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.

Women more likely to be affected by and act on climate change


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Women and children are most susceptible to heat-related illnesses that are becoming more common due to climate change. (Janet Mailbag/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | February 8, 2018

During a recent speech at Georgetown University, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pointed out that women are disproportionately affected by climate change worldwide.

Research from several sources back up this claim. Discussing global desertification due to drought and intense heat waves, Clinton said, “I would say that particularly for women…they will bear the brunt of looking for the food, looking for the firewood, looking for the place to migrate to when all of the grass is finally gone.”

The gendered effects of climate change extend beyond communities in developing nations, however. Researchers from the Natural Resources Defense Fund point out that two-thirds of those jobs lost after Hurricane Katerina in New Orleans were lost by women. Job creation during the rebuilding periods following natural disasters are primarily in the construction industry and go almost exclusively to men. As a result, 83 percent of single mothers were not able to return to New Orleans following the hurricane.

The changing climate poses unique risks to women’s health as well. Increasingly frequent and intense heat waves can cause low birth weights among pregnant women. Women are also fourteen times more likely to die during a natural disaster than men. Researchers link this to insufficient access to information and warnings as well as a difference in women’s ability to cope with such events.

As Clinton put it, women “bear the brunt” of a changing climate. Perhaps that’s why women in political positions of power are more likely than their male counterparts to sign off on treaties that combat climate change.

Perrin Ireland is a science reporter for the Natural Resources Defense Fund. She said, “Women play critical roles in our communities, and our voices must be heard for climate action. In order to have a resilient future, for the thriving of our communities, women must have a seat at the table.”

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.

Cape Town in water crisis


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Cape Town’s booming tourism industry will likely suffer along with its residents as the city runs dry. (Harshil Shah/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | February 1, 2018

Day Zero is coming for Cape Town, South Africa, and it’s just as scary as it sounds.

Day Zero is the term officials have given to the day, April 16th, that the tourist city is expected to run out of water. Beginning today, city officials are enforcing stricter water restrictions in order to stretch the supply further. Each person will be allotted to 13.2 gallons of consumption per day and those found in violation will be subject to steep fines.

After about three years of below-average rainfall, the city’s dams are less than 25 percent full. Cape Town’s population has nearly doubled in the past 20 years as well, putting additional stress on natural resource supply. Residents may still be able to collect water from local springs and pumps after the taps are turned off on Day Zero but can expect a strong police presence. Reporting from National Public Radio states that South African police and soldiers plan to guard over 200 natural spring and waterhole sites in the city after Day Zero, limiting each person’s supply to 6.6 gallons.

At present, just 55 percent of Cape Town residents are honoring the city’s water consumption restrictions. Sitar Stodel is a 26 Cape Town resident that was interviewed by NBC. She described what she’s seen, “People are still watering their lawns, filling their pools and bathing. They seem happy to just pay the fines. It’s so upsetting. I think ‘Day Zero’ is inevitable, we’re at the point of no return. Cape Town will just have to deal with the consequences that day when it arrives.”

The city is working to access alternative water sources, but none of its seven projects are more than 60 percent completed.

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.