Monthly Archives: October 2009

Hoping To Make Kids’ Health As Easy As ABC

Even though Children’s Health Month is nearing its end, I have plenty of reasons to stay invested in the well-being of kids. Aside from working in the children’s environmental health field, I am a parent to a toddler and pregnant!

This viewpoint has its pros and cons. On the one hand, I have access to the latest science and advice about how to protect my children from environmental health threats. On the other hand, all this information can make me a bit paranoid!

For instance, pregnant women can no longer worry only about eating sushi or soft cheese.  Moms also have to watch for toxins in our water bottles, personal care products, household items, food and the baby’s toys and plastic bottles.  It is overwhelming and confusing—even to a person who works on these problems.

During my first pregnancy, I was the model pregnant woman—I ate organic, didn’t use plastics and bought the “right” products. However, when my first daughter was born extremely premature – she was born 3 ½ months early and weighed 1 ½ lbs.—I realized just how little control I really had over her health and exposures.  She had plastic tubes all over her and inside her keeping her alive and was pumped full of antibiotics and medications that saved her life. All of these early exposures have risks associated with them, however.

Millions of parents can tell a similar story. Try as we may, we can’t control many of the factors that affect the health of our children.  What we can do is be educated and proactive. It is part of my job to help elevate the discussion among researchers, environmental health professionals, and healthcare providers about children’s health. More importantly, I want to bring the discussion down to the street level where I and millions of other parents and parents-to-be are looking for guidance.

Moms and dads should not have to be toxicologists to protect their children. My hope is that we can advance science in these areas and make good use of the knowledge between doctors, scientists, policymakers and parents to better protect the health of our kids.

About the author: Margo Young is the Children’s Health Coordinator for EPA Region 10. She works in EPA’s Seattle office.

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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Fire in the Sky: Emergency Response

A loud thump woke me up. I looked at my startled husband as he yelled, “Let’s go get the kids.” I stood as our concrete house shook, and grabbed an iron post from the bed to keep my stance. “An earthquake,” I mustered as we exited our room and noticed the hour:12:25 a.m. In the hallway, my eldest daughter hugged me while asking what was going on. Fortunately, our youngest children did not wake up. In our dining room, the window screens were on the floor and the chandelier was swinging from side to side. My brother-in-law phoned to say there was fire in the sky. My immediate thoughts were about an airplane accident. I opened our dining room side door to find the sky changing colors from red to orange to violet. We looked for a radio and soon learned the cause of such chaos: fire at the Caribbean Petroleum (CAPECO) tank farm less than a mile from our home.

image of fire at petroleum plantWhat was a long awaited weekend all year long – we were holding our Halloween party – turned into an emergency response for me. Within ten minutes of the explosion, I called our Response and Remediation Branch Chief who in turn called the National Response Center.

As a public affairs specialist in the San Juan office of EPA, I had dealt with minor emergencies; this, however, was a real environmental threat since various drums containing jet fuel, Bunker C, diesel and other petroleum derivatives were on fire. The CAPECO facility is located on Road #28 in an area that encompasses three towns: Guaynabo, Bayamon and Cataño and is next to Fort Buchanan, a large military base. The San Juan Bay is two miles away and wetlands and minor water bodies are nearby. The reason this emergency hit home is because, aside from living nearby the facility, I drive down this very same road at 5 am to go to the gym at Fort Buchanan. The tanks are visible from the road.

The first few hours were frantic as federal, state and municipal agencies tried to contain the fire and activate all emergency protocols to ensure the citizens in this largely populated area were not affected. An Incident Command Center was established within 18 hours at a sports facility in San Juan, and we were deployed to work. The media and citizens needed accurate information. We worked hard to provide it.

I must say I have learned more from this experience than I have before in my seven years at EPA. While the fire is out, now the real work begins. I will keep you posted.

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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Incendio en el cielo: respuesta a una emergencia

Un fuerte estallido me sacó de la cama. Miré a mi sorprendido esposo que gritaba, “vamos a buscar a los nenes”. Me paré mientras nuestra casa de concreto se estremecía y agarré el pilar de hierro de la cama para no tambalear. “Un terremoto”, logré decir mientras salíamos de nuestra habitación y noté la hora: la 12:25 de la madrugada. En el pasillo, mi hija mayor me abrazó mientras preguntaba lo que estaba pasando. Afortunadamente, mis hijos menores no se despertaron. En nuestro comedor, las mallas metálicas que cubrían las ventanas cayeron todas al piso y la lámpara colgante se jamaqueaba de lado a lado. Mi cuñado llamó por teléfono y nos dijo que había un incendio en el cielo. De inmediato pensé que se trataba de un accidente aéreo. Abrí la puerta lateral de la casa y vi cómo cambiaba el cielo de colores de rojo a anaranjado y violeta. Buscamos una radio y nos enteramos enseguida de la causa del caos: un fuego en la instalación de tanques de almacenamiento de petróleo de la compañía Caribbean Petroleum (CAPECO, por sus siglas en inglés) que queda a menos de una milla de nuestro hogar.

