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.

Wildfires become more common and intense as Earth warms up


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Smoke billows from the Lodgepole Complex wildfire of eastern Montana. (Montana Public Radio)
Jenna Ladd| July 26, 2017

A wildfire as large as New York City is currently ripping across eastern Montana, and experts say climate change making fires like these larger and more common.

As climate change takes hold, wet areas are becoming wetter and dry areas are becoming drier. Rising temperatures in spring and summer months mean that soils are remaining dry for longer, which makes drought more likely, thereby lengthening the wildfire season.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, wildfires have become more likely and more intense since the 1980’s. They last nearly five times as long, occur almost four times as often and burn more than six times the land area on average.

Moving forward, residents of fire-prone regions can expect the wildfire season to lengthen. In the southwestern U.S., scientists predict wildfire season will increase from  seven months to twelve months.

The economic impacts of wildfires are staggering. Since 2000, the U.S. Forest Service has spent more than $1 billion on fire suppression in one fiscal year on two occasions. During the first decade of the 21st century, wildfires cost an average of $665 million per year in economic damages.

In their full report on this issue, the Union of Concerned Scientists say it’s not too late for humans to slow the course of climate change. They write,

“The global temperature is increasing and the climate is changing due to the greenhouse-gas emissions we have already produced, leading to a likely rise in the incidence of wildfires. But it is not too late. What we do now has the power to influence the frequency and severity of these fires and their effects on us.”

On The Radio – Urban areas to suffer economic costs of climate change


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According to a recent study, the world’s larger cities, such as New York City, will be hit hardest by global warming. (Chris Goldberg/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| July 24, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment describes how climate change will have a disproportionate economic impact on urban areas.

Transcript: A recent study by an international group of economists found that climate change will likely cost cities twice as much as rural areas.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, found that the largest quarter of the world’s cities could see more intense temperature spikes by 2050 due to the combined effect of global warming and urban heat island effects. Urban heat islands are formed when naturally cooling surfaces like vegetation and bodies of water are replaced by surfaces that trap heat like concrete and asphalt.

Higher temperatures in cities have negative economic impacts including less productive workers, higher cooling costs for buildings and poorer water and air quality. On average, the global gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to drop by 5.6 percent by 2100 due to climate change. The combined climate change and heat island effect means that the most-impacted cities are expected to lose about 11 percent of their GDP in the same period.

The economists noted that some actions can be taken to mitigate these effects including installing cooling pavements and green roofs and reintroducing vegetation in urban areas.

To read the full story and for more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

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

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.”

Gigantic wind turbine to multiply wind energy returns


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The Segmented Ultralight Morphing Rotor 50 (SUMR50) will tower over wind turbines that are commonly used today. (SUMR)
Jenna Ladd | July 6, 2017

Wind energy generation is expected to increase by 404 gigawatts by 2050, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, and gigantic wind turbines may play an important role.

Researchers from six universities are designing the world’s largest wind turbine, which is expected to stand at 500 meters tall. Today, the average wind turbine is about 70 meters tall and generates one to five megawatts of energy. The team predicts their design will generate up to 50 megawatts of energy.

Shooting enormous turbines further up into the atmosphere allows them to capture the stronger and more steady wind flow present at higher altitudes. The giant structures will also feature blades that are 200 meters long, compared to today’s turbine blades which are typically about 50 meters in length. In an interview with Scientific American, Christopher Niezrecki, a professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Center for Wind Energy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, explained that if the blades double in length, they can produce up to four times as much energy.

The turbines will have two blades rather than three to reduce the weight and cost of the structures. They’ll likely be placed far off in the ocean, where they’ll be less of a disturbance to people. Researchers plan to design the turbines to withstand strong winds from hurricanes and other extreme weather events. In part, the structures will take a cue from palm trees, which frequently endure intense storms. Eric Loth is the project lead. He said,”Palm trees are really tall but very lightweight structurally, and if the wind blows hard, the trunk can bend. We’re trying to use the same concept—to design our wind turbines to have some flexibility, to bend and adapt to the flow.”

Within the year, the researchers will test a much smaller version of the design in the mountains of Colorado. They expect to produce a full-sized prototype in the next three years.

The project website reads, “Bringing our project to full fruition will be a major step toward maximizing U.S. offshore wind power.”

EPA air pollution standards may not be sufficient, study finds


A study found that current EPA air quality standards are still deadly. (flickr/Francesco Falciani)

Air pollution levels previously deemed “safe” may be deadly, a new study shows.

Harvard University researchers found that long-term exposure to ozone and fine particulate matter leads to premature death, even at levels below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards. The study examined data for over 60 million Medicare patients from 2000 to 2012, and found that 12,000 lives could be saved annually by reducing levels of fine particulate matter by 1 microgram per cubic meter below EPA standards.

“It’s very strong, compelling evidence that currently, the safety standards are not safe enough,” lead researcher Francesca Dominici said to NPR.

The study also found that African Americans, men, and poor people are at greater risk for death due to exposure to fine particulate matter, though did not examine why. Exposure can also cause heart attacks, asthma, and decreased lung function.

In an editorial response to the study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, four doctors (Rebecca E. Berger, M.D., Ramya Ramaswami, M.B., Caren Solomon, M.D., and Jeffrey Drazen, M.D.) urged the Trump administration to tighten regulations of air pollutant levels. Trump has signed an executive order dismantling guidelines to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants, and opted to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement.

“Although these actions were primarily intended to undo efforts made by the Obama administration to address climate change, the potentially dire consequences also include increasing people’s exposure to particulate matter,” the editorial said.

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.