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.”

On The Radio – May 2017 among hottest months in recorded history


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May 2017 was the third hottest May on record. (Lima Andruška/flickr)
Jake Slobe| July 10, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses the high temperatures recorded so far throughout 2017.

Transcript: Data shows that May 2017 was among the hottest months in recorded history.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

May 2017 was the third hottest May on record coming in behind May 2016 and May 2015 according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The month was also the eighteenth hottest month in NASA’s database based on deviation from average temperatures. April 2017 is tied with May for eighteenth hottest month and January, February and March all took top ten positions for hottest months in history.

This positions 2017 to possibly take the title of hottest year on record which is currently held by 2016 and was previously held by 2015 and 2014.

Rising global temperatures have grave environmental effects such as rising sea levels and more intense natural disasters like forest fires, hurricanes, floods and droughts according to NASA.

To learn more, visit iowaenvironmentalfocus.org.

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

Iowa DNR dissolves Bureau of Forestry and other programs


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The State Forest Nursery and urban foresters program will stay in tact amid multiple program eliminations. (Joshua Mayer/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | July 7, 2017

Iowa legislators approved a $1.2 million cut to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) this year, resulting in the elimination of the Bureau of Forestry and several other positions.

The department announced on Wednesday that it terminated the Forest Bureau Chief Paul Tauke. All other foresters were reassigned to other divisions within the DNR. Alex Murphy is a spokesperson for the department. In an interview with Iowa Public Radio, he said, “We’ve moved these employees under different areas and actually eliminated the bureau itself, although all the functions of the bureau exist, just in different bureaus or divisions.” The changes saved the department around $277,000.

The DNR Trail Crew program was abolished along with two full-time program DNR employees. The Trail Crew team was comprised of 15 Americorps members that traveled around the state with DNR employees to develop and improve Iowa’s 500 miles of nature trails. Other Americorps programs within the department were eliminated as well.

State Geologist Bob Libra also lost his job. The state plans to contract UI geologists to take over geological research projects. Among the other positions eliminated are the department safety officer, animal feeding operations coordinator and art director for the DNR’s magazine.

UI environmental science program graduate Megan Henry warned that the elimination of positions in environmental sciences may drive more young people out of Iowa. Her letter to the editor in the Des Moines Register reads,

“Now the university will likely also equip natural science students in geology with even more hands-on experience, because “without a state geologist, the DNR will contract with the University of Iowa for geological research and technical assistance.” The only problem: How do you attract students to this vital work, if the jobs only exist while they are paying tuition?”

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.

Climate change to disproportionately affect the poor


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Researchers provide visual representations of projected damages related to climate change. (Journal Science)
Jenna Ladd | July 3, 2017

A study published in the journal Science found that climate change will likely cause economic damages for the poorest parts of the U.S. while economically benefiting more affluent areas.

Researchers figured the economic costs of climate-related impacts like rising sea levels, more extreme weather and higher temperatures. They ran many simulations which calculated the potential costs and benefits of each phenomenon for a variety of industries and business sectors. They figured that on average, the U.S. will lose roughly 0.7 percent gross domestic product (GDP) per 1 degree Fahrenheit increase in global temperatures. This economic burden, however, will not be shared equally by all parts of the country.

The poorest counties in the U.S., which are mostly in the South and southern Midwest, are likely to suffer the most intense economic downturn, with some counties expected to lose more than 20 percent of their gross county product.

Solomon Hsiang is a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and one of the study’s authors. In an interview with the Washington Post, he said, “What we’re seeing here is that climate change will have a very large impact on the quality of life and economic opportunity in the coming decades for ourselves and our children.”

The Northern and Western U.S. are likely to experience fewer economic consequences. Some areas may benefit from the changing climate where higher temperatures mean longer farming seasons and lower energy costs. Hsiang said, “The poor regions will get poorer and the richer regions will benefit.”

Iowa will likely fall in line with projections for the Midwest. Researchers warned that agricultural markets could see economic devastation similar to that experienced during the Dust Bowl.

At present, the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans earn about 20 percent of all U.S. income. The researchers warn that climate change may further widen this earning gap. The report reads, “Combining impacts across sectors reveals that warming causes a net transfer of value from Southern, Central and Mid-Atlantic regions toward the Pacific Northwest, the Great Lakes region, and New England. … [B]ecause losses are largest in regions that are already poorer on average, climate change tends to increase preexisting inequality in the United States.”

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.