image of fire at petroleum plantEl fin de semana que tanto habíamos anhelado durante casi un año—la celebración de nuestra fiesta de Halloween, se convirtió para mí en una respuesta a una emergencia. A los diez minutos de la explosión, llamé al jefe de nuestra oficina de respuesta y remediación de emergencias quien a su vez se comunicó con el Centro Nacional de Respuesta a Emergencias.

Como especialista en asuntos públicos en la oficina de la EPA en San Juan, he tenido que trabajar en emergencias de menor escala. Sin embargo, esta se trataba de una verdadera amenaza ambiental ya que varios tanques contenían combustible para aviones, Bunker C, diésel y otros derivados de petróleo que estaban ardiendo en llamas. La instalación de CAPECO está localizada en la Carretera #28 en un área que abarca tres pueblos: Guaynabo, Bayamón y Cataño y se encuentra frente a una base militar grande, el Fuerte Buchanan. La Bahía de San Juan está a tan sólo dos millas de distancia y varios humedales y cuerpos de agua de menor escala se encuentran alrededor. Por esa razón, la emergencia me tocó muy de cerca, a parte del hecho de que vivo cerca de la instalación, sino también porque viajo por esa misma carretera a las cinco da la mañana cuando voy al gimnasio en el Fuerte Buchanan. Los tanques son visibles de la carretera.

Las primeras horas fueron frenéticas mientras las agencias federales, estatales y municipales trataron de contener el fuego y activaron todos los protocolos de emergencia para asegurar que los ciudadanos en esa región altamente poblada no fueran afectados. Un Centro de Comando de Incidentes fue establecido a las 18 horas del evento en un centro deportivo en San Juan y fuimos desplegados allí para trabajar. Los medios y la ciudadanía necesitan información exacta. Nosotros trabajamos arduamente para brindarla.

Tengo que decir que aprendí más de esta experiencia de lo que había aprendido en mis siete años con la EPA. Aunque apagamos ya el fuego, ahora el trabajo real comienza. Los mantendré informados.

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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Science Wednesday: Learning to Keep Children Healthy

As parents, we all want what’s best for our children and like to see them grow healthy. I have taught my daughters to wash their hands, eat nutritious meals, wear protective equipment when practicing sports, and to wear sun block. Now that they are teenagers, I talk to them about the dangers of smoking, drinking and drugs, and of course…boys. However, working for the EPA has given me an increased awareness about another set of dangers—environmental exposures.

In recent years, there has been an increased emphasis on protecting children from environmental contaminants and learning how the differences in behavior and physiology affect their exposures. I remember as a child playing with mercury, pouring it on the floor and pushing the silver blobs around with my fingers to form a bigger blob. We didn’t know it was bad for us, and neither did our parents.

Since then, the potential health effects from exposure to mercury and other toxic chemicals such as lead, arsenic, and pesticides have become the focus of environmental policies. We have also learned that diet is an important route of exposure to pesticides and other substances in the environment.

But, why are children a concern and how are their exposures different from those of adults?

Children’s organ systems are still developing and they may be more susceptible to environmental exposures. Their behavior and habits can also put children at higher risks. We have learned that contaminants can be deposited in toys and objects that children put in their mouth. Contaminants can also find their way into the milk of lactating mothers. Another example: on average, children younger than one year old inhale approximately six times the amount of air by body weight than an adult.

I love that my job helps me learn about keeping my kids healthy. But, even if you don’t work here, EPA has developed lots of useful information to share. Our Children’s Health Protection web site is a great place to start if you are looking for generalized information. One source I’ve been involved with, the Highlights for the Child-Specific Exposure Factors Handbook, provides risk assessors, economists, and others a wealth of data and EPA recommendations on exposure factors needed to estimate childhood exposure to toxic contaminants.

image of author sitting at deskAbout the author: Jacqueline Moya is a chemical engineer with EPA’s Office of Research and Development. She has been with EPA for 25 years. Her work focuses on increasing our understanding about exposure to susceptible populations.

