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 – 38 million pieces of trash found on remote Pacific island


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The most recent recorded density of litter on Henderson Island was 671 items per square meter. (Jennifer Lavers/Associated Press). 
Jenna Ladd| June 19, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses how an extremely remote island in the Pacific ocean bares the highest litter density in the world. 

Transcript: Henderson Island is one of the most remote islands in the world and is also the most affected by pollution from plastic debris.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

When researchers traveled to the tiny, uninhabited island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, they were astonished to find an estimated 38 million pieces of trash washed up on the island.

The island is situated at the edge of the South Pacific gyre, where ocean currents meet in a vortex that captures floating trash, carrying some of it from as far away as Scotland.

Over 99 percent of the debris on the island is made of plastic—most pieces are unidentifiable fragments. The researchers say that fishing-related activities and land-based refuse likely produced most of the debris.

The researchers say the density of trash was the highest recorded anywhere in the world, despite Henderson Island’s extreme remoteness. The island is located about halfway between New Zealand and Chile and is recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site.

To learn more about the island, visit iowaenvironmentalfocus.org.

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

EnvIowa Podcast: Dr. Gregory Carmichael


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Dr. Gregory Carmichael has worked closely with scientists in East Asia since 1983 to address pressing air quality problems in that region. (Tim Schoon/University of Iowa)
Jenna Ladd | February 17, 2017

In Episode 5 of EnvIowa we speak with Dr. Gregory Carmichael, Karl Kammermeyer Professor of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering and Co-Director of the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, about his extensive research on global air pollution.

Dr. Carmichael shares his experiences collaborating with scientists in China, explains why air quality issues in East Asia should matter to Iowans and offers some perspective about what climate science research may look under the new federal administration.

CGRER researchers improve predictability of extreme winter haze events


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Fine particulate pollution creates a winter haze over Hong Kong during December of 2009. (Jason Thien/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | December 27, 2016

Meng Gao and Gregory R. Carmichael have published research in Science Advances, an open-access peer-reviewed multidisciplinary scientific journal, that further explains extreme winter haze events in China.

Carmichael is a Karl Kammermeyer Professor of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering and co-director of the University of Iowa Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER). Gao is a former University of Iowa postdoctoral research scholar that is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences of Harvard University.

While working with Carmichael at the University of Iowa, Gao researched how well extreme winter haze pollution events in China could be predicted using state-of-the-art scientific models.

Sulfates are formed by reactions in the atmosphere or on aerosol surfaces. Prior to their recently published research, predicting rapid and heavily concentrated sulfate particulate formation was difficult. The report explains that previous models relied on photochemical oxidants, but because there is limited photochemistry activity during heavy haze events, they are not able to predict those events with the highest sulfate concentrations very well. Carmichael and Gao were only able to predict the correct number of sulfate particulates if they created an additional reaction pathway to create sulfate on particles.

The researchers note that winter haze poses health risks for more than 400 million people in the North China Plain. Sulfate is a major element in fine haze particles. This research follows record sulfate concentrations which led to the extreme winter haze event of 2013 in Beijing.

Carmichael explained, “By incorporating this new reaction pathway into our air quality model, our ability to predict winter time haze events has improved dramatically. Furthermore this more detailed understanding of how fine particles are formed will help guide more effective control measures.”

Iowa ranks among top 20 states for air pollution


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Three of the national top 100 toxic chemical producing companies are located in Iowa. (Cliff/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | September 30, 2016

A recent analysis by the Center for Public Integrity found that Iowa is ranked among the top 20 states in the union for both toxic chemicals and greenhouse gases in the air.

The center, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that performs analysis of government and ethics issues that affect the public, analyzed federal air quality data from 2010 to 2014, the most recent year for which complete data is public. The report showed that Iowa’s hazardous air emissions increased from 17.6 million pounds per year in 2010 to 18.7 million pounds per year in 2014. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), some common hazardous air pollutants include lead compounds, arsenic compounds, vinyl chloride, and chloroform. Iowa ranks 17th nationally for toxic air emissions.

Analysis reveals that most toxic air emissions can be attributed to a handful of power plants, factories, and other facilities. Three of the top 100 contributors are located in the state of Iowa. Climax Molybdenum Co. of Fort Madison ranks among the top ten and released 4.4 million pounds of hazardous chemicals such as ammonia into the air in 2014. Eric Schaeffer, Director of the Environmental Integrity Project called ammonia a “serious pollutant.” Schaeffer said, “It can cause significant health effects when people are exposed to it,” he added, “But it also can lead to water pollution when it falls back to Earth and gets transformed into nitrogen.” Eric Kinneberg, a spokesperson for the Phoenix-based company that owns Climax Molybdenum, said that the plant is working to curb emissions. While not yet fully operational, the company is installing an ammonia scrubber that is predicted to cut ammonia emissions by 90 percent. Kinneberg said, “We share the same goals of achieving and maintaining clean air for all Iowans.”

While the Hawkeye state still ranks 19th nationally for greenhouse gas emissions, emissions dropped by 11 percent from 2010 to 2014. Experts say that much of Iowa’s greenhouse gas emission decrease can be explained by a surge in wind and solar energy investments. Power plants owned by MidAmerican Energy and Berkshire Hathaway are responsible for a large portion of greenhouse gases in the air, but both companies are making strides to limit emissions. Berkshire Hathaway said that it has invested in technology that has significantly reduced emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter and mercury. Perhaps more notably, MidAmerican Energy has retired four coal fueled units and switched a fifth over to natural gas, which also curbs emissions. The company has also invested over $10 billion in wind energy since 2014. MidAmerican most recently announced a $3.6 billion wind energy project that will be constructed on multiple sites around the state.

