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Information Bridge

Science in Action is a project of the University of Northern Iowa’s Center for Energy and Environmental Education (CEEE). This year marks the third year of three for the Science in Action grant awarded from the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust. The purpose is to connect with the general public about environmental and scientific topics important to Iowan communities.

Science in the Media is a web-based resource developed as part of the Science in Action grant. Led by Dr. Christopher Martin, UNI Media and Digital Journalism professor, Science in the Media’s goal is to provide journalists in Iowa and the Midwest with the right tools to write stories about scientific topics. Typically, journalists are general assignment reporters and do not have backgrounds in science. Dr. Martin, through Science in the Media, is bridging the gap and providing tools and materials, such as links to related scientific articles, for early journalists so that they can better cover scientific stories. “This [Science] is a huge area,” Dr. Martin stated, “so we have limited our work to environmental science in Iowa.”

Part of the Science in Action project brought Pulitzer Prize winning author Elizabeth Kolbert to UNI in September. Kolbert is author of the book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Her work focuses on how scientific evidence supports that humans are contributing to what may be the “most devastating extinction event” since the dinosaurs. To learn more about Elizabeth Kolbert’s book visit https://www.pulitzer.org/winners/elizabeth-kolbert.

Science in the Media partners with IowaWatch and Cedar Falls High School. IowaWatch is a non-profit investigative news organization based in Iowa City. It covers news stories from all over the state. Because IowaWatch is a non-profit, it shares stories for free with media outlets such as newspapers, radio stations, and tv stations. The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier and the Des Moines Register have both picked up IowaWatch Stories in the past.

CFHS journalism students with  Brian Winkel & IowaWatch  Executive Director Lyle Muller.Cedar Falls High School students learn to investigate and write stories, based on good research. “This has been a really fruitful process,” Dr. Martin said of working with the high school students.  He went on to say, “This is neat because it is rare that high school students would get to work on projects that get this widely publicized.”

Not all of these students will go on to study journalism. Some do. They have gained experience and knowledge about how to interview and interact with people. They also learn how to write clearly and concisely and how to look at and interpret data. https://www.pulitzer.org/winners/elizabeth-kolbertThese skills will be useful in any career.

A recent story investigated nitrates in Cedar Falls drinking water. Cedar Falls Utilities must stay within the legal limits of ten parts per million (10 ppm). This means the concentration of nitrates within a water sample can not be greater than 10 milligrams per liter of water. Another story investigated how many of Iowa’s Public Schools are in close proximity, within 2,000 feet, of croplands, particularly those lands that are sprayed with pesticides and herbicides.

The scienceinthemedia.org website is open to the public. Anyone can read the stories to discover how this information directly applies to their lives.  Dr. Martin, his graduate students, and others who are part of Science in the Media are always looking for new ideas and stories that are relevant to people and the environment. If you have an idea for a topic, contact Dr. Martin and Science in the Media at martinc@uni.edu.

Science in the Media is working to develop a future generation of scientific journalists. Science in Action and Science in the Media are two examples from many opportunities to engage across disciplinary boundaries and improve education and communities. Dr. Martin along with others on the UNI campus is working to build these bridges for an informed public.  - Ginger L'Heureux

The following partial story is reprinted with permission from Science in the Media as an example of a story written through the partnership between Iowa Watch and Cedar Falls High School:

Cedar Falls Fights Drinking Water Nitrates Battle

June 1, 2017
By Elise Leasure, Sabine Martin and Katherine Mauss/IowaWatch and Cedar Falls Tiger Hi-Line

 

Across the street and a few doors down from Meghan and Sean O’Neal’s Neola Street home in Cedar Falls, you can see a small, nondescript one-story brick building.

“I have seen that building before,” Meghan O’Neal said. “I never knew what it was.”

Sabine Martin/IowaWatch and Tiger Hi-Line The pump house for Cedar Falls Utilities’ No. 3 well.  Taken in March 2017. The building is Cedar Falls Utilities’ pump station 3, one of eight water wells that supply the city’s water system that has little identification except for a small sign attached to it that says Cedar Falls Utilities, the building’s address, and a phone number.

O’Neal and her husband are new to the neighborhood, but long-time Neola Street resident Rosann Good wasn’t aware of its purpose either, nor was Chuck Parsons, who has lived directly across the street from the pump station for two decades.

Knowing where your water comes from is one thing. Knowing what is in your water is another.