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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Science Wednesday: Aprendiendo a Mantener a los Niños Saludables

Como padres, todos queremos lo que es mejor para nuestros hijos y nos gusta verlos crecer sanos. Le he enseñado a mis hijas a lavarse las manos, comer comidas nutritivas, usar equipo protector cuando practican deportes y a usar protector solar. Ahora que son adolescentes, les hablo sobre los peligros del fumar, beber y usar drogas y claro… de los varones. Sin embargo, trabajando para la EPA me ha dado una mayor conciencia acerca de otros peligros — exposiciones a contaminantes ambientales.

En los últimos años, ha habido un mayor énfasis en la protección de los niños contra los riesgos a la exposición a contaminantes ambientales y aprender cómo las diferencias de comportamiento y la fisiología afectan a esos riesgos. Recuerdo cuando era niña jugaba con mercurio, lo vertía sobre el suelo y con mis dedos empujaba las pequeñas bolitas plateadas hasta formar bolitas más grandes. Ni nuestros padres ni nosotros sabíamos que era malo para la salud.

Desde entonces, los posibles efectos en la salud debido a la exposición al mercurio y otros productos químicos tóxicos como el plomo, arsénico y pesticidas, han impulsado las políticas ambientales. Hemos aprendido que la dieta es una ruta importante de exposición a pesticidas y otras sustancias en el medio ambiente.

Pero, ¿por qué son los niños una preocupación y cómo se diferencian de los adultos? Los sistemas del organismo de los niños están en desarrollo y pueden ser más susceptibles a la exposición a compuestos ambientales. El comportamiento de los niños y sus hábitos también pueden ponerlos a mayores riesgo de exposición. Hemos aprendido que los contaminantes pueden ser depositados en los juguetes y objetos que los niños llevan a su boca. Los contaminantes también pueden ser encontrados en la leche de madres lactantes. Otro ejemplo: en promedio, los niños menores de uno año inhalan aproximadamente seis veces la cantidad de aire por el peso corporal que un adulto.

Me encanta que mi trabajo me ayuda a aprender acerca de mantener a mis hijos sanos. Pero si no trabaja aqui, EPA ha desarrollado mucha información útil que comparte con el público en general. Nuestra página cibernética para la Protección de la Salud de los Niños es un buen sitio para comenzar si quiere buscar información en general. Una fuente de información en la que he estado envuelta es el informe titulado Highlights for the Child-Specific Exposure Factors Handbook, que provee a los analistas de riesgo, economistas, y otros con información sobre factores de exposición necesarios para estimar la exposición de los niños a los contaminantes tóxicos.

image of author sitting at deskSobre el autor: Jacqueline Moya es una ingeniera química con la Oficina de Investigación y Desarrollo. Ha trabajado en EPA por 25 años. Su trabajo se concentra en aumentar nuestro entendimiento sobre la exposición en las poblaciones susceptibles.

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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Mouse Trap

While watching television the other night, I caught a glimpse of a movie about a certain kind of pest: rodents. I know that horror films clearly over exaggerate and are intended to scare people but it did bring back some memories for me. Last year I lived in a new apartment with two of my best friends back at school. One night as we were having a movie night, one of my roommates yelped that she saw a mouse run across our kitchen floor. My other roommate and I went to check it out and as we stood there anxiously awaiting the arrival of our four legged visitor, it suddenly ran across the edge of the floor disappearing into a wall. We all immediately jumped on our kitchen table and screamed. It was a scene straight out of a movie. Girly, I know. I’m sure the mouse was just as scared we were. Needless to say, we discovered later that we had more than just one mouse and a pest problem. Our ordeal with mice lasted a month or so until we had carefully and safely eliminated all rodents and sealed up any possible nook and cranny that they could get in. I will be forever grateful to the roommate that was brave enough to ‘take out the trash’. Moral of the story, though, is that we handled our situation safely. It should be noted that as young adults we were able to take care of the situations ourselves and young children should definitely not. This brings up a few good tips to keep in mind when handling pest infestations of your own, especially when children are around.

  • Always keep pesticides and other household chemicals out of children’s reach, preferably in a locked cabinet.
  • Never transfer pesticides to other containers that children may associate with food or drink.
  • Never place rodent or insect baits where small children can easily get to them.
  • If you are interrupted while using a pesticide or household chemical, make sure to properly reclose the container and put it out of children’s reach.

