Category Archives: Event

10 things we learned about chemicals & environmentFlickr: Photo by Bert van Dijk (Flickr/Creative Commons)

What better way to commemorate Earth Day than by learning about how our everyday actions affect the environment? This week’s Frontiers focused on common chemical pollutants and their impacts. IonE resident fellow and College of Science and Engineering professor Bill Arnold kicked off the talk, followed by Matt Simcik, associate professor in the School of Public Health and Ron Hadsall, professor in the College of Pharmacy. With conversations ranging from flaming couches to perspiration and peeing, here are 10 things we learned:

1. The good, the bad and the complex. Lately chemicals have been receiving a lot of flack for being toxic, but we must remember that we rely on chemicals for much of our life. Chemicals are a necessary and helpful part of life, but the properties that make them good for our industries, such as their stability and persistence, are often the same things that make them bad for the environment. Understanding how they interact in the environment is complex and can be influenced by features such as quantity, level of exposure and the specific setting.

2. PCB spells trouble. Polychlorinated biphenyls are manmade chemicals used for their stability, nonflammability, and high boiling point. PCBs were originally intended for industrial applications so it was assumed that they couldn’t easily be released into the environment. Then we discovered that PCBs are harmful to the environment and to humans, with health impacts including cancer and effects on the immune system. As persistent chemicals, PCBs do not easily break down once released into the environment, and they are able to travel far distances and accumulate in living things. PCBs were banned in1979, but they are still frequently found in the environment and in products produced before the ban.

3. The lesser of two evils? Sometimes referred to the “new PCBs,” polybrominated diphenyl ethers are used as flame retardants in many consumer products, including cars and furniture. Concerns over these chemicals include adverse neurobehavioral impacts on humans and ecotoxicity in many animals. Production of PBDEs started in the 1970s, peaked in the late 1990s, and began to be phased out beginning in 2009.

4. Think twice before washing your hands. If you’ve never been one to read product labels, now might be the time to start. The chemical triclosan can be found in many personal care products, including antibacterial hand soap and toothpaste, as an antibacterial agent. Production of triclosan started in the 1960s and increased rapidly, despite some studies saying that it does not provide any added antibacterial benefits. Furthermore, a University of Minnesota study showed triclosan is able to build up in the sediment of lakes, and it also forms dioxins when exposed to sunlight. The good news? Minnesota recently became the first state in the country to ban the chemical, effective January 1, 2017.

5. One of these things is not like the other. Research over the past few decades has made strides in understanding how chemicals act in the environment. Unlike PCBs and PBDEs, which travel easily, perfluorochemicals have a negative charge that binds them to things and keeps them relatively stationary. Yet, despite believing that PFCs shouldn’t go anywhere, researchers kept finding them all over the globe. Eventually, they discovered that the precursor chemicals were being distributed globally in the environment, which then transformed to form the PFCs.

6. Some 10–15 percent of all medications go unused. Pharmaceutical drugs are among the biggest sources of chemicals in the environment. While pharmacologists are trained to think about how medications affect human health, downstream consequences are sometimes unseen. When extra medication is thrown away or flushed down the toilet it enters the environment, through wastewater treatment plant effluents. These chemicals can then affect the organisms around them, as is evident from the recent reports of estrogen creating feminized fish. Researchers and policy makers have been looking into how to dispose of medication in a more responsible way. Regulations and take-back programs have started to make a difference.

7. Pass-through problems. The fact that 85–90 percent of pharmaceuticals are used does not mean these chemicals are staying out of the environment. Hadsall and colleague Lowell Anderson are exploring what happens to medications as they make their way out of our bodies and into wastewater. Conservatively, they estimate that 50 percent of what is consumed ends up in the sewage system and potentially the environment. This is significant, especially since millions of people around the world rely on various pharmaceutical drugs. Medical chemicals provide an added challenge because many people rely on pharmaceutical drugs, meaning reducing consumption or banning them may not be an option.

8. What now? Knowing what we now know about chemicals, Arnold, Simcik and Hadsall made recommendations about how we should move forward. We’ve already taken some steps by banning or phasing out known contaminants, but there are still concerns over how to best manage what’s already in the environment. Specifically, we need to invest more in thorough testing before using new chemicals. In addition, they recommend that the laws and regulations that govern these chemicals should be reevaluated and updated.

