New University of Iowa study finds Iowa air mostly clean

Researcher urges the state to do better

By Vanessa Miller, The Gazette
Published: May 9 2014 | 5:00 pm - Updated: 9 May 2014 | 5:46 pm in Education, Education Rotator, Higher education, News,

Iowans can breathe easy, for the most part, based on new research out of the University of Iowa showing the state’s air quality falls within the government’s cleanliness guidelines.

The three-year study looked not only at fine-particle pollutants in Iowa, but it became the first to examine air quality and pollution differences between urban and rural areas in the Midwest, according to UI News Services. That information is important because, compared with the rest of the country, more Midwesterners live in rural communities.

In fact, about 44 percent of Iowans live in the country, according to UI News Services, and the new study found that those folks have slightly cleaner air. The concentration of particulates with an airborne diameter of roughly 2.5 microns, meaning they can pass through a respiratory system’s natural defenses and become lodged in a person’s lungs, was higher at the urban monitoring sites than the rural sites.

Specifically, urban sites reported more particles associated with exhaust from gasoline and diesel vehicles — diesel combustion was 230 percent higher in urban areas than in rural zones, according to the research.

Rural sites saw slightly higher concentrations of secondary nitrates, those formed by chemical reaction in the atmosphere during winter, the study shows. And secondary sulfates formed in the atmosphere from emissions — like those from coal-fired power plants — had the highest concentration of all pollutants at Iowa’s urban and rural sites.

Those concentrations, between 30 and 44 percent, were mostly uniform across the state, said Betsy Stone, UI assistant professor in chemistry and lead author of the study, which was published in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal, “Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts.”

“That suggests it’s a regional phenomenon affecting all of Iowa,” Stone said.

The UI study analyzed air quality and pollution data compiled by state and county agencies from April 2009 to December 2012 at five sites — Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Des Moines and rural areas in Montgomery County in southwest Iowa and Van Buren County in the southeast.

Fine particle pollutants in the air during that time were below the newest yearly-average National Ambient Air Quality Standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Stone — along with Shuvashish Kundu, a former postdoctoral researcher at the UI and the paper’s first author — looked only at particles with a diameter of 2.5 microns that come from sources like campfires, leaf burning, vehicle exhaust and power-plant emissions.

“Respirable particles are a danger to human health, and acute exposure have been linked to respiratory illness and even death,” Stone said in a news release.

Of the sites included in the study, Davenport had the highest concentration of 2.5 micron particles — although they still were within federal guidelines, according to the study.

Stone said that although Iowa’s air is mostly clean, the state can use the new research to do even better.

“I don’t want to send the message that we shouldn’t be concerned about air quality in Iowa,” Stone said. “Even low levels of pollutants can have negative health impacts.”

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