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.”

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.

Suicide rates for farmers exceed rates for all other occupations


More farmers are taking their lives than any other occupation in the country, University of Iowa researchers have discovered. (flickr/Daniel Brock)

Katelyn Weisbrod | June 27, 2017

The rate of suicide among farmers is drastically higher than any other occupation, according to a study done by University of Iowa researchers.

From 1992 to 2010, 230 American farmers committed suicide at an annual rate ranging from 0.36 per 100,000 to 0.92 per 100,000. Comparatively, no other occupation exceeded 0.19 suicides per 100,000 workers for any year during this same period.

Co-author of the study Corinne Peek-Asa, a professor in the UI College of Public Health, said in a UI press release that financial issues related to economic or weather conditions can contribute to the suicide rate, as well as other stressors like physical pain from labor, societal isolation, and inaccessible healthcare. Peek-Asa also said a farmer’s job is a large part of his or her identity, and he or she may take failure extremely personally.

“They struggle with their ability to carve out the role they see for themselves as farmers,” Peek-Asa said in the release. “They can’t take care of their family; they feel like they have fewer and fewer options and can’t dig themselves out. Eventually, suicide becomes an option.”

The number of farmer suicides has significantly declined since the farming crisis of the 1980s, when grain trade with the Soviet Union halted and millions of farms went under. Over 1,000 farmers took their lives that decade.

Although the suicide rate has declined since the 1980s crisis, another agricultural disaster could be on the horizon. As the effects of climate change set in through increased temperatures and precipitation, farmers could soon face serious setbacks.

In a press release issued after President Trump announced his intent to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said, “We cannot sustain a viable food system if climate change is left unchecked … Increasingly unpredictable and destructive weather [will] wreak havoc on family farm operations, future generations, and food prices and availability for years to come.”

On the Radio – UI researcher works to understand bicycle fatalities


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Hamann has found that bicycle specific infrastructure, such as bicycle lanes, can help reduce fatalities. (Danielle Scott/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| June 26, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses Dr. Cara Hamann’s research into the increasing number of bicycle fatalities in Iowa.

Transcript: Deaths of Iowa bicyclists have risen by 260 percent in the last four years, and Dr. Cara Hamann of the University of Iowa is working to do something about it.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Hamann, an associate professor of epidemiology at the UI College of Public Health, and her team of researchers explored the relationship between motor vehicle driving behavior and bicycle crashes. The scientists attached GPS and video-recording equipment to bicyclists to capture first-hand data and performed simulations using the National Advanced Driving Simulator, located on the University of Iowa campus.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 3,477 people were killed in bicycle crashes in 2015. Hamann explained that most fatal crashes happen when motor vehicles strike bicyclists.

For more information about Dr. Hamann’s research, visit Iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

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

Research Profile: Dr. Brandi Janssen


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College of Public Health professor, Dr. Brandi Janssen, also serves as director of Iowa’s Center for Agricultural Safety and Health (I-CASH). (College of Public Health/University of Iowa)

This week, Iowa Environmental Focus sat down with Dr. Brandi Janssen, Clinical Assistant Professor in the UI College of Public Health’s Department of Occupational and Environmental Health, to discuss her multi-faceted research into local food in Iowa. A trained anthropologist, Dr. Janssen collects qualitative, ethnographic data about alternative, small-scale farming in Iowa to further understand what makes local food systems successful and safe. Janssen discusses some of her findings in her recently published book, Making Local Food Work: The Challenges and Opportunities of Today’s Small Farmers

Jenna Ladd: Much of your work centers around local food. This is a big question, but why should Iowans care about making a local food system work?

Dr. Brandi Janssen: If you want an agricultural economy that’s diverse and actually supports Iowa then you have to have more than just commodity production. So, I think there are good economic opportunities, there are lots of job creation opportunities. People tend to focus on the farming piece of it, but I think there are a lot of missed opportunities for mid-scale processing and distribution. As things sort of scale-up, it’s sort of a chicken and an egg thing right now: Do you start the distribution without knowing that you have the supply or do you build up the supply and then try to find distribution for that? But I think there are enormous economic opportunities that will keep more money local, you know? So those small-scale processing and distribution opportunities, unlike a Cargill plant or whatever, are more likely to benefit the community. Plus, there is potential for diversified farming and opportunities for smaller-scale farmers so economically it makes a lot of sense.

We talk about agricultural sustainability and diversity and ag portfolio, and we should think about that both at the industry level and at the farm level and that’s one way to do it.

Jenna Ladd: You published a book recently, Making Local Food Work: The Challenges and Opportunities of Today’s Small Farmers, you know what your book is called [laughs]. What were you aiming to communicate with that publication?

