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The Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health details how climate change will affect human health in specific regions of the U.S. (Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health)
Jenna Ladd | March 16, 2017

The Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health released a report on Wednesday explaining the ways in which climate change harms the physical and mental health of people in the U.S.

The report, titled “Medical Alert! Climate Change is Impacting our Health” was written by medical doctors, including allergists, pediatricians, infectious-disease doctors, OB/GYNs and gerontologists from eleven health organizations.

Very few Americans, less than 32 percent, can name a specific way in which climate change harms human health. “Doctors in every part of our country see that climate change is making Americans sicker,” said Dr. Mona Sarfaty, the director of the new consortium.

The authors broke down the specific health effects of climate change in each region of the U.S. The doctors explain that three by-products of climate change will directly impact human health: air pollution, extreme heat and extreme weather events. Increased temperatures associated with climate change intensify smog, wildfires and pollen production, leading to poor air quality, the report said. “Poor air quality increases asthma and allergy attacks, and can lead to other illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths,” the authors wrote.

Rising global temperatures cause more frequent, longer, and more extreme heat waves in many parts of the U.S. Excessive heat leads to heat-related illness, exacerbates some medical conditions, and can cause death due to heat-stroke and dehydration. The report read, “Anyone can be harmed by extreme heat, but some people face greater risk. For example, outdoor workers, student athletes, city dwellers, and people who lack air conditioning (or who lose it during an extended power outage) face greater risk because they are more exposed to extreme heat.”

The physicians pointed out that extreme weather events are also taking a toll on their patients. The increased frequency and severity of major storms, floods, and droughts can cause injury, displacement and death, the report read. These events often prevent residents from receiving proper medical care due to blocked roads, destroyed bridges and the like. Gastrointestinal illness and disease often follow the power outages associated with extreme weather events as well, according to the doctors.

Beyond these direct impacts, climate change also speeds up the spread of infectious diseases and has an insidious impact on humans’ mental health. With temperatures rising around the world, infectious disease vectors like ticks, mosquitoes and fleas can now survive in regions that were previously too cold for them. For example, “Ticks that carry Lyme disease have become more numerous in many areas and have expanded their range northward and westward,” the report said.

U.S. residents that have experienced increasingly common extreme weather events like foods, major storms, and droughts are likely to suffer mental health consequences including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety. Anyone could experience these effects, but women, pregnant women, the elderly, children, and those with a preexisting mental health condition are most at risk.

The report concluded with a call to government leaders, asking them to address climate change in the name of human health. It read, “Doctors agree with climate scientists: the sooner we take action, the more harm we can prevent, and the more we can protect the health of all Americans.”

Nearly 140,000 gallons of oil spill from Iowa pipeline


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Heavy snowfall in northern Iowa early this week complicated diesel oil clean-up efforts in Worth County, Iowa. (echoroo/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | January 27, 2017

Nearly 140,000 gallons of diesel fuel erupted from a broken pipeline onto an Iowa farm earlier this week.

The pipeline, located in north-central Worth County, was first discovered to have ruptured on Wednesday morning. Since then, clean up crews have managed to remove roughly 18 percent of the petroleum product despite high winds and heavy snowfall, according to a Thursday morning interview with Iowa Department of Natural Resources spokesperson Jeff Vansteenburg. Vansteenburg said that the diesel fuel and contaminated snow are being taken to a facility in Minneapolis, Minnesota while the remaining contaminated soil will be moved to a landfill near Clear Lake, Iowa.

Vansteenburg reported that the diesel fuel did not reach the nearby Willow Creek and wildlife reserve. The cause of the leak is still under investigation.

Magellan Midstream Partners, an Oklahoma-based company, owns the pipeline, which stretches through Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin. Last October, another pipeline operated by Magellen Midstream Partners ruptured and released anhydrous ammonia, resulting in the evacuation of 23 homes and the death of one person near Decatur, Nebraska. The company was also fined over $45,000 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2010 after roughly 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel leaked into a Milford, Iowa creek.

The Worth County spill is the largest diesel fuel spill since 2010 according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Since 2010, 807 spills have been reported to the administration causing an estimated $342 million in property damages and spewing 3 million gallons of refined oil products into the environment.

President Trump signed executive actions on Tuesday reviving the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. Ed Fallon is the director of Bold Iowa, an organization fighting the Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipeline projects. Fallon said, “We’ve been saying all along it’s not a question of if a pipeline will leak, it’s a question of when and where and how bad it will be.”

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is charged with regulating pipelines in the U.S. Inside Energy reported last year that the agency is underfunded and understaffed. It read,

“According to PHMSA, the agency has 533 inspectors on its payroll. That works out to around one inspector for every 5,000 miles of pipe. A government audit in October [2016] found that that PHMSA is behind on implementing new rules. It has 41 mandates and recommendations related to pipeline safety that await rulemaking.”

A 2016 report by Inside Energy provides a map of all the oil pipeline spills reported since 2010.