Monthly Archives: September 2009

Science Wednesday: Protecting Ocean Meadows

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

“Amber waves of grain” conjures up images of vast expanses of grassland across middle America. In contrast, can you picture meadows of seagrasses covering broad areas of the seafloor?

image of underwater seagrassSeagrasses are underwater marine flowering plants that have long, narrow leaves. Because they photosynthesize, seagrasses must grow in shallow water where light penetrates. Most of the light required for these plants disappears below 30 feet.

Florida alone has about a half-million acres of seagrass meadow.

Seagrasses provide essential “ecological services,” such as reducing erosion, improving water quality, and supplying refuge and food for aquatic animals. They are vital to commercial and recreational fisheries that are a major part of a coastal community’s economy.

Unfortunately, the health of seagrass meadows has been compromised in many places due to pollution from land-based activities. Excess nutrients from fertilizers and wastewater cause algal blooms which deprive seagrasses and aquatic organisms of essential oxygen. In addition, over-fishing, over-crabbing, and other harvesting practices change the ecological balance within seagrass meadows, leading to shifts in both plant and animal populations.

My PhD thesis brings me to the shallow waters off Bermuda where I am measuring the simultaneous effects of heavy grazing and excess nutrients on the overall health of seagrass pastures. Seagrasses here are being eaten (grazed) by green turtles and parrotfish while fertilizer runoff is also affecting them.

My main focus is to understand how grazers with different feeding strategies—where and how they feed—control the effects of nutrient pollution. I am working in both the laboratory and the field to manipulate and measure nutrient levels.

A conservationist at heart, I constantly seek to educate others about how human actions can either positively or negatively impact the physical environment. My research looking at the indirect effects of local fishing practices and wastewater treatment on seagrass ecosystems has pressing applications for coastal conservation and management worldwide.

About the author: Kim Holzer is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia. Funding for her research is provided by a 2007 EPA Science to Achieve Results (STAR) Graduate Research Fellowship. Kim expects to graduate in the spring of 2011 and continue working as a scientist in environmental protection.

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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Exploring The Sea – EPA Monitors Waste Disposal Sites Off The Mid-Atlantic Coast

Each year, as the summer season comes to an end, I reflect on the experiences that made it a great summer. As a new employee at EPA, this summer was particularly exciting. I had the experience of working with the Mid-Atlantic Region’s Coastal Science Team, led by Renee Searfoss and Jim Gouvas . The two-week monitoring cruise, aboard EPA’s Ocean Survey Vessel (OSV), the BOLD consisted of two surveys spanning from North Carolina to the south tip of New Jersey. Working in shifts of four hours on and eight hours off, I worked from noon until 4pm and again from midnight to 4am! Those lucky enough to work the 4-8 shift were able to enjoy both the sunrise and sunset!

EPA is required to biannually monitor the Region’s two designated ocean disposal sites – the Norfolk Ocean Disposal and the Dam Neck Ocean Disposal Sites – to ensure that no further degradation has occurred from the placement of dredge material or fish waste. For the first survey, we collected sediment samples, monitored fish waste and conducted sonar scanning.

At the Dam Neck Disposal Site, we collected fifty surface sediment samples, which were analyzed for grain size, total organic carbon (TOC), metals, distribution, biomass and the presence of bottom-dwelling species. By comparing data with a control site, we could tell what has occurred at the waste sites due to the material disposed there.

The team conducted eight tow runs using a rocking-chair dredge to collect sediment from the ocean floor (picture), such as Horseshoe crab and Hermit crab, which were identified and returned to the site. Lastly, the team conducted eight transects using a trawl net. This part was exciting – you never know what you could catch! Although different species of fish, such as Northern Sea Robins and Spotted Hakes, were identified, you won’t find any fishermen fishing the area, there weren’t any commercially useful fish present.

In short, the voyage was very successful and made for an extremely memorable summer experience. Everyone comes with a wealth of experience and all shared a passion for the ocean and its continued preservation. Research expeditions like this one are crucial to maintain our knowledge of the effects humans have on our oceans.

About the auth0r: Matthew Colip works as a biologist in EPA Region 3’s Water Protection Division dealing with issues related to data and information systems management.

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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What The Heck Is Health Physics?

The name sounds like it is all about pendulums and inclined planes, but it is really about radiation protection. The most entertaining story about the origin of the job description “health physicist” is that it came about during the “Manhattan Project” when scientists needed to protect themselves from the radioactive materials they used. According to the story, the term, “health physicist” was chosen to be an intentionally confusing description to disguise the work on the atomic bomb.