Dr. Brandi Janssen: What I realized when I was doing the research was that there is so much that happens between the farmer and the consumer. The local food conversation tends to focus on one of those two parties, either consumers who are doing this wonderful and altruistic thing by buying local food. You know, we stroke the consumer a lot by telling them how great they are for being local food buyers. Or the farmer and the “know your farmer” rhetoric and this kind of, when the two meet it’s this magical relationship and it’s going to solve all of our problems and I don’t…have a lot of patience actually for that type of rhetoric [laughs].

So, what I realized was that there was so much going on in between and behind the scenes even before you get to the farmers market. If you’re a producer, you’re dealing with labor, either your own or somebody else’s or volunteer labor, which is its own ball of wax in and of itself. You have regulations at the market. If you’re dealing with meat or dairy, you have all of these inspectors to help you get your product from point A to point B, to make sure that it’s safe and complies to all the regulatory standards. So, there’s just so much beyond the farmer-consumer interaction. We talk about local foods systems, but then it devolves into this discussion of the direct market relationship, and I think there’s a lot more going on. It’s not as direct as it looks.

Jenna Ladd: If you had to name an intended audience, who do you want to read your book?

Janssen: That’s a good question. Of course, I want everyone to read it, and everyone to go out and buy it and all that! I’m supposed to market it. [laughs]

I guess I have a couple audiences in mind. I’m an anthropologist by training so really when I started the book, I wanted it to be appropriate for undergraduates in anthropology. I wanted them to understand what you can do with anthropological methods right in your own community; you don’t have to go off to some exotic place to the work that we do. That’s still an important audience.

There are a lot of players for lack of a better word. I mean, there are a lot of people in the system and a lot of particularly young people who want to enhance the system and make it better, but when you walk into the co-op and all you see are pictures of farmers, you think, “Boy, but I can’t afford land in Iowa because it’s absurdly expensive, how can I contribute to this system?” I hope that understanding all of the intricacies of the bigger system, people find a place in it, you know? There are lots of other roles that are just as important. I hope that it can be a useful book for that population as well. And then, in general, kind of the foodie. There are lots of people reading books about food and agriculture right now, which is a great thing. That’s super exciting, so any of that interested population, I hope that it would be a useful or informative or…not a terrible read hopefully. [laughs]

JL: [laughs] Yeah, that’s a good goal. No, I like that a lot though because for a lot of my peers, their dream is to own land in Iowa. Everybody wants to be a small-scale farmer, which is great, but maybe not always realistic. So kind of seeing, maybe you could be the person that adds value to a product or processes food or transports it. Yeah, you can be a different kind of player to make the whole thing go.

Janssen: Yeah, and it’s just as important. The marketing angle and the focus on farmers is actually an unfortunate piece of local food. Boy, it feels like blasphemy in Iowa to sit here and say we should not focus on the farmer so much because that’s what we do here, but the reality is we shouldn’t. The truck-driver and the distributer and the butcher should be on the co-op walls and not just the three farmers who were willing to go to the photo shoot.

JL: I haven’t read the book yet, but from my understanding it kind of debunks some myths about the local food system. I think you mentioned some of them already, what are some other ones that you discuss?

Janssen: Maybe the other big one, if we want to call it myth-debunking, is the interaction between commodity farmers and local food farmers in the state. So kind of at the high-level, you know if you read mass media and journalism, attention gives them a hook so they like the “little guy is going up against corporate ag” [narrative]. It’s combative, like you’re either a commodity farmer and you’re destroying the environment or you’re a local food farmer and everything is sort of copacetic, right? So, what I found though, when I was talking to farmers, was that they work a lot with their neighbors. They interact usually pretty positively with their commodity farming neighbors. They use their equipment, they use their expertise. I mean, there are sometimes issues, pesticide spray drift is probably the big one that causes problems, but overall I think most farmers see ag as sort of a series of strategies that you use to an economic or an environmental end, right? So, almost all farmers are mixing various strategies. I mean, there are commodity farmers that do a small CSA (community-supported agriculture).

There’s a farmer story I tell that I like a lot. There’s a farmer, he’s had organic grains for over ten years but put up a Sara Lee contract turkey barn so that he could use the bedding for nitrogen for his organic row crops. Most of his organic grains go to Silk, the soy milk company, or they go to the local feed mill for organic livestock feed. So, you don’t always think of those organic markets as being enhanced by a Sara Lee barn, but that’s an interesting way to blend two completely different strategies on one farm. So, I think on the ground things are much less combative than they appear to be when you read the sort of, the Farm Bureau “Criticism of Ag is Our Biggest Problem on One Hand” and kind of, the “We’ve Got to Destroy the Corporate Ag System” on the other. That’s not really how the conversation looks in rural neighborhoods.

