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Science Wednesday: Blog My Science

2008 July 23

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. More Science Wednesdays.

About the author: Aaron Ferster is the lead science writer-editor for EPA’s Office of Research and Development. Previously, he has worked as an exhibit writer for a zoo, a first-mate on a whale watch boat, an elephant trainer, and as a stage hand for a travelling magic show.

I have a close friend who is a talented fiction writer. Occasionally, we good-naturedly give one another a hard time about our chosen crafts. “You get to make stuff up—how can anything be easier than that?” is my rhetorical reply whenever she points out what a painless gig I have as a science writer at EPA.

Aaron FersterWhile I can’t speak for other science writers, I might just have to admit that what I do is easier than creating fiction. There never seems to be a shortage of fascinating stories unfolding at labs and field sites wherever researchers or engineers are running experiments, gathering data, or building the next prototype. And I’ve got the added benefit that my personal interests—the environment and human health—dovetail perfectly with EPA’s mission.

Come to think of it, I might be kind of spoiled.

I’m not the only one who has noticed there are a lot of good science stories being generated at EPA. If you’ve followed “Greenversations,” you’ve probably noticed the strong current of science that runs through many of the posts. Regular contributors include Robert Lackey, a senior EPA scientist who writes often about salmon restoration from EPA’s Western Ecology Division lab in Corvallis, OR; and Sandy Raimondo, a research ecologist from EPA’s Gulf Ecology Division lab in Gulf Breeze, FL who recently wrote about environmental research and sailing.

It’s a trend. The wealth of good science stories here at EPA has led me and my fellow Greenversations bloggers to declare that Wednesday posts will now be for science. “Science Wednesday” will feature experiences related to environmental science, brought to you by scientists, engineers, researchers, and perhaps the occasional science writer from across EPA.

Future posts will include entries on a long-term study on urban stream restoration, EPA’s ecological research programs, investigations on suburban runoff and the impact of pavement and parking lots, coral reef monitoring, research on the state of the marine environment, and many, many others on environmental science.

“Science Wednesday,” because you really can’t make this stuff up.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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19 Responses leave one →
  1. Mike Moore permalink
    July 23, 2008

    Great Kickoff. You have a gift for this work.

  2. Anonymous permalink
    July 23, 2008

    Good idea, but need a title that isn’t so similar to NPR’s Science Friday.

  3. Matt permalink
    July 23, 2008

    Science Wednesday. Sounds good to me. My comment is actually geared toward the logo/picture of the energy efficient light bulb next to the Greenversations on top. I undertand the need for everyone to be more energy efficient, but don’t these light bulbs contain mercury? Which is the greater health risk: creating a new product with mercury or using bulbs that are not energy efficient? I ‘d like to here people’s comments.

  4. Steve Holmer permalink
    July 23, 2008

    Rather ironic, but it is encouraging that EPA staff have not given up on science. However, reading today’s Washington Post about how Director Johnson repeatedly lied to Congress about the decision concerning the CA waiver doesn’t leave one feeling like EPA has yet turned the corner.

    Looking forward to better times ahead,

  5. Gustavion permalink
    July 23, 2008

    Awesome. I’m excited to come back in the coming weeks to read this new column. I think science is very important in our journey to improve our environment. I also think individual responsibility is necessary. I came across a neat website - URL removed by editor; please don’t advertise commercial services - that stops your bulk mail and benefits the environment. I know your a science guy but who doesn’t want to stop their junk mail for a good cause…

  6. Dennis permalink
    July 23, 2008

    The number one issue in this country should be Agriculture. Here in Brandonville Schuylkill County Pa. where wells are laidened with high nitrates from overfertilizing with commercial fertilizers and keep in mind there are no farm animals here and Epa lied and blammed sewage while Dep blammed it on smoked meats. Cancer is door to door here and breast cancer is the leader. Overfertilizing has destroyed just about every waterway in the country and now ratepayers of water and sewage are going to foot high cost of filtration while farmers continue to waist our tax dollars in the form of subsidies to overfertilize which means fertilizers going past the root of the plant into the groundwater which acts like a magnet and draws the radon into the water supply and basements of homes. Farmers like here who have no love for the environment or there neighbors who intentionaly spray at bus stops got to be jailed and the clean water act must be used what it was intended for meaning all industries and ocupations. We need help here since 1997 and today we are left for dead , what about you.

