The environmental legacy of Vietnam War herbicide weapons


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U.S. planes sprayed herbicide over the Vietnam jungle in the 1960s (flickr). 

Julia Poska | March 1, 2019

Forty-four years since the fall of Saigon, chemical weapons still exist in Vietnamese ecosystems. A new study from the University of Illinois and Iowa State University assessed the environmental impacts of one especially persistent chemical byproduct.

“Agent Orange,” banned in the U.S. since 1971, was a combination of two herbicides sprayed from U.S. aircraft to thin out the jungle and destroy crops. Individually, the herbicides would have disappeared in just days, but together they produced “TCDD,” a highly toxic dioxin can last over 100 years in the right conditions.

Illinois’ Ken Olson, professor emeritus of environmental science, and Iowa State professor of sociology Lois Wright Morton sorted through previous research and humanitarian reports on contaminated Vietnam air bases. They were able to determine TCDD’s paths through the environment, as well as “hotspots” where it still enters the human food supply.

They found that TCDD destroyed Vietnam’s mangroves and mature forests, which may not return to their previous condition for centuries and are now plagued with invasive species. In sprayed areas, runoff, soil erosion and landslides degrade soil, change topography and spread TCDD even further.

Researchers believe that TCDD persists longest in river and sea sediment. TCDD at the bottom of waterbodies is still eaten by bottom-feeding fish and stored in their fatty tissues. The toxin bioaccumulates and biomagnifies in the fatty tissues of their predators when the fish are eaten by humans or other animals.

According to the World Health Institute, the health effects of consuming dioxins like TCDD include skin lesions, altered liver function, and impairment of the immune, nervous, endocrine and reproductive systems.

Olson and Wright Morton advise that the only way to destroy TCDD is to incinerate contaminated soils and sediments.

 

Analysis of Iowa air quality reveals positive and negative trends


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Industrial greenhouse gas emissions from utilities and manufacturers contribute to climate change (flickr). 

Julia Poska | October 4, 2018

A new analysis of federal air quality data reveals mixed trends in Iowa’s air quality. On one hand, Iowa cut industrial greenhouse gas emissions 11 percent from 2010 to 2014. On the other, Iowa ranks among the top 20 U.S. states for industrial greenhouse gas and toxic air emissions.

Analysts from the Center for Public Integrity studied EPA data from 2010 to 2014.  The Iowa Department of Natural Resources told the Des Moines Register that since 2014 emissions have trended downwards, according to data from their own monitoring stations and facilities.

The Center for Public Integrity found that Iowa’s industrial greenhouse gas emissions dropped  11 percent, from over 60 million metric tons in 2014 to about 54.7 metric tons in 2014. This cut is over five times greater than the 2 percent national average, according to the Register.

Iowa still ranks 19th for industrial emissions, however. Ten Iowa utility or manufacturing companies were among the nation’s top 500 sources of greenhouse gases in 2014.  Four of those were MidAmerican coal plants.  Since 2014, Iowa utilities have made major investments in renewable energy, particularly wind.

Iowa ranks even higher for toxic air emissions: 17th in the U.S.. From 2010 to 2014, toxic air emissions in Iowa actually increased. The Register found that Climax Molybdenum, a chemical plant in Fort Madison, and four others were responsible for half of Iowa’s toxic emissions in 2014. The paper said Climax Molybdenum was the 10th largest emitter of ammonia in the nation that year.

 

 

 

On the Radio- Air quality of national parks


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A stunning view of Zion National Park (Matt K/flickr)

Eden DeWald | August 20, 2018

This week’s segment explores how patronage has affected the air quality of our national parks.

Transcript:

Poor air quality threatens the beauty of our treasured national parks.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

A recent study done by Iowa State University and Cornell University discovered that park visitor vehicle emissions and regional air pollution have negatively affected air quality at our national parks. The study found that between 1990 and 2014, the average ozone levels measured in the 33 largest national parks were the same as ozone levels from the 20 largest US cities. The parks host more than 300 million visitors each year.

The Regional Haze Rule was put in place by the EPA to protect air quality at our national parks. However, researchers found that this has only been effective in reducing ozone in areas that exceed the “unhealthy” limit of 70 parts per billion. Exposure to ozone can have a negative effect on your respiratory system, and can reduce visibility when present.

With millions of Americans flocking to the parks each summer, it is crucial that more protections are made to protect park visitors, as well as the national parks themselves.

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

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E. Mason.

On the Radio- Removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere


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Heavy air pollution in Tianjin, China (Rich L/flickr)

Eden DeWald | July 16, 2018

This week’s segment explores a study focused on removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Transcript:

Scientists and engineers at Harvard believe they may have found a way to convert carbon dioxide pollution into usable fuel.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The Harvard study explains the process to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at a very low cost — around one-hundred to two-hundred dollars per ton of carbon dioxide. Researchers told the Atlantic magazine this would be a game-changer, because it could mitigate climate change without requiring a shift in lifestyle or a major change in the energy industry.