9. Education is important. In both medical and industrial products, the power of the consumer should not be undervalued. People tend to make different decisions if they know the consequences of their actions, so informing them about what’s included in products may affect their decision to buy or use these products. Consumers can also push back against suppliers and manufacturers, forcing them make changes accordingly. Because many of the laws and regulations governing chemicals have not been updated since they were written in the 1970s and 1980s, public education should also include information about regulations and whether they are outdated.

10. Could local solutions answer global problems? While Switzerland and Sweden have been leading the way in Europe by developing solutions to managing these chemicals, the United States have been less responsive. The panelists agreed that Minnesota might be a good place to start, thanks to its trifecta of environmentally informed citizens, corporations and legislature.

Watch a video of the presentation.

Photo by Bert van Dijk (Flickr/Creative Commons)

6 things we learned about managing pandemic threatsFlickr: Photo by Matthew Anderson (Flickr/Creative Commons)

The April 15 Frontiers looked at ways we can manage disease threats at home and abroad. Thanks to a diverse panel including Patsy Stinchfield, director of infection prevention and control at the Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota; Cheryl Robertson, an associate professor in the School of Nursing, and John Deen, a professor of Veterinary Population Medicine, here are six things we learned:

1. The nature of infectious diseases. In 2014, Ebola made headlines around the world, bringing fear and uncertainty with it. Prior to this, the disease had primarily occurred in rural areas with little contact with other communities, and so was relatively contained. But as Ebola started to make its way into larger cities and cross international boundaries, it sparked new conversations about how to manage the uncertainties and left many feeling unprepared. And, while Ebola may be the most notorious infectious disease right now, it is not the only one we need to worry about. The speakers also addressed measles, and the often-underrated influenza.

2. Prevention is better than reaction. As the Ebola crisis grew, the United States scrambled to prepare, often while facing serious public criticism. Stinchfield discussed how the Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota took steps to become one of the most prepared hospitals in the country by simulating labs, learning how to handle waste and spending time making sure staff felt comfortable about their own personal protection. While the hospital hasn’t had to deal with a real Ebola case, the preparation did come in handy during a couple of potential cases. It also opened up conversations about preparing for the next outbreak.

3. The war on infectious diseases. Part of the problem is not the disease itself, but our ability to respond to it. Many countries that suffer the most are dealing with difficult social and cultural problems. Robertson, who has spent time in Liberia and a significant portion of her career addressing public health in conflict situations, compares the damage of infectious diseases to that of a war zone. Having the capacity to be completely prepared for these situations requires access to tangible resources as well as to intangible resources such as education. It’s hard to build a resilient health care system when professionals are leaving areas for their own safety and schools are closing. Moving forward, we need to think about the varied challenges that come with handling infectious diseases around the world.

4. It’s a learning process. While we’ve made strides in learning about infectious diseases and how to treat them, there is room for improvement. In 1989 and 1990, the United States struggled with a measles resurgence. At that time, it was practice to administer only one dose of vaccine, but researchers realized that this left 5 percent of the population vulnerable. Now medical professionals administer two doses of the vaccine, helping to raise the success of the vaccine to 99 percent. Such continued discovery will be important as the changing global landscape changes our interactions with diseases.

5. We are victims of our own success. Vaccines have been so successful that we’ve started to become desensitized to their impact. No longer having to see the direct impacts and physical manifestations of the diseases, we’ve lost the fear associated with them. Now the fear of the vaccine has begun exceeding the fear of the disease itself. As Deen pointed out, we almost need some level of fear of the diseases in order to remind ourselves to act.

We are one global community. One of the most important things to remember is that we’re all connected and we need to think on a global scale. Prevention in one part of the world helps prevent problems in other parts. To solve big problems, we also need solutions from across communities, nations and disciplines. This thinking can apply beyond infectious diseases and could be one way to approach our current environmental challenges too.