  7. Jeffrey Levy, Greenversations Editor permalink
    July 23, 2008

    Hi Matt. Thanks for a good question that I’m sure many people wonder about!

    I’m going to ask someone in the right office here to respond to your question, but I do know that power plant emissions also contain mercury. Stay tuned.

  8. Melissa K, EPA Energy Star Program permalink
    July 24, 2008

    Hi Matt,

    In response to your question about the CFLs containing mercury and the health risks:

    CFLs do contain an average of 4 mg of mercury per bulb. Before I address the latter question, here’s some background on the environmental savings (which directly benefit public health): ENERGY STAR qualified CFLs use up to 75 percent less energy (electricity) than incandescent light bulbs and last up to 10 times longer. If every home in America replaced just one incandescent light bulb with an ENERGY STAR qualified CFL, in one year the savings would prevent the release of greenhouse gas emissions equal to that of about 800,000 cars.

    Electricity use is the main source of mercury emissions in the U.S. As mentioned above, CFLs use less electricity than incandescent lights, meaning CFLs reduce the amount of mercury into the environment. Most of these emissions come from coal-fired electrical power. Mercury released into the air is the main way that mercury gets into water and bio-accumulates in fish. (Eating fish contaminated with mercury is the main way for humans to be exposed.)

  9. Bill S. permalink
    July 24, 2008

    Regarding Matt’s question. It’s a good one, and the issue has been coming up more as compact fluorescents lamps (CFLs) make more inroads into the marketplace. There are several ways to look at it. I like to think of it in terms of post-consumer management vs. waste generation. True, compact fluorescents contain a very small amount of mercury. But when the lamps go out, users can bring them to household hazardous waste collection sites or even recycle them if that opportunity is available (Home Depot and Ikea are accepting CFLs, I believe). Even if CFLs cannot be handled in this manner, they can simply be set aside until the right outlet is available. I stored dead CFLs in my basement for years waiting for the right solution; there was no inconvenience. And if you do not want to store them, or find a recycling site, or bring them to a hazwaste center, you can thoroughly seal them up in five or six old plastic produce bags and throw them out. Not a great option, but there’s a fifty-fifty chance the mercury won’t leak out in the landfill and contaminate groundwater. The point is the mercury in CFLs can be managed. However, mercury from coal-fired power plants, which does not get captured by air pollution control equipment is just free to wander through the atmosphere, settle on a pristine mountain stream, get consumed eventually by fish, and then possibly wind up in the diet of other animals or people. Once it escapes the smokestack, it cannot be managed. And since CFLs use so much less energy, they are lowering the amount of coal burned in power plants and, therefore, the amount of mercury released. Not by a lot right now, but if everybody switches to CFLs, the impact on energy demand will be very significant. But it’s true—government, business, and society have to educate the public about CFLs and how to manage them. Then it’s up to the public to do the right thing. There are no guarantees.

  10. Joan permalink
    July 25, 2008

    Bill–I agree with you, this is a trade-off situation. However, many people perceive that storing old bulbs in their home awaiting safe disposal is a more real and immediate danger to their families than what is in the air. Hopefully the search is on for a way to make CFLs safer!

  11. Bill S. permalink
    July 25, 2008

    Joan – I appreciate your concern, of course. Nobody wants a neurotoxin unnecessarily sitting around the house year after year. However, I also would not want to see people developing extreme fears about storing CFLs. I’m not sure how the risk of keeping a spent CFL in a safe place is any greater than having a working one screwed into a socket for up to seven years. I kept mine in a thick plastic bag on a high shelf. And, yes, there were kids in the house. Understand, I am not advocating storage as the best approach. But there are many areas of the country where it is just not easy to unload spent CFLs on a regular basis. If people feel they have to rush a CFL out the door as soon as it is burned out, they aren’t going to buy them. I agree that high-efficiency, non-toxic lamps are the ideal. I understand that research is ongoing in high-efficiency incandescent lamps and other lower-risk technologies that aren’t market-ready yet.

  12. Jon permalink
    July 28, 2008

    “Science Wednesday,” because you really can’t make this stuff up.

    You can if your name is Michael Crichton!

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