Revisiting Iowa Climate Statements: Impacts on the Health of Iowans


Via Flickr

Josie Taylor | October 11, 2021

In 2014, Iowans were seeing the real effects that come with climate change. Heavy rainfall, floods and a longer growing season were some of the impacts. The biggest impact, however, was the health effects of climate change. 

Repeated heavy rain events caused increased exposures to toxic chemicals and raw sewage because of flood waters. Along with that came degraded water quality, which hurt many in Iowa. In farming states like Iowa, higher water temperatures and decreased mixing have combined with high nutrient levels to create harmful algal blooms that make the water unsuitable for human and animal consumption.

An even more common health effect of climate change was its impact on respiratory and cardiovascular health. With warmer temperatures and higher carbon dioxide levels in the air, plants produce not only more pollen, but also pollen with a higher allergen content. A longer growing season extends the period of exposure to allergens, and new allergenic plants moving northward into Iowa are magnifying the range of exposures. Respiratory problems such as childhood asthma have increased dramatically in prevalence since the 1980s. 

Seven years ago, scientists were concerned about new diseases arriving as a result of climate change. They saw new species of mosquitoes and ticks in Iowa capable of transmitting diseases such as Dengue Fever and Ehrlichiosis. With increasing temperatures, more rainfall, and longer summers, these mosquitos and ticks can live longer and expand their range. 

Overall, health concerns resulting from climate change were common and important. These issues were one of the biggest concern for Iowans in 2014, but they are still here today.

Biden Administration Proposes New Environmental Law


Via Flickr

Josie Taylor | October 7, 2021

The Biden administration on Wednesday, October 6,  announced that it would restore climate change protections to the nation’s bedrock environmental law. The proposed changes would require the federal government to evaluate the climate change impacts of major new projects as part of the permitting process. 

Under the Biden administration’s proposed changes, agencies will have to consider the direct and indirect impacts that their projects may have on the climate, specifically how it pollutes American neighborhoods.

The goal of this proposed goal is to protect Americans from the harmful effects of pollution. Air polliution is the biggest environmental risk for early death. World wide, 9 in every 10 people breathe unclean air. 

If an agency’s project was not approved, they could work with local communities to figure out how to make it safer. The federal agenencies and local communities would work together to find a solution that would result in less pollution. 

The Biden administration is expected to publish its proposed rule in the Federal Register on Thursday and will take public comments on its plans for 45 days before issuing a final policy.

Unhealthy Levels of Pollution Spread Across Western U.S. as California Wildfires Burn On


Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | August 24, 2020

More than 600 individual fires and some of the largest wildfire complexes in California’s history are still burning after thousands of lightning strikes triggered them last week.

Unhealthy levels of pollution have been reported across the state in the last few days. The large number of individual fires and the size of the fire complexes has caused an unusually high amount of of smoke to enter the atmosphere, and the smoke has spread across parts of the western United States and the Pacific Ocean. Atmospheric testing showed that Northern California had the worst air quality in the world on August 19.

Extremely hot and dry conditions in California could cause the smoke to stay in the air longer. The black carbon particulates in the air will cause health problems for humans and animals as they enter the lungs and bloodstream, and they play a role in global warming, according to an article published by NASA. The National Weather Service issued a poor air quality alert for California’s Central Valley until the fires are extinguished.

EPA Suspends Enforcement of Environmental Compliance Reporting During COVID-19 Pandemic


(Image via Flickr)

Nicole Welle | April 16th, 2020

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released an order on March 26 announcing the suspension of the enforcement of environmental compliance reporting in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before this change, businesses were required to report and limit all air emissions and water discharges, meet requirement for hazardous waste management and maintain standards for safe drinking water. Businesses that failed to meet these EPA-issued standards could face fines.

The recent order states that factories, power plants, and other facilities are encouraged to keep records of any instances of non-compliance with EPA instituted regulations. However, they will not face any fines for violations as long as the EPA agrees that the COVID-19 pandemic, rather than intentional disregard for the law, is the cause.

In its order, the EPA did not designate an end date for the suspension or address the potential ramifications this decision could have for public health and safety. Allowing industry to police itself could cause air and water pollution to go unchecked and put the safety of drinking water at risk, according to the Iowa Environmental Council.

Compromising access to clean water could make it more difficult for the U.S. healthcare system to provide the sanitary conditions necessary for fighting the COVID-19 pandemic according to the IEC. The Washington Post also reported that the wording of the EPA’s order is broad enough that companies could get away with practices that put public health at risk well into the future.

New UI research could help fight pollution with microorganisms


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Concrete and other surfaces are often covered in a thin film of pollution and pollution fighting bacteria and fungi (via Creative Commons). 

Julia Poska | December 20, 2019

As pollutants like particulates, PCB and pesticides filter out of the air, they often accumulate on surfaces like asphalt or building exteriors. When it rains, the pollutants can run off into water sources.

University of Iowa researchers recently published findings in Earth and Space Chemistry, revealing that a variety of bacteria and fungi live within the film of pollution on such surfaces. Some of those microorganisms are able to digest and break down the pollutants.

Researchers Scott Shaw (chemistry) and Timothy Mattes (civil and environmental engineering) intend to sequence the DNA of these organisms in the future. They will then be able to determine which could potentially be cultivated for fighting pollution in other areas, according to Iowa Now.

CGRER, the UI Center of Health Effects of Environmental Contamination,  the U.S. Department of Defense Army Research Office and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission funded this research.

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.