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?”

ISU Horticulture Research Station celebrates anniversary


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ISU’s Horticulture Research Station provides opportunities for hands-on research for students and faculty. (Iowa State University)
Jenna Ladd| September 22, 2017

Iowa State University’s Horticulture Research Station celebrated its 50th anniversary this week.

The anniversary was marked with a farmer’s market, farm tours, children’s games and a produce washing demonstration on Saturday.

The 235 acre station is home to 80 to 90 research projects each year. Scientists from horticulture, forestry, botany, ecology, plant pathology, entomology and natural resources use the space to study everything from vegetables to honeybees to wasps to swallows. The land bears apples, pumpkins, watermelon, hops, grapes and more.

Ben Pease is a Horticulture Research Associate at Iowa State. He said, “We are able to sell most of what we grow. If it’s part of a research project once it’s done we can sell it or we’re growing stuff to use the land we’re able to sell it,” to Iowa State Daily. Pease added that the station has made over a million dollars selling produce since 2006. Much of the food is sold to ISU’s dining halls, which buys about 5 tons of green peppers each year.

The land, which features a 15 acre lake as well, is located just three miles north of Ames on highway 69.

Petition to regulate Iowa’s animal feeding operations denied


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Large livestock feeding operations often result in poorer water quality in nearby waterways. (Waterkeeper Alliance, Inc./flickr)
Jenna Ladd| September 20, 2017

A petition to make it more difficult to build animal feeding operations in the state of Iowa was shot down this week by the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission.

At present, applicants seeking to construct livestock facilities must meet only 50 percent of the state’s master matrix of rules and regulations pertaining to the structures. The petition, filed by two environmental groups, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Food & Water Watch, requested that applicants meet at least 86 percent of the matrix’s requirements.

The groups argued that more strict regulation would protect residents living nearby livestock facilities from water pollution and odor. Iowa Department of Natural Resources sided with the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission and recommended against passing the petition. Noah Poppelreiter, an attorney with Iowa DNR, said that the request “goes too far” and would likely be overturned in the court system to the Des Moines Register.

The current animal feeding operation master matrix was developed fifteen years ago by state lawmakers.

Tarah Heinzen, an attorney for Iowa Food & Water Watch, said to the Register, “This vote against strengthening the master matrix is a vote for increasing Big Ag’s profits at the expense of Iowans’ health and environment.” 1,500 Iowans wrote in expressing their support for the petition.

Proponents of the petition pointed out that just two percent of applicants are denied permission to construct livestock feeding operations, which often result in poor water quality in nearby waterways. Last year, 810 water quality impairments in 610 bodies of water were reported in Iowa.

After turning down the petition, Iowa Environmental Protection Commissioner Joe Riding suggested its authors write letters to Gov. Kim Reynolds and legislative leaders asking them to change the matrix.

Climate change deniers considered for EPA science advisory board


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EPA administrator Scott Pruitt is charged with making the final decision on new Science Advisory Board members. (Gage Skidmore/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| September 19, 2017

Climate change skeptics are among those listed as possible candidates for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board.

The board’s objective is “to provide independent advice and peer review on the scientific and technical aspects of environmental issues to the EPA’s Administrator.” At present, 47 members sit on the board, but service terms will end for 15 members in September. The EPA has published a list of 132 possible candidates to fill these positions, about a dozen of whom have openly rejected widely accepted climate science. One candidate published a report in 2013 outlining the “monetary benefits of rising atmospheric CO2.”

Anyone can nominate anyone else as a candidate for the Science Advisory Board, and the list of nominees has not yet been thinned down by the agency. Staff members at the EPA are responsible fo eliminating a number of the nominees, while ensuring that the remaining candidates have expertise in a wide range of areas (i.e. hydrology, geology, statistics, biology, etc.). However, the final selection of new advisory board members is up to Administrator Scott Pruitt, according to anonymous EPA official.

In a 2016 piece for the National Review, Pruitt wrote that the debate on climate change was “far from settled,” despite more than 97 percent of active scientists agreeing that Earth’s climate is warming due to human activity.

The public is welcome to comment on the list of EPA Science Advisory Board nominees through September 28.

On The Radio – Humidity on the rise in Iowa


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Increased humidity poses health risks for Iowans according to the 2017 Iowa Climate Statement. (Teresa Shishim/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| September 18, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses how humidity has increased significantly during all seasons in all parts of Iowa since 1971.

Transcript: Humidity in the state of Iowa has increased significantly since 1971, according to the 2017 Iowa Climate Statement released last month.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Absolute humidity, usually measured by dew point temperature, has increased significantly in all parts of Iowa during all seasons. The largest increase was found in Dubuque with a 23 percent increase in springtime humidity from 1971 to 2017.

The statement’s lead co-authors Gene Takle, director of Iowa State’s Climate Science Program and professor of geological & atmospheric sciences at ISU, and Betsy Stone, associate professor of chemical and biochemical engineering at the University of Iowa, warned that increasing humidity makes conditions more favorable for increased rainfall, extreme rain events, mold and mosquitoes.

High humidity also presents health concerns for Iowans. More humid air along with rising temperatures can make conditions dangerous for manual laborers and individuals sensitive to heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

Titled, It’s Not Just the Heat, It’s the Humidity!, the statement ends with a call for Iowans to do more to mitigate the effects of climate change through improving energy efficiency, cutting emissions and advancing renewable energies.

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

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

Potential for nanomaterials to solve environmental problems


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Nanotechnologies are being developed to harvest carbon dioxide and remove heavy metals, pictured above, from water sources. (ETH Zurich)
Jenna Ladd| September 15, 2017

In exciting new research, scientists from around the world are working to develop nanomaterials that can efficiently harvest carbon dioxide from the air and convert it into another useful product.

Nanomaterials are defined as those materials that are smaller than one millionth of a millimeter, or about 100,000 times smaller in width than a human hair.  Arun Chattopadhyay is a chemist at theIndian Institute of Technology Guwahati’s Center for Nanotechnology. “Nanomaterials can convert carbon dioxide into useful products like alcohol. The materials could be simple chemical catalysts or photochemical in nature that work in the presence of sunlight,” he said to Climate Central.

The trouble is, nanomaterials are not yet inexpensive enough for wide-scale application. To this point, Chattopadhyay added, “Nanomaterials could help us mitigate pollution. They are efficient catalysts and mostly recyclable. Now, they have to become economical for commercialization and better to replace present-day technologies completely.”

Researchers in France have developed a nanomaterial that uses sunlight and water to transform atmospheric CO2 into methanol. Although this type of nanomaterial may present a cheaper option, scientists are still struggling to create the particles at a consistent size.

Other types of nanomaterials are being developed to remove heavy metals and dyes from wastewater, clean up oil spills and breaking down organic waste more quickly.

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