Iowa Public Meeting Tackles Water Quality, Farming, Health

Reprinted from the NIEHS Environmental Factor.

Janssen, Schilling and Birnbaum

Janssen, left, was joined by Iowa State Geologist Schilling, right, Birnbaum, and others at Mt. Vernon Creates, site of the Iowa community forum.
(Photo courtesy of John Schelp)

Concerns about water quality took center stage in Mt. Vernon, Iowa June 19 when NIEHS and National Toxicology Program Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., and others from the institute held a public meeting in the community.

The University of Iowa Environmental Health Science (EHS) Research Center sponsored the event, which included farm tours for NIEHS scientists, core center colleagues, and community members. The community forum was followed by a two-day meeting with EHS centers from around the country.

The center’s Community Engagement Core Director Brandi Janssen, Ph.D., moderated the community forum. Her group also planned the tour of three farms with different sizes, products, and practices, so the visitors could understand the varieties of local agricultural operations and the challenges faced by farmers in the region.

Carroll and Fuller

Both of Iowa’s senators sent staffers to the forum. Brittney Carroll, from Sen. Joni Ernst’s office, left, and Rochelle Fuller, from Sen. Chuck Grasley’s office, right, spoke with Birnbaum after the meeting.
(Photo courtesy of John Schelp)

A Listening Approach

At all her community forums, Birnbaum asks local organizers to select a key issue that becomes the focus of the visit. By listening to voices in urban and rural settings across the country, she learns about environmental health issues and how they may vary from one area to another.

“Dr. Birnbaum revved up the community engagement part of our center, and [all the] centers across the country,” said Jacqueline Curnick before the meeting. Curnick, who serves as coordinator of the Community Engagement Core, was quoted in a front-page story in the June 13 Mount Vernon-Lisbon Sun.

“Some of our best research is the result of strong community participation in the process,” said Birnbaum in her opening comments before a room full of government officials, town residents, farmers, and community group representatives.

Four panelists joined Janssen and Birnbaum to make brief remarks and take questions from attendees.

Donna Warhover

At Morning Glory farm, Donna Warhover, front left, described organic methods and employment of refugees and adults with disabilities.
(Photo courtesy of John Schelp)

Well Water Unregulated

Water quality is of long-term interest in Iowa, reflected by the water quality research theme of the 25-year-old center. “Seventy percent of rural residents get their drinking water from private, unregulated water supplies whereas virtually all urban dwellers drink public water that is regulated and monitored,” states the center’s water quality research theme web page.

Among the resources the center offers is a link to an interactive map of Iowa private wells contaminated with nitrates, bacteria, or both, prepared by the Iowa Environmental Council and the Environmental Working Group. The center encourages well owners to test their drinking water.


Attendees raised concerns such as pesticides, nitrites, and loss of topsoil, which affect quality of water both at the surface and underground.
(Photo courtesy of John Schelp)

Packed House

Local residents packed the room to raise questions about pesticide and fertilizer use, scale of operations, runoff, cancer, and other topics. For example, on many farms, underground pipes collect excess rainwater and drain it from the fields so machinery can operate. “You can be a good farmer and still have nitrites coming out [of your drain pipe],” Jones noted. Nitrites result from fertilizer use.

  • Tim Keegan
    Tim Keegan, left, described how the Broulik family farms 2,000 acres of corn and soybeans and raises about 150 head of cattle using sustainable practices such as solar power, no till, grass borders along waterways, and precision fertilizer application.
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • Allan Mallie
    Alan Mallie's 40-kilowatt solar panel field powers his farm, where he raises 400 acres of corn and soybeans and 3,500 hogs. Manure is stored under the barn then used to fertilize crops.
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • Keegan, Sharp, Jones, Shilling and Birnbaum
    From right, Keegan, Sharp, Jones, Schilling, and Birnbaum took questions from the crowd.
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • Schelp and Curnick
    On a visit to a University of Iowa summer course on environmental health issues, Schelp and Curnick drew connections between the research interests of the center and the institute.
    (Photo courtesy of Jacqueline Curnick)
  • Birnbaum
    Birnbaum stayed afterwards to speak personally with members of the local community.
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)

Another concern was loss of topsoil, which may lead to increased use of agricultural chemicals. “Drive across the state and you see orange soil hilltops and rich black soil down by the streams,” said Schilling. “So yes, we’ve moved soil down the hill.” The orange soil refers to layers that underlie the rich topsoil.

Birnbaum answered a question about potential clusters of cancer cases. “New techniques are being developed using big data to better understand cancer areas,” she said.

At the end of the evening, Birnbaum was interviewed for a video that the center will produce. According to John Schelp, from the NIEHS Office of Science Education and Diversity, the product will be similar to a video produced by the University of California at Davis (UCD) after last year's forum in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

Schelp noted that this was the last of Birnbaum’s 25 community forums because of her upcoming retirement. “These community forums are part of Dr. Birnbaum’s legacy,” he said. “She’s visited neighborhoods from Harlem to Marin County, from Seattle to the Gulf of Mexico, and from San Juan [Puerto Rico] to St. Lawrence Island [Alaska].”