Monthly Archives: September 2009

Detecting the Undetectable: Radiation

When people hear the word “radiation” or “radioactive” they generally get worried. Radiation is something that people can’t see, smell, taste, hear or feel, but is real which makes it very scary.

At my work at EPA, I deal with addressing technical issues associated with radiation sites from cradle to grave, performing human health risk assessments, providing technical support to emergency responses, participating in the development of national guidance, participating in counterterrorism emergency response exercises associated with Radiological Dispersal Devices (dirty bombs), such as the EMPIRE 09 exercise in Albany a couple of months ago, and participating in public meetings to address radiation technical issues. I couldn’t do any of this if we didn’t have devices and instruments that can “sense” and measure radiation.

We use state of the art technologies for radiation site investigations and emergency responses. Some of the instruments are stored within our region. We can get larger specialized equipment from our EPA colleagues in Radiation and Indoor Environments National Laboratory located in Las Vegas, the National Air and Radiation Environmental Laboratory in Montgomery, Alabama, and the Environmental Response Team and National Decontamination Team located in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Such technologies include everything from handheld devices for surface and subsurface investigations, to larger monitoring vehicles like the RIENL Scanner Van and Environmental Radiation Gamma Scanner (ERGS), to NDT’s airplane, the Airborne Spectral Photometric Environmental Collection Technology (ASPECT). These instruments provide data that help us answer important questions, like those on the amount of radiation, the type of radiation and the location of the radioactive material.

Recently the ERGS, which measures gamma radiation several feet below the ground surface, was utilized to survey approximately 200 acres of land. This provided the project with both cost and time savings. The ASPECT was recently deployed to support the EMPIRE Exercise and also conducted gamma radiation flyover survey over two radiation sites in my area.

Explaining radiation is sometimes challenging, yet essential for public awareness. At times, the challenge is encountered because some of the audience is working off assumptions and has their mind set before coming to the meeting as opposed to others who are willing to listen and learn. Regardless of the different types of audience, I believe that we need to reach out further in educating the public in radiation because it is hard to understand something that requires special instruments to detect.

About the Author: Nidal Azzam joined the EPA Region 2 New York office in 2003 as a senior health physicist. Nidal provides technical support on radioactively contaminated sites, radiation emergency responses, and on the development of multi-agency guidance to protect the public and the environment from the harmful effects of ionizing radiation.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Question of the Week: How does your community prepare for emergencies?

Hurricanes, spring floods, and other incidents can all wreak havoc with our daily lives. For communities, preparing can range from marking evacuation routes to setting up public shelters to preparing for large amounts of debris. Either way, it pays to think ahead. September is National Preparedness Month.

How does your community prepare for emergencies?

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Pregunta de la Semana: ¿Cómo se prepara su comunidad para las emergencias?

Huracanes, inundaciones primaverales y otros incidentes pueden ocasionar estragos en nuestras vidas cotidianas. Para las comunidades, los preparativos pueden representar varias actividades desde el establecer rutas de evacuación o crear refugios públicos y hasta prepararse para grandes cantidades de escombros. Independientemente, vale la pena prepararse con antelación. Septiembre es el Mes Nacional de Preparación para Emergencias.

¿Cómo se prepara su comunidad para las emergencias?

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Changing Climate Change

Growing up, I used to spend my winters in Chicago sledding, building snowmen, making snow angels, and having snowball fights in the park near my house. A fresh coat of snow meant that my neighbors and I would all come out to play, bundled up with hats, gloves, and bulky coats, leaving lopsided trails of footprints behind us as we explored what might be adequately described as a “winter wonderland”.

As a summer intern for the EPA, I still maintain a passion for snow forts and snowball fights, and I have developed a greater appreciation for activities such as skiing and ice skating (which had never been much of an interest to my younger self due to an extraordinary lack of coordination). Unfortunately, as I’ve grown up, I’ve had less time to enjoy these recreational activities, not just because my schedule has gotten busier, but because snow doesn’t fall as often as it did 15 years ago. Ice cover isn’t as thick, and even when a snowfall does occur, the snow just doesn’t last as long. With only a few short weeks for winter break, I’m disappointed when my chances to enjoy the snow are limited.

Winters are getting warmer due to the earth’s changing climate. Temperatures are increasing, and precipitation will get more inconsistent—either too much or too little. Ice on lakes will be thinner, making them unsafe to use for things like skating and ice fishing. Humans have to take some of the blame for this phenomenon. Pollution from factories, cars, and homes traps heat inside the atmosphere, which leads to climate change. There are plenty of things that people, and especially teens, can do to address climate change. The Marian Koshland Science Museum, and the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) offer ways for teens to get involved in combating climate change. NWF even has a downloadable action guide with project ideas.

