Improving Iowa’s water quality

Photo of algae covering water in a rural area

Q&A: Osterberg discusses polices and practices to protect Iowa’s waterways

Water quality issues are making the news in Iowa and nationwide. This spring, the Des Moines Water Works announced its intention to sue three Iowa counties for polluting waterways in violation of the Federal Clean Water Act.

David Osterberg, CPH clinical professor of occupational and environmental health, advocates for water quality through the Iowa Policy Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization he co-founded in 2001. Osterberg, a former state legislator who chaired the House agriculture committee, discusses clean water and recommendations to strengthen Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a voluntary framework to cut nitrogen and phosphorus discharges into Iowa waterways.

What are some of the concerns about Iowa’s water quality?
Since Iowa was settled in the 1840s, our water quality has suffered. This isn’t unusual for a farm state, where millions of acres of wetlands were converted into cropland. First, we’re losing lots of soil. Our rivers run brown, not clear. Even if soil loss didn’t make Iowa’s rivers run brown, they’d run green because of algae—the result of heavy doses of nutrient runoff.

So, nutrients—primarily nitrogen and phosphorus—are a second cause of impaired water quality. On farm fields, nutrients aren’t a pollutant since their purpose is to make crops grow. But in water, nutrients are out of place and become pollutants.

Third, pesticides (insecticides and herbicides) wash into waters, although some herbicides like atrazine are less prevalent nowadays. Wastewater treatment plants discharge pollutants from industrial chemicals and home cleaning products, although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets limits.

How does polluted water affect environmental health?
Iowa lakes and rivers increasingly have algae blooms, which reduce recreational uses and pose health risks. Phosphorus can feed blue-green algae, including a type that causes extremely toxic organisms called microcystin. In July 2014, the city of Toledo, Ohio, temporarily lost its water supply due to microcystin in Lake Erie. You couldn’t even boil the water to make it drinkable. Since 2010, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has seen statewide a ten-fold increase in the microcystin at beaches, from two cases to 22.

In the Gulf of Mexico, oxygen loss has created the dead zone. People often say we “poisoned” the water, but we actually over-enriched it. Since nitrogen and phosphorus make plants like corn and soybeans grow, they also make algae grow, which in turn consume all the oxygen, and fish die or leave.

A portrait of David Osterberg of the University of Iowa College of Public Health.
David Osterberg

What is the Nutrient Reduction Strategy?
Iowa introduced the Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) in 2013 in response to the EPA directive for states along the Mississippi River to reduce the dead zone. The goal is to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus runoff by 45 percent.

The DNR, Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, and Iowa State University (ISU) determined that 90 percent of the nitrogen from Iowa that ends up in the dead zone comes from nonpoint sources, meaning from agriculture. The other 10 percent comes from point sources, primarily wastewater treatment plants. Nearly 66 percent of the phosphorus comes from nonpoint sources and 33 percent from point sources.

Taking reduction steps is voluntary for nonpoint sources, despite accounting for 90 percent of Iowa’s nitrogen contribution, yet mandatory for the point sources.

What can be done to improve water quality through policy and practice?
In July 2014, the Iowa Policy Project (IPP) published a paper on how to improve the NRS. One of the basic problems is the lack of resources to implement the program. Besides needing to change course and assure sufficient funding, there are other problems with a voluntary program. There’s no date by which to achieve the 45 percent reduction goal; we need to set a date. Also, monitoring isn’t required, and should be.

But the crux of the NRS weakness is that it’s voluntary for farmers. Many farmers are doing positive things. But many farmers aren’t doing anything and should. An ISU Agriculture and Rural Life poll in 2011 of 1,300 farmers found that 51 percent of landowners spent nothing on conservation practices in the prior 10 years. If you’re spending nothing, you’re likely doing nothing. IPP thinks farmers should be required to pick two conservation practices from several choices.

What practices help reduce soil and nutrient loss?
One effective practice is cover crops, which keeps soil in place and utilizes nitrogen and phosphorus. However, they can be hard to get started if row crops aren’t harvested until November. Buffer zones between crops and waterways are very effective. The Environmental Working Group showed that a relatively small number of acres taken from production can help. Buffer zones attract wildlife such as pheasants. Farmers could charge people to hunt on their land. Other practices include reintroducing wetlands, contour farming and terracing, and grassed waterways.

