Health & the Environment

Much of IIHR’s research touches all our lives, affecting human health and well-being in meaningful ways. Studies of biofluids, environmental contaminants, vulnerability, and resilience are particularly relevant to each of us. In addition, projects focused on renewable energy and watersheds help remediate society’s negative impacts on the environment, leading to a more sustainable, enjoyable way of life for everyone.

A Legacy of Research

Some of IIHR’s activities in this arena date back to the first half of the last century. For example, IIHR’s location near the University of Iowa’s hydropower dam is not a coincidence—the hydropower turbine was part of the lab’s early research and educational offerings.

Researchers working with a row of toiletsFrom the late 1930s until well after World War II, IIHR served as the official testing laboratory for the National Association of Master Plumbers. The institute’s work led to plumbing improvements that decreased health hazards. For example, in the 1930s and 1940s, IIHR conducted research on toilet plumbing to design a system that prevented raw sewage from contaminating drinking water. This work led to educational films and lectures on plumbing and public health.

IIHR’s foray into biomechanics began with a 1967 National Institutes of Health grant to model stresses on red blood cells.

Explore IIHR’s current research areas related to health and the environment in the descriptions and links below.

Research Programs & Foci

A person in blue gloves takes a sample of dirty looking water

Contaminants in the Environment

IIHR has long been a leader in the study and modeling of fluids in the environment. It was a natural progression to couple those models with the transportation and fate of contaminants in our rivers and streams, which can cause serious environmental and human health problems. IIHR researchers monitor, study, and model contaminants such as human waste, lead, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), heavy metals, and emerging contaminants in ground and surface water. IIHR is also home for the University of Iowa’s research activities sponsored by the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, supporting the center’s science-based approach to nutrient management research. IIHR also hosts the Iowa Water Quality Information System, providing current information about water quality across Iowa.

Two women in goggles and white lab coats examine a sample in a small vial.

IIHR is the administrative home of the Iowa Superfund Research Program (ISRP). This major research program, funded by the National Institutes of Health, began in 2006. ISRP faculty and students study topics related to PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), including their sources in the environment, detection and monitoring, levels of human exposure and their health effects, and remediation.

Working with communities, government partners, and other Superfund Research Programs, we bring a broad range of expertise to bear on public health problems associated with Superfund chemicals. This multi-disciplinary approach allows us to answer key questions, such as:

  • Where are the sources of airborne PCBs?
  • What are the human health effects?
  • How can we remediate PCB contaminated sites?
Close up of a drop of water on a blade of grass

Environmental Sustainability for Iowa

The University of Iowa’s Water Sustainability faculty cluster, which comprises 10 faculty members representing disciplines in public health, engineering, geographical and sustainability sciences, chemistry, communications and journalism, and politics, is housed at IIHR. The Water Sustainability affiliates are committed to developing sound strategies and technological solutions to meet the growing challenges facing society, including the need for sustainable water resources and the education of future generations of sustainable water citizens.

The Sustainable Water Development Graduate Program, started in 2016 under a National Science Foundation grant, is led by IIHR’s faculty affiliates. This innovative new program trains STEM graduate students to address the challenge of water scarcity and variability while meeting the food and energy demands for Earth’s growing population.

Man in a suit coat stands beside an electronic display of a colorful simulation of airflow through the human lung

The Digital Lung

Imagine if doctors could model the interactions among pulmonary airflow, lung mechanics, and cell response in a living human. IIHR engineers are doing just that! In partnership with physicians and radiologists at the UI Hospitals and Clinics, an IIHR researcher developed a model of the human lung to help study the physical delivery and impact of different drugs on Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), asthma, and other respiratory ailments.

A group of people walking away from the camera toward a lovely farm pond.

The Iowa Watershed Approach (IWA) is a statewide project funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). It focuses on nine watersheds from the southwest to the northeast corners of the state that had recent Presidential Disaster Declarations related to flooding. Most of the flooded areas also experienced degraded water quality. IIHR students and staff are helping communities decrease their flood risks and improve water quality.