I enjoy warm weather as much as the next person-my summer days are full of soccer, Frisbee, and swimming. However, I will still do what I can and encourage others to combat climate change. Fortunately, this is not a problem that can only be addressed by business and government. Anybody, at any age, can contribute. It is my personal belief that everybody should do their part to slow climate change. The problem requires immediate action, and as today’s teens graduate, go to college, and enter the “real world”, we will be a very important part of the solution. We owe it ourselves, to the world, and to the thousands of children that enjoy frolicking in freshly fallen snow.

About the Author: Carmel Loch is an intern for the Air and Radiation Division working on Climate Change. She will be a junior at the University of Chicago.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

How Do You Use Less Water?

go to Pick 5 for the EnvironmentHave you joined Pick 5 for the Environment, where you can choose 5 actions out of 10 and commit to them? We launched Pick 5 on Earth Day this year, and so far 2,300 people have taken the pledge.

Beyond signing up, though, we want to hear from you: what you’ve done, how you did it, etc.  We’re going to start working our way through the 10 actions.  Please share your stories as comments below.

Let’s start with Pick 5 Action #1: Use less water.

I’ve done several things around my home to achieve this goal: I placed a timer in the bathrooms to shorten showers and replaced my old toilet with water saving toilets.  I also make my laundry loads larger instead of doing several small loads. To use less hot water, which saves energy, I also cold water to wash laundry instead of hot water.  Finally, by placing barrels under my rain spouts, I’ve been able to use the recycled water to water my garden and outdoor plants.

Now it’s your turn:  what do you do to use less water?

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Where Does My Electricity Come From?

One of the marvels of the modern age is the availability of reliable electricity. You do not have to go back many generations to find individuals who grew up on farms or communities without electricity. Ask your parents, grandparents or great-grandparents if they remember life before the Rural Electrification Act of 1935 when only 10% of rural residents had electricity. Or maybe you have experienced being without power for a few hours after a thunderstorm or even for days and weeks following a hurricane.

On most days and nights, if you need electricity to read by or use your computer all you have to do is flip a switch or push a button. But do you know where your electricity comes from? What is the fuel source to your power company?

image of electricity transformer towerOf course, almost all power companies rely on a combination of fuel sources: coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydroelectric, other renewables, or petroleum. In that way, they can shield the consumers and stockholders from large shifts in the prices of commodities and construction for facilities. But a great deal of information on electricity production (residential and industrial) is available from the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration .

Twenty states (WV, IN, KY, WY, ND, UT, OH, MO, NM, KS, IO, NE, MI, CO, WI, GA, MN, MD, NC, and TN) generate more than 50% of their electricity from coal. In fact, more than 90% of the power in West Virginia, Indiana, Kentucky and Wyoming is from coal. Only 5 states (RI, NV, FL, MA, and AK) use natural gas for over 50% of their electrical generation. And of those states, only Alaska is a natural gas production state. The others must depend on natural gas transmission pipelines or liquefied natural gas import terminals.

Nuclear power is generated in the fewest number of states and only 5 states (VT, CT, NJ, SC, and IL) generate over 50% of their electricity from this source. Hydroelectric power generates electricity to some extent in a number of states. Over 50% of the power in WA, ID, OR, SD, and MT is from hydroelectric and it is over 85% in Washington, Idaho and Oregon.

Almost all states have some level of electricity generation from renewable fuels other than hydroelectric, including wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass. While the use of other renewables is not at 50% in any state yet, over 10% of the electricity in Maine, Iowa, Minnesota and California is generated from this fuel source category.

Petroleum-fired power plants produce the smallest amount of America’s electricity. And the only state with greater than 50% of generation in this manner is Hawaii, where over 82% of the electricity comes from petroleum-fired sources.

Depending on where you live and the manner in which electricity in your state is regulated, you may have a choice of electricity provider or fuel source. Contact your state’s Public Service Commission or State Energy Conservation Office to learn more about your power options.

About the author: Rob Lawrence joined EPA in 1990 and is Senior Policy Advisor on Energy Issues in the Dallas, TX regional office. As an economist, he works to insure that both supply and demand components are addressed as the Region develops its Clean Energy and Climate Change Strategy.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Glaciers and Climate Change

“Are glaciers melting at alarming rates?” “Is climate change really happening?” I have been asked these questions by people and students outside the environmental field. Changes in glaciers seem to be the gold standard for measuring climate change. However, living in the Caribbean, to me glaciers seem like a distant world.

image of rock with the words "Ice Limit" and the date "1916" carved into itA recent vacation to Alaska on a cruise ship provided me some insight on climate change and its consequences. While in Juneau I visited Mendenhall Glacier and could notice the retreating of this glacier upon my hike in the adjoining rain forest. An old building deep inside the forest revealed the former visitor’s center more than 10 miles from the glacier’s current location as well as a stone marking from 1916 of the ice limit.