Photo by Matthew Anderson (Flickr/Creative Commons)

8 things we learned about health and wildlife tradeFlickr: Photo by Craig ONeal (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Combine cutting-edge University of Minnesota research and heightened interest in infectious disease due to recent ebola outbreaks, and you get a fascinating discussion on wildlife and the ways it may influence global health. At this week’s Frontiers in the Environment, Dominic Travis, IonE resident fellow and associate professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine; Shaun Kennedy, director of the Food Systems Institute and adjunct professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine; and Kristine Smith, associate director of health and policy with EcoHealth Alliance explored the health risks associated with the global wildlife trade. Here are eight things we learned: Continue reading

7 things we learned about social media & environmentFlickr: Photo by Kris Olin (Flickr/Creative Commons)

This week Brent Hecht, an assistant professor in the College of Science and Engineering, and Spencer Wood, senior scientist with the Natural Capital Project at Stanford University, joined Frontiers in the Environment to discuss how social media can be used to inform the causes and consequences of environmental change. Here are seven things we learned:

1. We’ve entered a new era of data. The explosion of social media has created an abundance of data not previously available. Geotagged information (the inclusion of geographical information on forms media, such as marking your location in a Tweet) from social media is one way to harness these data in a useful way. Using the combination of location information in conjunction with the information included in the post, researchers can gleam new insights. Continue reading

5 things we learned about advanced heat recoveryFlickr: Photo by Bryan Kennedy (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Buildings are huge parts of our lives, yet we rarely think about what it takes to keep them running. This week, Frontiers took a look at advanced heat recovery, one a way to improve building energy efficiency. Leading the discussion was Patrick Hamilton, IonE resident fellow and director of the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Global Change Initiatives. Panelists were Scott Getty, energy project manager for Metropolitan Council Environmental Services; Katie Gulley, regional program manager with the BlueGreen Alliance; and Peter Klein, vice president of finance for the Saint Paul Port Authority. Here are five things we learned: Continue reading

7 things we learned about government & environmentFlickr: Photo by Mahinda Rajapaksa (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Passage of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act in the early 1970s were clear public policy wins for the environmental movement. But are we still able to make progress through government action in the same way we did 40 years ago? Eric Lind, a postdoctoral associate in the College of Biological Sciences, was curious about what “successful” government action on the environment looks like today, so he asked three professionals to share their experience in this week’s Frontiers on the Environment. Kate Knuth, Boreas Leadership Program director, spoke of her experience as a Minnesota state representative, followed by Julia Frost Nerbonne, executive director of Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light, and Jessica Tritsch, senior organizing representative for Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal to Clean Energy Campaign. Here are seven things we learned: Continue reading

5 things we learned about groundwaterFlickr: Photo by Benjamin Jakabek (Flickr/Creative Commons)

This week’s Frontiers talk featured Kate Brauman, lead scientist with IonE’s Global Water Initiative, and a panel of experts providing perspectives on the current state of groundwater resources. Joining her was Perry Jones, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey; Steve Polasky, IonE resident fellow, The Natural Capital Project lead, and professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences; and Sherry Enzler, general counsel for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Here are five things we learned: Continue reading

Student start-ups win 2015 Acara ChallengeAcara Challenge participants explain their projects to attendees during an afternoon poster session. Photo by  Brittney LaFond.

Student-run impact ventures focused on solar-powered microgrids for rural India and environmentally friendly feminine hygiene products have been selected Gold Level winners of the 2015 Acara Challenge, a competition held by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment in partnership with the College of Science and Engineering and the Carlson School of Management. The top-level teams and other awardees will have the opportunity and resources to further develop their innovative business solutions for environmental and social challenges. Continue reading

10 things we learned about sustainability & happinessFlickr: Photo by Andreas Klinke Johannsen (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Along with being one of the happiest nations in the world, Denmark is known for being one of the most environmentally friendly. Which raises the question: Is a happy society a more sustainable one? After spending time in the country for a course last summer, Sustainability Education coordinator Beth Mercer-Taylor; Mallory Thomas, an evolution and behavior student in the College of Biological Sciences; and Stephanie Claybrook, an art student in the College of Liberal Arts, put together 10 pillars of Danish happiness. Can we use these tools to work towards sustainability at home?