If the NRS is sufficiently funded, more technicians could be hired to help farmers successfully adopt these practices. In Iowa, we have the best farmland in the world. We ought to use it to grow corn, but we should be able to grow crops and not contaminate the land and water.

This story originally appeared in the spring 2015 issue InSight magazine for alumni and friends of the UI College of Public Health.

CPH faculty focus on health impact of climate change in October

Faculty members across the University of Iowa campus are turning their attention to the impacts of climate change this month through a series of outreach initiatives.

Iowa Climate Statement 2014: Impacts on the Health of Iowans

Peter Thorne

Peter Thorne, occupational and environmental health professor, and David Osterberg, occupational and environmental health associate clinical professor, shine a light on the toll climate change is taking on the health of Iowans in this annual statement. The statement points to the health dangers posed by degraded water quality, increased air allergens caused by warmer temperatures and increased carbon dioxide levels, and the spread of infectious disease—among other issues.

In endorsement of the information presented, science faculty members from colleges and universities across Iowa have signed the statement.

Thorne and Osterberg will present the statement on Friday, Oct. 10, 10:00 a.m. at the State Capitol, Room 116. The statement will then be posted on the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research website.

Iowa Climate Statement 2014: Webinar

Take part in an in-depth session about the information covered in this year’s Iowa Climate Statement with lead authors Peter Thorne and David Osterberg during a webinar on Thursday, Oct. 23rd from 1 to 2 p.m.

The webinar will be an excellent opportunity to learn about the latest climate impacts on public health in Iowa and what climate models predict for the state’s future.

A portrait of David Osterberg of the University of Iowa College of Public Health.
David Osterberg

Space is limited. Find out more information on the registration website.

Iowa Climate Science Educators Forum

Educating the next generation on the impact of climate change requires the latest research. The lead authors of the Iowa Climate Statement 2014: Impacts on the Health of Iowans will present the statement to educators from across the state, and further discuss the future of Iowa’s weather future based on climate models.

Educators will also have the chance to network with Iowa public and environmental health professionals, as well as public and private college and university science leaders.

The forum takes place on Friday, Oct. 31, from 9:15 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at the Center for the Advancement of Laboratory Science at the State Hygienic Laboratory at the University of Iowa, Coralville.

The forum is free, and interested science educators can find more information, including how to register, here.


Source: Iowa Now

Fracking Comes to the Heartland

 Photo of the Preferred Sands plant in Blair, Wis., on June 20, 2012. Lukas Keapproth/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
The Preferred Sands plant in Blair, Wis. Photo: Lukas Keapproth/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Buried just below the surface of wide stretches of the Midwest lies a natural resource that has only recently skyrocketed in value: silica sand. In the past decade it has played a major role in hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” a drilling process that has helped the United States hit what many observers consider to be a domestic natural gas jackpot.

While fracking has ignited controversy because of its potential to taint water supplies near gas and oil wells, the environmental impact of extracting silica sand is not well understood. With mining companies poised to launch operations in northeast Iowa, concerned citizens there have called upon University of Iowa researchers to investigate.

Since about 2005, fracking has flourished in the United States. Energy companies using the technique have unlocked vast stores of natural gas and oil previously believed to be unreachable because they were embedded in shale rock and limestone. Fracking, a high-pressure application of water, chemicals, and silica sand (also known as “frac sand”), creates fissures in the rock, releasing the trapped gas and oil. The frac sand is essential because it infiltrates the cracks and keeps them propped open. One well can require hundreds or even thousands of tons of frac sand.

Constantly hungry for more of the sand, the burgeoning fracking industry has quickly spawned extensive sand mining outposts in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois. But when mining companies set their sights on deposits in Allamakee and Winneshiek counties in northeast Iowa, residents formed citizen-action groups and got in touch with David Osterberg, a member of the outreach team of the Environmental Health Sciences Research Center (EHSRC) based in the College of Public Health.

“Frankly, they’re very worried,” says Osterberg, clinical professor of occupational and environmental health. He says a key concern is crystalline silica.