Managed by the U.S. Forest Service and part of the Tongass National Forest (the nation’s largest forest), Mendenhall, which is 12 miles long, has been rapidly retreating since 1750. From 1951–1958, the glacier, which flows into suburban Juneau, has retreated 1,900 feet (580 m). The glacier has also receded 1.75 miles (2.82 km) since 1958, when Mendenhall Lake was created. In 2004 the glacier retreated 600 feet and in 2007 another 500 ft..

Glaciers form in areas with large amounts of rain and extremely low temperatures. When snow accumulates, it compacts underlying snow layers from previous years into solid ice. Glaciers cover 10% of our world’s total area. This is the same amount of land used worldwide for agriculture. Glacier and polar ice store more water than all the world’s lakes, rivers and the atmosphere combined. When they melt, sea level rises thus consequences for coastal communities and islands are serious. Rising sea levels inundate wetlands and other low-lying lands In Juneau, I could not help noticing that the Gastineau Channel turns into a wetland at some point during the day. There was a low tide early in the morning. Our forest interpreter told us it is becoming increasingly unavigable as there has been a marked increase in silt build up. Some research into this showed that it has been argued that this a consequence of melting and retreating of Mendenhall Glacier. If current trends continue, it is possible the channel may be entirely blocked and filled with dry land.

Yes indeed, climate change is happening and it is tangible. EPA is working on many programs geared to reduce the harmful effects on human health and the environment of green house gases. While most are voluntary, states and industries are actively engaged. I invite you to take a closer look at your daily activities and try to cut down on your carbon footprint.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Glaciares y Cambio Climático

“Se están derritiendo los glaciares de forma alarmante?” “Es el cambio climático real?” estas son dos de las preguntas más frecuentes que me hacen estudiantes y personas externas al campo ambiental. Y es que los cambios en los glaciares son el indicador por excelencia para medir el cambio climático. Sin embargo, viviendo en un lugar tan caluroso como el Caribe, los glaciares parecen ser un fenómeno lejano para muchas personas como yo.

image of rock with the words "Ice Limit" and the date "1916" carved into itRecientemente tuve la oportunidad de visitar Alaska en un crucero y conocer de cerca las implicaciones del cambio climático en los glaciares. En Juneau, capital de Alaska, visité el Glaciar Mendenhall cuya disminución es notable. Mientras escalaba en el bosque pluvial aledaño al glaciar nuestra intérprete de bosque nos mostró el Centro de Información original del Servicio Forestal. . Este está ubicado a más de 10 millas de donde se encuentra hoy el glaciar. Una piedra sepultada entre los árboles marca el límite del hielo en el año 1916. Este bosque y el glaciar pertenecen a la Reserva Nacional Tongass, el bosque más grande de los Estados Unidos.

El Glaciar Mendenhall mide 12 millas de largo y se encuentra cediendo desde 1750. De 1951 a 1958 el glaciar, que es parte de Juneau, ha retrocedido 1,900 pies (580m). Desde 1958 al presente ha recedido 1.75 millas (2.82 km) lo que resultó en la creación del Lago Mendenhall en donde flotan enormes pedazos de hielo. En el año 2004 el Glaciar retrocedió 600 pies y en 2007 otros 500 pies.

Los glaciares se forman en áreas que reciben cantidades exorbitantes de lluvia y la temperatura es baja. Cuando la nieve se acumula, se compacta en capas y esas capas a su vez forman hielo sólido. Los glaciares cubren el 10% de la superficie terrestre, la misma cantidad de tierra destinada a la agricultura a nivel mundial. Los glaciares y el hielo polar almacenan más agua que todos los ríos y lagos del mundo combinados con la atmósfera. Cuando se derriten, el nivel del mar aumenta impactando las comunidades costeras y las islas. Sus efectos pueden ser serios ya que inundan humedales y otras tierras bajas

En Juneau, el Canal Gastineu se convierte en un humedal en tempranas horas de la mañana para luego ser inundado con agua en las tardes. Sin embargo el canal es cada día menos navegable por el aumento en sedimentos, no por la ausencia de agua. Al buscar información sobre este curioso fenómeno encontré que esto es consecuencia directa del derretimiento y retracción del Glaciar Mendenhall. De continuar esta tendencia, es posible que en un futuro el canal pueda ser un relleno de tierra seca.