Over the last 60 years, health physics has developed into an important and complex scientific discipline and profession. There are entire university degree programs devoted to it as well as professional-level certification. In keeping with the confusing name, health physicists have many confusing terms and units such as rem, rad, roentgen, effective dose equivalent, and committed dose, just to name a few. If that weren’t confusing enough, health physicists also use the international system of units (kind of like the metric system).

Today many health physicists work in nuclear power plants, hospitals and industries, all places where radiation is used. Some also work at EPA, since EPA is the primary Federal agency charged with protecting the public from the harmful effects of radiation. Many of them became involved in health physics because they were interested in the science of radiation. I once had a manager tell me that health physicists were unique at EPA because they were the only ones who “thought their pollutant was cool.”

I think the hardest job health physicists have is explaining radiation to the public and to other scientists at the EPA. We know a lot about radiation, but for low level radiation exposure, there is a lot that we need to assume and estimate, and many areas where the science is not clear. I usually start out my discussions about radiation by reminding people that this is a radioactive world.

Did you know that the reason the Earth’s core is still molten after 4.5 billion years is that the long-lived radioactive decay in the core keeps it hot? Without that molten core, Earth would not have a magnetic field, and without a magnetic field the solar wind would have blown away our atmosphere long ago (like Mars). And of course without an atmosphere, Earth would be a lifeless rock. So in a way, radioactivity is the reason there is life on Earth. Health physicists think that is cool–just ask one.

About the Author: Richard Poeton is a health physicist. He started his career with EPA while studying for his MS in radiological science at Oregon State University. Richard is professionally certified by the American Board of Health Physics, and has more than 30 years of experience in radiation protection. He has worked in the EPA Region 10 Seattle office since 1991 and is currently the radiation program manager there.

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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Question of the Week: What have you done to meet your Energy Star pledge?

“Change the World, Start with ENERGY STAR” is a national campaign encouraging all Americans to take small, individual steps that make a big difference in the fight against global warming. Take the Energy Star pledge.

What have you done to meet your Energy Star pledge?

Each week we ask a question related to the environment. Please let us know your thoughts as comments. Feel free to respond to earlier comments or post new ideas. Previous questions.

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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Pregunta de la Semana: ¿Qué ha hecho para cumplir con su promesa Energy Star?

“Para cambiar el mundo, comience con ENERGY STAR” es una campaña nacional que exhorta a todos los estadounidenses a tomar pequeños pasos individuales para hacar una gran diferencia en la lucha en contra del cambio climático. Haga la promesa Energy Star.

¿Qué ha hecho para cumplir con su promesa Energy Star?

Cada semana hacemos una pregunta relacionada al medio ambiente. Por favor comparta con nosotros sus pensamientos y comentarios. Siéntase en libertad de responder a comentarios anteriores o plantear nuevas ideas. Preguntas previas.

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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Dredging Project Will Be A Load – And Stress – Reliever

Recently, EPA was asked to defend the fact that dredging stirs up PCBs in the river, which causes more PCBs to go downriver and over the Federal dam in Troy. This is called “loading,” and we monitor it closely. If you live south of Albany, I’m sure you appreciate that we try not to send any more PCBs your way than we have to in order to get this work done.

The river bottom doesn’t keep the PCBs locked safely inside a mud sandwich. This river scours, floods and changes its course. So loading of PCB’s was always a problem. .It’s impossible to know for sure, but engineers estimate about 500 pounds of PCBs a year were loaded in the past. Now, because of dredging, we actually know the PCB levels in the river, and we know there’s much more contamination than we estimated, so the loading was probably more too. However, by dredging we’re finally doing something to lower the PCB levels, forever. I get a lot of satisfaction watching each loaded barge, because I know that contaminated sediment is no longer contributing to the problem.

Dredging opponents point out that the monitoring station nearest the dredging, and another about 18 miles away, have exceeded the PCB loading amount targeted for this year and so the project should stop. We explained the load target represents an overall requirement for the project and not for a single year. The higher loads during this dredge season will be addressed through lessons learned and improvements recommended for future dredging.

I’m a newcomer to Fort Edward and the dredging debate. Having never lived near a river before, I didn’t understand how important a river can be in people’s lives. Since moving here, I’ve spent hours and hours talking to people who are personally and, in some cases emotionally affected by the project. I‘m very sympathetic — they didn’t create the horrendous pollution problem, but they’ve been forced to deal with it for years, and it’s taken a stressful toll. I’ve spent countless hours on the river thinking about the far-reaching consequences of the PCB contamination. After five months of dredging, I’ve learned firsthand how persistent, shallow, mobile and voluminous the PCBs are in the Upper Hudson. But, as of September 5, there are about 190,000 cubic yards less of contaminated sediment contributing to the stress and loading problems, and I’m proud to be part of the monumental effort that made that happen. As intrusive and irritating as the project is for some people, it’s very important for the safety and sanity of future generations.