1. Social security. Compared to the United States, the wealth gap of Denmark is very small. This may be due to the fact that Denmark boasts one of the highest income taxes in world, about 60 percent. In return, its residents receive security, flexibility and unemployment benefits. Continue reading

4 things we learned about the human–environment bondevents_frontiers_feb_18_2

In the second of this semester’s Frontiers in the Environment talks, IonE resident fellow Jonee Kulman Brigham, a visiting scholar in the College of Education and Human Development and Sustainable Design Program faculty member in the College of Design, taught us to question our relationship with natural resources and suggested ways we could rebuild our bond with the environment. Here are four things we learned:

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6 things we learned about cities and climate changePhoto by Photo Phiend (Flickr Creative Commons)

What better way to kick off the new round of Frontiers than by crossing national boundaries? In the first talk of 2015, Frontiers was joined by Martin Bigg, professor at the University of West England; Gayle Prest, sustainability manager for the City of Minneapolis; and Simon Sharpe, head of climate risk for the UK Foreign Office. This international panel provided information and inspiration on the ways in which cities matter for climate change. With case studies from Bristol to Minneapolis, here are six things we learned:

  1. The many lessons of Bristol. Located in the western UK, Bristol is not just any city — it’s the 2015 European Green Capital. After beating out serious competition, such as Brussels and Glasgow, the city does not take this title lightly. Now ranking with the likes of Copenhagen and Stockholm, Bristol has a commitment to reduce emissions and promote public transportation. To do this, it has reduced speed limits inside the city, added hybrid buses and invested in “poo-buses” (yes, really) powered by biomethane made from human and food waste.

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Big questions are usPhoto by Always Shooting (Flickr/Creative Commons)

How do we feed all the people of the world while reducing food-borne illness? Why is it important that kids get out into nature? Does it make sense for environmental and corporate leaders to put their heads together? These are a few of the questions explored during IonE’s Frontiers in the Environment Big Questions series this fall. University, government and industry experts engaged with attendees in hour-long conversations — and debates — over these and many other timely topics.

We’ve summarized each talk into a quick, easy read as well as archived the videos for you to watch on your own schedule. Review the entire list or peruse these picks: Continue reading

7 things about environmentalist-corporate partnershipsNovember 19 Frontiers in the Environment - Environmentalist Corporations

In the final Frontiers presentation of the semester, Steve Polasky, IonE resident fellow, Natural Capital Project lead scientist and professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, moderated a discussion on the relationship between environmentalists and corporations. Participants included Amy Skoczlas Cole, vice president of corporate social responsibility at Pentair; J. Drake Hamilton, science policy director at Fresh Energy; and Chris P. Lambe, managing director of the Agriculture and Food Security Center at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. The panel members shared their thoughts on the role of the private sector as stewards of the environment and left us with the understanding that environmentalists and corporations may not be such strange bedfellows after all. Here are seven other things we learned:

Times have changed. A few decades ago, environmental organizations and corporations barely talked to each other and sustainability was a term not often used in corporate vernacular. Now, we see many companies accepting environmental challenges and recognizing the links between themselves and the environment. In some respects, large companies have embraced environmental challenges more than have governments or society as a whole. Don’t get too excited, though — there is still a lot of work to do. Companies have started with the low-hanging fruit, but now they need to amplify their actions and tackle bigger challenges. Continue reading

6 things we learned about connecting kids with natureFrontiers in the Environment Children November 12

Why should we help children connect to the natural world? And how can we best do so? Cathy Jordan, University of Minnesota Extension specialist and associate professor of pediatrics in the Medical School and Sarah Milligan-Toffler, executive director of the Children and Nature Network, shared their thoughts on the subject at this week’s Frontiers in the Environment talk. Here are six things we learned:

Screen time is full time. Studies suggest that children spend up to 60 hours per week indoors. This mirrors the growing trend of being disconnected from natural world. As technological devices become more prevalent and children are becoming increasingly overscheduled, we’ve reduced the amount of time they’re spending outside. Continue reading

7 things we learned about the ag transformationFrontiers in the Environment Agriculture November 5

What’s happening to agriculture, and how can we make the most of it? That Big Question took center stage at this week’s Frontiers in the Environment presentation by  IonE resident fellow Nick Jordan, a professor in the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences, and Carissa Schively Slotterback, an associate professor in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Here are seven important things we learned:

Agriculture is in a period of transition. Agriculture has traditionally relied heavily on only a few crops, but now it’s undergoing a shift to growing a greater variety of crops for more purposes, including bioproducts and biofuels. Sustainable intensification — expanding the potential of farmland production while reducing negative effects on the environment — may be a good way to take advantage of this opportunity. Continue reading