In a pilot device, researchers were able to turn the atmospheric carbon dioxide into fuels like gasoline. When burned, this carbon-neutral fuel would return back to the atmosphere without adding new greenhouse gases.

The researchers believe they could implement this on an industrial scale by 2021, the Atlantic reported.

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

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E. Mason.

Increase in nitrate pollution from Iowa


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The Mississippi River transports nitrogen to the Gulf of Mexico. (Ken L/flickr)

Eden DeWald | June 27, 2018

A new study from the University of Iowa finds that nitrogen pollution coming from Iowa has increased by close to 50 percent during the year of 2016 when compared to previous annual averages. The pollution from synthetic fertilizer made its way off of farms and into the greater water system. Twenty-three watersheds in Iowa were assessed, all of which drained either into the Mississippi or Missouri River, both of which eventually drain into the Gulf of Mexico.

Excess nitrogen in a water system spurs algae growth. After these algae blooms eventually decompose, bacteria or other small organisms feed on the dead algae and deplete oxygen within the water. This process is known as aquatic hypoxia, or eutrophication, and is responsible for the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Iowa is not the only state that has problems with runoff, but with 72 percent of Iowa’s land being used for farming, Iowa is a major contributor to the eutrophication process.

The rise in nitrate pollution has occurred despite Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which just marked its five year anniversary earlier this year. The Nutrient Reduction Strategy is a voluntary program which involves 8,000 farmers and focuses on conservation methods such as cover crops and no-till techniques. Mike Naig, Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture, wrote in a Des Moines Register article that he sees outreach and education about the effect that nitrates have on the water system as an essential aspect of improving Iowa’s water quality.

Earth Day Network encourages year-round environmental effort


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Plastic tangles with ocean vegetation on a beach near San Francisco. (Kevin Krejci/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | April 25, 2018

It seems that spring in Iowa finally arrived by this Sunday, April 22nd, which also happened to be Earth Day, and many celebrated by spending time outside.

But what was the 48th Earth Day all about, if not only outdoor picnics and joyous winter-is-finally-over selfies? According to the Earth Day Network, the aim for 2018 is to End Plastic Pollution. A noble cause indeed; more than 300 million tons of plastic are produced each year worldwide. About fifty percent of that is used just one time and thrown away. Plastic Oceans, a non-profit dedicated to reducing plastic use and pollution, estimates that more than eight million tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean annually. Much of this plastic ends up in the Pacific Ocean. More than 6,000 pounds of the stuff was removed during an Earth Day clean up on Hong Kong’s beaches this year, and the effort barely made a dent in the local pollution problem.

The Earth Day Network points out that April 22nd has been a day for civic engagement and political activism since 1970, when millions of Americans marched to call attention to the environmental degradation that had been caused by more than a century of unchecked industrial development. With carbon dioxide levels at their highest level in 650,000 years, there is a strong case to live as though every day is Earth Day. Officials from the Earth Day Network have several suggestions for how to do so. From using nontoxic cleaning products to changing vehicle air filters regularly to reading documents online rather than printing them, small changes made by many people can make a big difference.

Individuals interested in learning more about plastic pollution and how to reduce the amount of plastic they consume can also join the End Plastic Pollution campaign. Participants can calculate their own plastic consumption and create a Personal Plastic Plan to reduce consumption and keep track of progress online.

Mock climate change negotiation set for April 21st


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A mock climate negotiation is coming to Iowa City, challenging participants to keep climate change well below 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. (MIT technology review)
Jenna Ladd | April 12, 2018

Iowa City area residents have the opportunity to understand what it might be like to be a part of the United Nations climate change negotiations.

On Saturday, April 21,  the public is invited to participate in a World Climate Simulation. Created by Climate Interactive, nearly 900 of these simulations have taken place in 75 countries. The role-playing exercise assigns each participant a delegate position with a nation, interest group or negotiating bloc. During the mock international climate change negotiating meeting, participants are tasked with negotiating climate policy that would keep climate change below 2˚C over preindustrial temperatures. Meanwhile, the event facilitator, acting as a UN leader, uses the C-ROADS interactive computer model to demonstrate the climate implications of any number of climate policy proposals. The C-ROADS simulation is based on current climate change science.

Climate Interactive details the learning outcomes of the activity. They write, “During the event participants must face the climate science, engage in the drama and tensions of global politics, test their ambitions against a climate-modeling tool used by actual climate negotiators, and then reflect on how the experience challenges their assumptions about climate action.”

Iowa City’s simulation will take place from 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm at the Iowa City Public Library on April 21st. Interested parties are encouraged to sign up as soon as possible. More information about this event and the link to register can be found here.