Ciertamente el cambio climático está sucediendo y es un fenómeno tangible. Nuestra agencia continúa su labor de educar a la ciudadanía sobre los efectos dañinos a la salud y al medioambiente causados por los gases de invernaderos. Aunque muchos de estos programas son voluntarios, los estados y las industrias se encuentran arduamente buscando formas de reducir su huella de carbón. Le invito a que tome nota sobre sus actividades diarias y encuentre como puede reducir su contribución a los gases de invernadero.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Science Wednesday: Sustaining Tropical Forests

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

The Amazon basin contains more than half the world’s remaining tropical rainforest, and is facing unprecedented changes that will have major impacts on biodiversity, regional hydrology and the global carbon cycle.

But the need for employment is causing tropical deforestation on a vast scale.

Stopping deforestation requires forest management strategies that provide jobs for people living in or near forests while also creating incentives for forest conservation. The andiroba tree (C. guianensis)– valued for the high-quality oil extracted from its seeds and for its mahogany-like timber—could provide this opportunity.

Collect the seeds, cut down the tree, or a little of both?

image of author standing on a root of a big tree over waterThrough my research, I am looking at the intersection of conservation and economics related to harvesting C. guianensis. I am using ecological models with an economic component to answer the question: Under what ecological and market conditions would the collection of C. guianensis seed oil be favored and, conversely, under what ecological and market conditions would C. guianensis timber harvest be favored?

Since 2004, I have been measuring growth, survival and reproduction of C. guianensis trees at my research site in the Brazilian Agricultural Research Institute’s 1,200-hectare research forest in Acre, Brazil.

Using these measurements, I plan to fine-tune models about future tree growth under various management scenarios, as well as identify how different life stages, such as seedlings, saplings, mature trees, etc., contribute to growth of the entire tree population. For example, it is possible that leaving a certain number of reproducing trees per hectare would maintain a growing population, leaving other, non-reproductive trees to be harvested?

I will use the new model to determine sustainable harvest limits for both timber and seed, and then incorporate the results into a financial assessment of these two competing strategies to manage the species. To ensure that the tree population is maintained and that it generates income, I plan to compare the relative compatibility of timber vs. seed harvest.

After I finish writing up my results, I will return to Brazil to give a series of training workshops and seminars on my results so they can be applied to forest management practices. In addition, I will compile materials (including comic-book-like illustrated pamphlets) that break down my results into tools that can benefit forest residents and local nongovernmental organizations. By sharing my research results in this way, I hope that I can provide important information to the local Brazilian government and play a part in helping people living near the forest find a sustainable way to create income based on a standing (or managed) forest.

About the author: Christie Klimas is a PhD student at the University of Florida in the department of Forest Resources and Conservation. A 2004-2006 EPA Science to Achieve Results (STAR) Graduate Research Fellowship supported her Master’s Degree research.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

When Technical Folks Don’t Understand Radiation…

I started out as a radiation “novice” and had to be trained; therefore I understand the difficulty in explaining radiation concepts. I always try to make explanations as simple and as accurate as possible given the complexity of and mythology behind radiation.

As a regional member of EPA’s Radiological Emergency Response Team, my role as a Regional Liaison is to enhance coordination and communication between my region and the rest of EPA’s responders during a radiological emergency. One of my responsibilities will be to help staff members who are not familiar with radiation concepts to understand them and to communicate them to the public. You might think that since many of our people are scientists or engineers, that they would already understand radiation. That’s not the case. Often, radiation is just as mysterious to many of our staff as it is to the public. That’s where we come in.

Unfortunately, most people just don’t know much about radiation. Our movies and comic books, which present radiation as being able to create monsters or superheroes or to be deadly in even the smallest amounts, have created a great misunderstanding about what it is and what it isn’t.

We had an exercise recently in which we pretended that a “dirty bomb” spread radioactivity over an area. One part of the exercise had people saying that they had “radiation sickness” (i.e. they had been exposed to an amount of radiation which would make them sick to their stomachs). I had to explain to our staff that this was impossible. The amount of radiation we had determined to have been released could not have created that effect – it was just too small. However, people could be so worried about getting sick that they could indeed have made themselves sick. My statements were greeted skeptically until I showed them the tables describing that radiation sickness symptoms occur at radiation levels thousands of times greater than had been released in our pretend situation.

There are many other concepts people need to understand as well, such as: being exposed to radiation doesn’t make you or your possessions radioactive forever; you can remove radioactive contamination by washing with soap and water; and that being exposed to radiation won’t turn you into a monster or a superhero. I think that Spiderman is everyone’s favorite character who got his powers from radiation. I know that I would like his powers, but I’m afraid of heights so I could only swing from short buildings!

About the Author: Shelly Rosenblum started out in Marine Biology and Engineering. The engineering took him to the Mare Island Naval Shipyard on San Francisco Bay where he was trained in principles of radiation, radiation protection and measurement. Shelly works in Region 9, where he began his work speaking to the public about radon and developing the Radionuclide NESHAP program.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.