Three of Cedar Falls’ wells – 3, 9 and 10 – consistently have recorded high nitrate levels. All three are in the northern part of Cedar Falls and covered by a shallow layer of bedrock, which allows more nitrates to infiltrate the groundwater.

They stand in contrast to Cedar Falls’ southern water wells, where thicker bedrock layers better confine and protect the groundwater lower nitrate levels, a journalism collaboration of the University of Northern Iowa’s Science in the Media project, the Cedar Falls High School Tiger Hi-Line and IowaWatch showed.

“CFU presently is able to keep its water at legal nitrate levels by diluting the higher nitrate water from the northern city pump stations with the lower nitrate water from the southern pump stations in the pipes,” Jerald Lukensmeyer, gas and water operations manager at the utility company, said.

Reported levels in the city’s wells reached as high as 9.8 to 9.9 parts per million (ppm) in five different years from 1996 through 2016, Cedar Falls Utilities records show. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists 10 ppm as the limit for an acceptable level.

Cedar Falls Utilities has records of nitrate testing levels dating to 1966, more than 50 years. In 1966, the highest nitrate reading at a city well was 4.2 ppm, far below the EPA’s 10 ppm limit. It wasn’t until 1992 that the highest nitrate reading exceeded 8 ppm. It has been between 8 ppm and 10 ppm ever since.

A 1999 U.S. Geological Survey study on Cedar Falls water supplies blamed the increasing application of nitrogen-based fertilizer to farm fields as the main cause of high nitrate levels. A 2013 Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship report, “Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy,” said 92 percent of nitrates in Iowa’s water come from runoff largely from agriculture land. The other 8 percent come from wastewater treatment plant discharges, the report said.

“As the runoff moves, it picks up and carries away natural and human-made pollutants, finally depositing them into lakes, rivers, wetlands, coastal waters, and groundwaters,” the study explained.

Nitrates can appear naturally in drinking water at low levels. The EPA’s allowable drinking water nitrate level of 10 parts ppm is the same as 10 milligrams per liter.

NITRATES’ SIDE EFFECTS

A major side effect of high nitrates is blue baby syndrome, known in the medical world as methemoglobinemia and affecting infants who consume a high concentration of nitrates in a short period of time.

The body in instances like that converts the nitrates into nitrites. The nitrites then react with the oxyhemoglobin, or oxygen carrying proteins in the blood, to form methemoglobin, a protein that cannot carry oxygen. The body becomes deprived of vital oxygen if a large enough concentration of methemoglobin builds up in the blood, giving skin a blue hue. In severe cases, this can lead to digestive and respiratory system malfunction.

An average of more than nine of every 10 babies survive blue baby syndrome for at least 20 years after corrective surgery. Less than 1 percent of patients diagnosed with blue baby syndrome don’t survive after 30 days.

“Some birth defects have also been associated with a mother’s exposure to nitrate in drinking water. These include neural tube defects, limb deficiencies and cleft lip and palate,” Peter Weyer, interim director of the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination at the University of Iowa, said.

Other health concerns related to long-term nitrate exposure in drinking water studies conducted in Iowa have included bladder, ovarian and thyroid cancers, Weyer said.

Nitrate level data in parts per million, from Cedar Falls Utilities. Data not available for all years before 1992.  Graphic from ScienceInTheMedia.org Despite the side effects of high nitrate intake, many argue the acceptable U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 10 ppm standard for a safe nitrate level should be raised, Weyer said. Because blue baby syndrome rarely is diagnosed, the argument could be that perhaps a 15 ppm or 20 ppm standard would be acceptable, he said.

“However, the cancer studies we have conducted show that the risk increases for long term consumption of drinking water that has nitrate concentrations at or above 5 ppm, or half the drinking water standard,” Weyer said. He added that other contaminants in water make it difficult to evaluate how contaminant mixtures in drinking water affect people.

The Cedar Falls water system’s eight wells are linked to an underground aquifer. These wells supply the water that all citizens drink. Cedar Falls Utilities tests drinking water nitrate levels quarterly. Wells consistently high in nitrates are tested more frequently.

Lukensmeyer, at Cedar Falls Utilities, said well 3 has been shut off at various times so that its nitrate level doesn’t exceed 10 ppm.

Despite the potential nitrates threat in Cedar Falls’ water supply, residents have faith in the water system. “I kind of trust Cedar Falls Utilities that they are doing a good job with that,” Neola Street resident Rosann Good said.

Read the rest of this story here.

 

Ginger L'Heureux, UNI STEM Graduate Assistant

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