New ozone emission standards on the horizon


Extreme smog over Los Angeles from a 1995 archive photo. (Metro Library/Flickr)
Extreme smog over Los Angeles, as seen in an archival photo from 1995. (Metro Library and Archive/Flickr)
KC McGinnis | November 26, 2014

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is set today to release a draft proposal that could dramatically reduce ozone emissions from power plants and other sources by 2015.

At the stratospheric level, ozone acts as an important natural filter, blocking out the sun’s ultraviolet rays. At the ground level, however, ozone released from power plants is the main component of smog, a pervasive problem in urban areas that can lead to asthma and other serious pulmonary conditions. The new proposal would lower how much of this ground-level ozone is considered healthy to breathe.

The EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee earlier this year recommended ozone levels be reduced to as low as 60 parts per billion, down from the current standard of 75 ppb set in 2008 under the Bush administration. This would require power plants to implement new strategies and technologies that could accommodate those standards, leading one business group to call it “the most expensive regulation ever imposed.”

The EPA committee, however, argues that the health benefits from the measures would lead to economic benefits that would offset the costs of implementation. These benefits include increased productivity due to reduced morbidity and mortality from pulmonary conditions caused by smog and pollution. The American Lung Association supports the ozone-lowering measures recommended by the EPA, citing the gas as “the most widespread air pollutant,” with effects ranging from coughing and wheezing to low birth weight in newborns.

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA must issue a new ozone proposal by next week, which environmental groups hope will be as strong as the one Obama struck down in 2011, just before the 2012 presidential election. A 60 ppb ozone standard, or a more likely standard in the 65-70 ppb range, would be a significant step toward reducing ground-level ozone to what scientists view as a healthier, more sustainable level.

Climate and health experts discuss effects of climate change on Iowans


Nick Fetty | November 4, 2014

The 2014 Iowa Climate Science Educators Forum took place on the University of Iowa Oakdale Campus in Coralville on Friday, October 31. The 2nd annual event was attended by approximately 50 climate and health experts from across the state.

Chris Anderson – Assistant Director Climate Science Program at Iowa State University – was the first to present at Friday’s event as he discussed the impact of climate change in Iowa.

“Climate change in Iowa is different from climate change on TV,” he said.

One example of this is the frequency of spring and summer rainfall combinations. There were approximately seven instances of spring and summer rainfall combinations between 1893 and 1980 compared to five instances between 2008 and 2014.

Mary Spokec – research geologist and program coordinator for IOWATER – along with David Osterberg – Associate Clinical Professor of Environmental Policy in the University of Iowa’s Department of Occupational and Environmental Health  – took the stage next to discuss water quality issues related to climate change. They said part of the reason for toxic algal blooms which can lead to water contamination is because there are no national standards for algal cyanotoxins.

This issue can be particularly problematic in Iowa other agricultural states where nitrogen and phosphorus can runoff of fields and into waterways which exacerbates the growth of hazardous algal blooms such as blue green algae. Extreme weather associated with climate change has also affected these algal growths. According to weekly monitoring of 38 state-owned beaches, there were 46 water quality advisories during 2013 and 2014 compared to seven in 2011 and two in 2010.

Peter Thorne – head of the UI’s Department of Occupational and Environmental Health – presented next about climate-induced air quality issues affecting Iowans. Molds such as Aspergillus and Penicillium can grow on damp wood in houses and other structures that sustain flood damage. This can lead to a range of pulmonary conditions including mold allergies, asthma, inflammation of mucous membranes, Katrina cough, and Alveolitis. Climate change has also been attributed to more extreme weather events such as heavy rain falls which can lead to flooding.

Increased carbon dioxide levels, hotter temperatures, and a longer growing season (each of which can at least partially be attributed to climate change) is causing poison ivy plants to be more potent. Other allergenic plants have also seen increases in potency as well as an expanded range because conditions attributed to climate change.

Yogesh Shah – Associate Dean of Global Health at Des Moines University – discussed how has climate change has effected disease-carrying insect populations.

“This is the most deadly animal around,” Shah said of mosquitoes, adding that the disease-carrying insects have killed more humans than all other animals combined.

Approximately 600,000 deaths occur each year because of mosquitoes and reported cases of malaria are the greatest they’ve been since 1971. A relatively unheard of disease known as Chikungunya is on the rise, particularly in areas of Africa, India, China, and other parts of southeast Asia. Around 750,000 cases of Chikungunya have been reported in Caribbean and some cases have moved as far north into Florida and other parts of the U.S.

Two cases of Chikungunya has been reported in Iowa by people who contracted the disease while traveling. West Nile Virus is also carried by mosquitoes and in 2002 there were cases of either human or non-human WNV reported in every county in Iowa. Warmer temperatures and a longer growing season have also led to greater numbers of longer-living mosquitoes.

Peter Thorne concluded the morning session by discussing mental health affects caused by increased heat and particularly warmer nighttime temperatures. The group then broke for lunch and spent the rest of the afternoon participating in a public health tracking portal presented by  environmental epidemiologists Tim Wickam and Rob Walker from the Iowa Department of Public Health.

Many of the public health and environmental issues discussed at Iowa Climate Science Educators Forum were included in the Iowa Climate Statement 2014: Impacts on the Health of Iowans.