About the author: Kristen Skopeck is originally from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She is an 11-year Air Force veteran and was stationed in California, Ohio, Texas, Portugal, and New York. After working for the USDA for three years, Kristen joined EPA in 2007 and moved to Glens Falls, NY to be a member of the Hudson River PCB dredging project team. She likes to spend her time reading, writing, watching movies, walking, and meeting new people.

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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Sewer Science Plunges in to Environmental Education

When I told my 8-year-old neighbor about Sewer Science, he asked, “Is that like detention?”

I suppose a high school science laboratory that teaches students about wastewater treatment (how poop is managed) could seem like punishment to a third grader.

“That’s gross,” he said.

Fortunately, there are young people who can tolerate the gross and the necessary as they confront subjects even more distasteful to most American students than human waste: biology, microbiology, chemistry, physics, and even math and engineering.

According to the report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future,” our students are not keeping up with their counterparts in other countries. After secondary school, fewer US students pursue science and engineering degrees than is the case of students in other countries.

Sewer Science is coming to the rescue. The week long lab is used in numerous California school districts to reach students throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, and San Diego County. The program was recognized with an EPA Pacific Southwest Environmental Award.

In the Sewer Science laboratory, high school students are steeped in science:

  • they manipulate Plexiglas models of treatment operations and analyze the wastewater as it is treated;
  • they measure pH, turbidity, ammonia, and chemical oxygen demand;
  • view and identify the sludge organisms using microscopes and identification charts;
  • they discuss expected results, review their analytical results, and decide on the next step to make in the treatment of their waste.

At the lab’s conclusion, the students plot their data and compare their final results to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) effluent standards. Sewer Science addresses the challenges of hands-on interdisciplinary learning while providing a unique and much-needed high school outreach program for the wastewater industry.

According to the American Water Works Association, “almost 50% of today’s water and wastewater operators will retire within the next five to seven years. They’ll need to be replaced.”

So not only is Sewer Science equipping high school students with fundamental science skills as the rest of the country fumbles, but the program is preparing kids for jobs in an industry with dire need for fresh faces.
Sewer Science isn’t detention — it’s a lucky break for the wastewater industry, the American scientific community, and everyone who drinks water.

About the author: Charlotte Ely spent two years jumping from office to office through the Environmental Intern Program. She landed in EPA’s Pacific Southwest Sustainable Water Infrastructure and Climate Change program in the fall of 2008, and plans to stay put for a while.

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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“Commute Without Polluting”

Hey Pick 5ers, it’s time again for you to share what you’ve done, how you did it, etc.  Today we cover action #2: commute without polluting. Please share your stories as comments below. If you haven’t done it yet, Pick 5 for the Environment and then come back to comment (you can also still share how you save water !).

My experience with commuting without polluting may be a little different than others. I live in a rural area, where there’s no rapid transit. We do have a commuter bus, but it runs only during the week. A lot of places I’m unable to walk to, but I ride my bike to the post office and the local grocery store. I make my trips in the car count, like I make my necessary stops along my route coming home from work. Keeping my car well maintained saves me money on fuel and also helps cut air pollution from my car.

Now it’s your turn: How do you commute without polluting? If you’re not sure how, learn more on EPA’s site.
Note: to ward off advertisers using our blog as a platform, we don’t allow specific product endorsements.  But feel free to suggest Web sites that review products, suggest types of products, and share your experiences using them!

About the author: Denise Owens has worked at EPA for over twenty years. She is currently working in the Office of Public Affairs in Washington, DC.

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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Illegal Pesticides: Closer Than You Think

Six years ago someone poisoned our beloved cat with an illegal pesticide called Tres Pasitos causing her immediate death. This fatal incident made me more aware of the proliferation of these products in our neighborhoods. While I have always keep a close eye on labels to make greener choices, our surroundings are not totally free of harmful products.

In Puerto Rico, EPA has been very active with enforcement actions against those who distribute these highly toxic chemicals. Unfortunately many people don’t even know they are purchasing an illegal product since they are often found in many small neighborhood stores. These non-approved EPA pesticides come in many shapes and forms, such as flea and tick repellents, antibacterial cleansers, and mothballs, as well as products that claim to get rid of household pests. The most common products in our neck of the wood are Tres Pasitos, Chinese Chalk and illegal Naphthalene Mothballs.

