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

Wildfires bring smoke to Iowa


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Smoke from a wildfire this May billows over a local road. (flickr/Michael Lusk)
Jenna Ladd| September 5, 2017

A yellowish haze blanketed most of eastern Iowa this Labor Day weekend thanks to wildfires in the western U.S. and Canada.

Wildfires throughout Montana, Manitoba and Saskatchewan are credited with much of this weekend’s smoke. Just this Sunday, evacuations were ordered for Glacier National Park in Montana and 140 campers were rescued from a smoldering forest on Sunday in Oregon.

As the climate changes, wet areas become wetter and dry areas become drier, allowing for longer wildfire seasons in many parts of the western U.S. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, compared to the 1980’s, wildfires now last nearly five times as long, occur almost four times as often and burn more than six times the land area on average.

National Weather Service meteorologist Dave Cousins said that this weekend’s haze cut visibility at Davenport Municipal Airport by two and a half miles.

A report out of Dubuque revealed that the Air Quality Index (AQI) in the area is moderate to unhealthy for individuals sensitive to poor area quality.

Interactive tool to predict future days above 100 degrees


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With a new web-based platform, users can see hot day projections for many U.S. cities and towns. (Climate Central)
Jenna Ladd| August 18, 2017

By now it’s common knowledge that as greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in our atmosphere, intensely high temperatures are likely to occur more frequently.

But Climate Central, a climate research and news organization, has developed a way for residents of the continental U.S. to see exactly how much their communities will be affected. The interactive tool allows users to type in the name of their city or town and view the average number of days that will exceed specific temperature thresholds in 2050, 2075 and 2100.

The analysis includes data for nearly 30,000 cities and towns of various sizes from across the continental U.S. Each graph provides two possible outcomes: one in which greenhouse gas emissions continue as usual and one in which they are moderately curtailed.

Researchers based their projections on aggregated data from 21 global climate models.

At present, Des Moines experiences an average of zero days per year when the actual temperature is above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. According to this study, the city will likely see 15 days annually that exceed the temperature threshold in 2050 and up to 30 per year in 2100.

This year is on track to be the hottest year ever, followed by 2016, 2015, and 2014, respectively.

Lyme disease more common due to climate change


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Deer ticks thrive in hot and humid forested areas. (flickr/Joslyn Gallant)
Jenna Ladd| August 17, 2017

As temperatures and humidity rise in the United States, conditions are becoming more favorable for disease-carrying deer ticks.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that climate change has expanded the geographical range of ticks. Deer ticks specifically are most active when temperatures are above 45 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity is at least 85 percent. As temperatures and humidity rise in many parts of North America, so too are tick populations. The EPA reports that the incidence of Lyme disease in the U.S. has doubled since 1991.

The Northeastern U.S. has experienced the sharpest increase Lyme disease transmission. This part of the country is becoming more humid, making conditions better for ticks to emerge from the ground and latch onto hosts. New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont have seen the largest spike in Lyme disease incidence since 1991, followed closely by Delaware and Massachusetts. On average, the EPA reports, these states now see 50 to 100 more cases per 100,000 people than they did in 1991.

In the future, deer tick populations are expected to double in the U.S. and become up to five times more numerous in Canada.

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Incidence of Lyme disease per 100,000 people. (EPA)

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.

Researchers use climate data to predict Zika outbreaks


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The Aedes aegypti mosquito transmits many diseases including Zika. (Sanofi Pasteur/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| July 25, 2017

Zika virus spread rampantly throughout the Americas in 2014 and 2015. While the infection itself presents with few noticeable symptoms, it has been linked to an increased number of babies born with microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can result in paralysis.

So far, there have been 5,932 cases of the virus reported in the U.S. and nearly 40,000 in U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico. Zika is transmitted by the Aedes mosquito and human sexual contact.

In a study published recently in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology, researchers developed a way to predict Zika outbreaks before they happen. The scientists used climate data from Zika-prone areas to build computer models for Aedes mosquito populations.

One of the study’s authors, Dr. Ángel Muñoz of Princeton University, said, “Both the mosquitos that transmit Zika and the virus itself are climate-sensitive.” He continued in an interview with E & E news, “High temperatures, like the ones observed during the record-breaking years 2015 and 2016, generally increase the virus replication rates and also the speed of mosquito reproduction. The overall effect of high temperatures is an increase in the potential risk of transmission.”

The researchers used their computer model to test how well their projections of the virus spreading matched with what actually occurred in 2014 and 2015. They found that their model could consistently predict a Zika outbreak one month before it occurred. In some areas, the model predicted an epidemic three months in advance.

Their computer model is not without its limitations. First, the study notes that scientists can only confidently make predictions for entire countries and regions, not cities or towns. Second, Aedes mosquitos also carry dengue and chikungunya, so the model does not distinguish whether the mosquitos are carrying Zika or another vector-borne disease. It simply indicates when conditions for disease transmission are highly suitable.

Dr. Benjamin Beard is deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Vector-Borne Diseases. Referring to the changing climate and increased international travel, he said in an email, “We are seeing an accelerated threat from mosquito-borne diseases overall. Over the past few decades, we have seen a resurgence of dengue and the introduction of West Nile, chikungunya, and now Zika virus into the Western Hemisphere.”

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.”