JL: Soil erosion and water quality problems related to agriculture have been really hot-button issues lately in Iowa. In your research, have you noticed a trend toward more diversified farms or a trend away from that?

Janssen: So, from a crop standpoint, people are still doing corn-and-soy-corn-and-soy, maybe they used to have hogs and they got out of hogs in the nineties and now they’re just doing row crop. But we are seeing, even though the numbers overall are really, really small, it’s a tiny percentage of land that’s in cover crop, we are seeing growth in that area. So it’s like, it’s not necessarily diversifying the products that are grown for sale, but it’s diversifying the practice and changing the practice so that, essentially you’ve got more ground cover through more of the year. That’s the short answer to it, ya know? So, the cover crop thing is evidence that we’re thinking about changing practices in a way that does diversify farms, just not really in the traditional sense. But it’s slow. I think people are kind of excited about it, but I’m a little more like, “Well, we’re not getting too far yet so let’s see how it’s going.” I did meet a number of farmers who did commodity crops who were adding [diversity], especially after the 2008 shift in the Farm Bill that loosened up the restrictions. It used to be if you had so many base acres in corn, you couldn’t do vegetable production…That changed I think in 2008, so since then, I’ve talked to a number of commodity farmers who were also saying, “Well, maybe ya do a vegetable operation, or a pumpkin patch or some kind of agro-tourism.” So in that way, I think. You know, I couldn’t give you statewide numbers if we’re really seeing a shift, but anecdotally at least, yeah, people are thinking about it.

JL: My next question was going to be about pushes people over the edge to make the decision to diversify their farms, and it sounds like you’re saying a lot of it depends on the Farm Bill and national policies that govern farms.

Janssen: Yeah, I think if you ever ask yourself, “Does policy change behavior?” All you have to do is look at the Farm Bill and then look out your Iowa window. [laughs] It’s a clear yes, it can change behavior. When people have more flexibility in the farm program, they seem to go for it, ya know? People are seeing that a small vegetable operation is a nice, profitable strategy.

JL: So, you direct I-CASH. What about the relationship between local food and farm safety?

Janssen: Oh, that’s a good question, and I don’t think that that’s one that we’ve really asked or answered too well. Right after I started this job I had a funny conversation with a relatively new CSA grower and I was telling him about the job. I said, “You know, the center (I-CASH) historically has really worked with big commodity farmers, but I think we should be working more with the local food and the alternative producers.” He looked at me and he said, “Well, what could hurt you on a vegetable farm?” [laughs] I said, “Do you have tractor?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Does it have a roll bar?” He said, “No.” I said, “I’m much more worried about you than some guy who is in his combine all day.”

You know, so there are a couple ways. First of all, I think we have a tendency to associate what we perceive as the health and safety of the food with the workplace as well. You know, these local food farms tend to be set apart as these, kind of, “other.” You mentioned the romanticizing of farming in general, and I think that’s certainly true. You forget that you’re dealing with real equipment, organic farming is not chemical-free, you’re using particularly a lot of disinfectants and sanitizers that can cause all sorts of problems, the equipment, the livestock, etc. It’s just as dangerous as a big farm.

I came into this job knowing a lot more about farmer behavior as it related to environmental practices. I didn’t really come in with an expertise in farm safety particularly, but I think those conversations are really parallel. In both situations you have a system that lacks a lot of regulatory oversight, both environmentally and with safety practices. You know, farms are not regulated by OSHA like factories are so you have to think about, “How do we change individual behavior?” As I stay in contact with my environmentally-focused colleagues, we’re kind of having the same conversations just about different topics, but the framework is very similar. This is a population we’ve ignored. It overlaps quite a bit.

JL: Yeah, there seems to be a need for more regulation, especially if you think about maybe people of a lower socioeconomic status or people who don’t have citizen status in the U.S. who are working on farms. People don’t have an out in those situations, and you know, they just need to make money.

Janssen: Right, it’s easy to make it exploitative and the whole push to volunteer labor in local food is a bit a blind spot too. It can be problematic. I mean, I appreciate particularly young people who want to learn more about farming and it’s a good way to do it, but it also doesn’t do much for anybody economically. If these jobs are supposed to be the better jobs then they shouldn’t be just for people who are privileged enough to be able to do them for free. They should also go to people who need the work and are also invested and going to stick around in the area. So, it’s kind of a double-edged sword, I guess, depends on how you look at it.

JL: On that same note, accessing local food can be difficult for some people, particularly those with fewer resources. How can a local food system address food equity issues?