Crystalline Silica and Silicosis

A fine dust that is the byproduct of the mining process, respirable crystalline silica is known to cause silicosis, an incurable scarring of tissue in the lungs that can lead to severe shortness of breath and, eventually, death. Silica exposure has also been linked to other diseases, such as emphysema, tuberculosis, lung cancer, and some immune-system ailments.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration describes occupational exposure to crystalline silica as “a serious threat” to some 2 million American workers in mining and other industries. But very little is known about the impact of ambient exposure to the dust; that is, exposure to residents of communities surrounding the mining operations. To date, no conclusive evidence has been found that demonstrates that sand mining leads to silicosis in people living in surrounding communities. But silicosis has been identified in farm animals living downwind of sources of crystalline silica.

The citizens’ groups convinced the supervisors of Allamakee and Winneshiek counties to impose 18-month moratoria on frac sand mining until they’ve had a chance to consider development of local mining regulations and to assess the impact of mining on the region, which has an economy that depends heavily on tourism and second-home construction.

Study Sparks New Inventions

After establishing contacts with several fledgling efforts to monitor air quality around frac sand operations in Wisconsin, the EHSRC procured a $125,000 grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in September 2013 to conduct a year-long air-quality study that will unify those projects and generate new research. Led by Peter Thorne, director of the EHSRC and professor and head of occupational and environmental health, the study funds UI researchers to develop novel methods for sampling and monitoring air around mining operations.

Tom Peters, associate professor of occupational and environmental health, is directing the exposure assessment portion of the research, which includes real-time monitoring of air affected by mining-related activities, development of low-cost detectors for long-term monitoring, and collection of particles through air sampling.

Ryan Grant, a graduate student in biomedical engineering, is working on the real-time monitoring leg, beginning with constructing and deploying a detection device that sits near railroad tracks that service frac sand operations.

“We’re inventing ways to associate airborne particle concentrations with events in the environment,” Peters says. “For example, when a train goes by, the sound from the train triggers a camera to take a picture, so we’re able to get an idea of whether it’s a sand train. Then it monitors the particulate matter levels in the air.”

They will try to identify particles with diameters that range from 2.5 to 10 micrometers and determine if any of the particulate matter includes crystalline silica. Crystalline silica smaller than 4 micrometers is the type most likely to reach the alveoli of the lungs and cause silicosis.

Extending Efforts

Other components of the study lend support to ongoing work. Patrick O’Shaughnessy, professor of occupational and environmental health, will extend current air-sampling efforts by conducting modeling of air conditions, extrapolating the Wisconsin data, for example, to determine how air-quality levels might change at the as-yet-undeveloped Iowa mine locations.

And Liz Swanton, a master’s student in the Department of Community and Behavioral Health, will develop training videos to teach public health department personnel how to employ standardized air-monitoring methods that will keep communities informed of whether their local mines are complying with standards.

“Mining permits require you to apply dust-suppression techniques to minimize fugitive emissions,” Peters says. “Some people do, some people don’t. There is no monitoring to check.” The low-cost monitors that the team develops will provide a way to check inexpensively. The video training will also ensure a continuing flow of reliable data.

Making It Public

All the data will come together into a risk assessment led by Thorne that will inform the public about the levels of exposure and the risks to public health. These findings will be presented at workshops, where UI researchers will advise stakeholders, including policymakers, mining industry representatives, citizens’ groups, and academic institutions.

Peters, who has worked on projects with national impact, takes pride in how the work he and his colleagues do on this study will have long-term local benefits.

“This is a unique, regional issue,” he says. “It’s the first time I’ve been on a project with this degree of community participation. It’s been fun.”

Osterberg Brings Environment, Politics Together in New Course

University of Iowa students got to spend time up close with state lawmakers this spring as part of a new Iowa Environmental Policy in Practice course. David Osterberg, professor in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health, teaches the course.

David Osterberg

David Osterberg’s work in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health encompasses public policy in the fields of both environmental health and environmental quality. He teaches a seminar in environmental health policy as well as the department’s only undergraduate course, an introduction to occupational and environmental health. He specializes in research translation and community engagement for two federally funded centers, the Environmental Health Sciences Research Center and the Iowa Superfund Research Program (ISRP). In addition, Professor Osterberg is part of the Training Core for the ISRP.

His accomplishments in service activities and specifically in engagement outside the University have been recognized by the College of Public Health with the 2009 Faculty Service Award and the 2011 Board of Advisers Award for Faculty Achievement in Community Engagement. In addition to his work at the University of Iowa, Osterberg is the founder and past executive director of the Iowa Policy Project, a non-profit policy research organization.

Learn more about Professor Osterberg in this profile…