Tres Pasitos is imported illegally from Mexico, the Dominican Republic and other Latin American countries. Its active ingredient is a chemical called aldicard which is very toxic. Curious by nature, children and pets are vulnerable to poisoning by aldicarb. It is used to kill rats by paralyzing their respiratory system.

Furthermore, insect chalk or Chinese chalk comes in deceiving packaging. This product is imported from China and looks like real chalk. It is extremely dangerous to children who mistakenly play with it. My late grandmother once acquired this dangerous product unknowingly because the vendor told her it was very effective in eliminating cockroaches.

Illegal naphthalene moth repellent balls pose a high risk to children who are very sensitive to toxics because they often mistake it for candy or a toy.

When purchasing a pesticide remember to read the label for proper usage and to find the EPA registration. Prevent children from direct exposure to these products since their biological, neurological and immune systems are still developing. Store pesticides in their original container and in a safe place, preferably high and locked out of the reach from children and pets .  If you have any questions about pesticides, call the National Pesticide Information Center at 1-800-858-7378. But most importantly, share this information with your family and neighbors to keep our environment and loved ones (including pets) safe from poisoning.

About the author: Brenda Reyes Tomassini joined EPA in 2002. She is a public affairs specialist in the San Juan, Puerto Rico office and also handles community relations for the Caribbean Environmental Protection Division.

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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Plaguicidas Ilegales: Más cerca de lo que usted piensa

Hace seis años alguien envenenó a nuestra mascota felina con un plaguicida ilegal llamado Tres Pasitos causando su muerte inmediata. Este incidente fatal me hizo más consciente de los peligros a los que estamos expuestos en nuestros vecindarios y desconocemos. Aunque siempre leo las etiquetas cuidadosamente para no utilizar productos tóxicos, nuestros entornos no están libres de productos dañinos.

En Puerto Rico, EPA ha estado muy activa en el cumplimiento de la ley penalizando a aquellos que distribuyen estas sustancias químicas y plaguicidas altamente peligrosos.  Desafortunadamente muchas personas no saben que están adquiriendo un producto ilegal ya que están a la venta en tiendas pequeñas en nuestros vecindarios. Estos plaguicidas no aprobados por la EPA vienen en muchas formas y empaques, tales como repelentes de pulgas y garrapatas, jabones antibacteriales y bolas de naftalina, entre otros, que alegan pueden deshacerse de plagas indeseables. En Puerto Rico los tres productos ilegales más comunes son Tres Pasitos, Tiza China y Bolas de Naftalina ilegales.

Tres Pasitos es importado ilegalmente de México, la Republica Dominicana y otros países de América Latina. Su ingrediente activo es una sustancia química llamada aldicarb la cual es sumamente tóxica. Los niños y los animales, por su naturaleza curiosa, son muy susceptibles a envenenamiento por aldicarb. Este se utiliza para eliminar ratas ya que paraliza su sistema respiratorio.

En el caso de la Tiza China, su empaque le hace lucir legítimo. Este producto es importado de China y parece tiza real. Es muy peligroso para los chicos quienes pueden confundirlo con una tiza para jugar. Mi difunta abuela paterna una vez adquirió este producto sin conocer que era ilegal y tóxico ya que el vendedor le indicó que era muy eficaz para matar cucarachas.

Las Bolas de Naftalina ilegales pueden representar un gran riesgo por que sus colores son muy llamativos. Los niños pueden confundirlas con un juguete o goma de mascar.

Cuando adquiera un plaguicida recuerde siempre leer la etiqueta para determinar el uso apropiado y verificar que tenga un número de registro de EPA. Evite que los chicos estén expuestos directamente a plaguicidas ya que su sistema biológico, neurológico e inmune están todavía en desarrollo. Guarde los plaguicidas en su envase original y en un lugar seguro y alto, lejos de los niños y mascotas.  Si tiene alguna pregunta sobre plaguicidas llame al Centro de Información Nacional sobre Plaguicidas al 1-800-858-7378. Pero más importante, comparta esta información con su familia o vecinos para mantener sus alrededores y seres queridos (incluyendo mascotas) libres de envenenamiento.

Sobre la autor: Brenda Reyes Tomassini se unió a la EPA en el 2002. Labora como especialista de relaciones públicas en la oficina de EPA en San Juan, Puerto Rico donde también maneja asuntos comunitarios para la División de Protección Ambiental del Caribe.

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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