Janssen: That’s a hard one. I can speak to this locally more than from a big picture, I think. You know, people want to do the right thing. It’s not like the local food movement doesn’t want to make this happen, but it’s been a little slow to start. There’s been a lot of emphasis on cost, which makes sense. There is tension between farmers making money and making food affordable. It’s absolutely true that we spend less of our take home dollar on food than lots of other things, blah-blah-blah. It’s a perfectly reasonable conversation about what the real cost of food should be. Should it be higher? But then you have this population for whom that would be catastrophic.

Again, it’s about thinking about the whole system. It’s not just thinking about the cost but also about where is it located. There is one project that I thought was really effective. Well, we’ll see because we just got it up and off the ground. So, Local Foods Connection, which I was involved with while it was here in Iowa City, now it’s in Grinnell, they started doing farm stands at the Neighborhood Centers in Johnson County. Like on a Thursday afternoon, they do a little farm stand. Purchase, not ask for donations, but purchase basically wholesale from farmers and they would often give a lot of their overage if they had extras. They would sort of just throw stuff on top. So you’re actually selling food, it’s not a donation situation, but you’re selling it at a small market at a place where people are going anyway to pick up their kids and so it’s easy for them, as opposed to saying “Oh, well we’ve got SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) at the farmers market therefore, we’ve solved all of our access problems.” [laughs] Because the other piece of it is about farmers markets and their inaccessibility: they’re at times that maybe don’t work for working people, they’re sometimes not as inclusive as they think they are. They tend to be very white spaces, very middle class spaces. That [initiative], to me, ticks a lot of the boxes.

You know, it’s not just that it’s affordable but is it physically accessible? Can people get to it in a way, you know, not just actually getting there but that they feel comfortable when they are there, they’re with their own neighbors, in a community that they’re comfortable with. That’s where I think institutional purchasing can go a long way. You think about rural care facilities, many of them are pretty low budget operations. This is not where wealthy people always go to live out the end of their lives. Or rural schools, they’re the same. These are systems where people have to eat every day and they have to feed them.

One story I tell in the book is about sweet potatoes, which actually turned out to be a pretty good option for the school district. The farmer who grew the potatoes, he had an acre. He had basically a home-built planter and harvester. So you know, it was not hand labor, but he could sell certified organic sweet potatoes for about a dollar per pound. That was completely within the reach of the school district, but that only works if you are willing to grow a full acre of potatoes and specialize in it a little bit.

When I quoted that price to another farmer who has a CSA, I had the sense that I actually offended her by suggesting such a low cost. Well, if you dig your potatoes with a pitchfork, you’re never going to be able to have a price point that is accessible to an institution where you still make money. He makes money on the sweet potatoes. That’s probably a $40,000 acre, that’s a lot of money.

That’s probably a pretty windy answer, but it’s all the things! We have more to do.[laughs]

UI professor works to make Iowa roads safer for cyclists


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Despite Iowa’s unique and treasured tradition of cycling across the state each summer during RAGBRAI, deaths of everyday cyclists are on the rise. (Channone Arif/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | May 26, 2017

Bicyclist deaths in the state of Iowa have risen by 260 percent in the last four years, and Dr. Cara Hamann of the University of Iowa is working to do something about it.

Hamann, an associate professor of Epidemiology in the College of Public Health, has done extensive research on bicycle safety. Now she aims to bring her work to the attention of lawmakers.

“I am working to close the gap between research and policy,” she said in an interview with the Big Ten Network. Hamann and her research team have explored the relationship between motor vehicle driving behavior and bicycle crashes in both simulated and naturalistic settings. She explained, “We have conducted studies of how drivers interact with bicyclists using the National Advanced Driving Simulator (located here on the UI campus) and have also conducted real-world naturalistic bicycling studies, using GPS and video to capture first-hand data on bicyclist trips.”

National trends match those observed in Iowa. In 2015, 3,477 people were killed in bicycle crashes according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Most fatal bike crashes, Hamann explained, happen when cars strike bicyclists. To explain motor vehicles’ particular lethality, some researchers point to the fact that an estimated 660,000 U.S. drivers use their cell phones while driving during daylight hours.

Hamann said, “We have also found that bicycle-specific infrastructure (e.g., bicycle lanes) have protective effects, which supports the need for more appropriations and implementation of those types of roadway treatments to reduce crashes and related injuries.”

Over its lifespan, the average motor vehicle emits 1.3 billion cubic yards of polluted air, including earth-warming greenhouse gases. In contrast, bicycles do not produce any emissions during use. Additionally, when more people are on bikes, traffic congestion is reduced and cars spend less time idling. Bike friendly communities are also generally healthier than those that center entirely around motor vehicles.

Hamann said, “Reduced bicycle crashes and associated injuries can have huge benefits to communities—the same things that are associated with increased biking and walking, in general—better overall health of the community due to increased physical activity, less traffic congestion, and environmental benefits, to name a few.”