Remember that pesticides aren’t just limited to those used for rodents but apply to many other products that may be in your house. You can visit a virtual house where you can learn about various chemicals and pesticides, health and safety tips, and what to do if an accident occurs. Take a stand against those pests but do so in a safe way!

About the author: Emily Bruckmann is an intern at the Office of Children’s Health Protection. She is a senior attending Indiana University who will graduate with a degree in public health this spring.

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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ISO Advice to Connect a Set of New-Teen Dots

She’s turning 13 and bright as can be, but I’m in need of advice on how to teach my daughter that there’s an easy-to-see connection between what she’s learning about the environment and simple, everyday choices she makes that affect the environment. And this being Children’s Health Month, it’s time for teenagers, including my brand new one, to consider as well how environmental health affects children and their health now and as adults.

She recently read the student version of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” which clearly explains and visualizes environmental trends, the influence of human-made carbon emissions, and ways government, industry and people can begin to reverse conditions which have likely alarming consequences. (Readers of Greenversations, I’d confidently guess, are well familiar with Gore’s evidence and argument.)

She gets it. So why, on the same day, can she cogently explain what the Keeling atmospheric CO2 curve tells us, and then leave lights on in empty rooms or ask for multiple car rides when one and a bike ride or two would do? Might some creative Children’s Health Month tips do the trick?

This very short Greenversations piece ends with one sincere request because I’m hoping you feel my pain and have the answer: Can you help me help her connect the global–personal–health dots?

There’s one other consideration to hone my request. My darling daughter can get a bit huffy if I say something critical.

About the author: Larry Teller joined EPA’s Philadelphia office in its early months and has worked in environmental assessment, state and congressional liaison, enforcement, and communications. His 28 years with the U.S. Air Force, most as a reservist, give him a different look at government service.

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: How do you protect your children from environmental health hazards in and around your home?

Children may be more vulnerable than adults to environmental health threats. Although the home is typically a safe place for children, when it comes to environmental heath it’s wise to know the facts. October is Children’s Health Month. Check out the October calendar for environmental health tips.

How do you protect your children from environmental health hazards in and around your home?

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: ¿Cómo protege a sus niños de las peligros a la salud ambiental en y alrededor de su hogar?

Los niños son más vulnerables que los adultos a los riesgos ambientales. Aunque el hogar normalmente es un lugar seguro para los niños, cuando se trata de la salud ambiental infantil, es mejor conocer los hechos. Octubre es el Mes de la Salud Infantil. Consulte el calendario de EPA para octubre y allí encontrará consejos de salud ambiental en inglés. Para más consejos en español

¿Cómo protege a sus niños de las peligros a la salud ambiental en y alrededor de su hogar?

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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You’re EPA – Stop This Development!

I can’t count the number of times I have gotten a phone call or email from citizens concerned about a development planned for their town. It usually goes something like this.

“I live in ____ town. There’s this developer who wants to put a big box store / condos / hundreds of houses / gas station on land that’s now a woods / wetland. I’m concerned about runoff / traffic / noise / the loss of habitat for wildlife / how ugly it will be. Can you make them stop?”

The answer I usually give (unless it concerns building in a wetland) is, “No, sorry, but we can’t help you. Development is a local issue. Contact your local government.”

And, they usually respond, “I already have and they won’t do anything.”

I know how frustrating this can be since I’ve experienced it myself. In my town we now have a big box drugstore where a small nursery used to be. At one of the meetings discussing the proposed development I brought up the fact that since much of the land that was now pervious soil would become impervious, runoff would be a major concern. The answer I got from one of my elected officials was that since any runoff would go across the street into the next municipality, we didn’t have to worry about it!

And, just over the line from my town’s border is a wonderful chunk of land, an old estate with a mansion and deer, possum, red fox, and chipmunks. I had suggested many years ago that my municipality work with the other municipality and use available Open Space funding to protect the land. The answer I received was that we would never spend our money to protect land not in our jurisdiction. Subsequently, the elderly man who owned the property died, then his second wife died, and now her kids want to build hundreds of apartments there. The matter is now in court with my municipality trying to stop the owners.

So, I feel your pain. From my personal experiences and from hearing about yours I have learned a few things that may help others.

It is very important to act before anything is in the works. Be proactive.

Look at your local zoning laws/ordinances. What do they allow? Then do a “Build Out Analysis” – look at every parcel of land and figure out what it could become if it was developed under the full extent of the law. My guess is you’ll find quite a number of surprises, like restaurants in residential areas that could become nightclubs and homes that could become frat houses. Don’t believe it when someone tells you, “That will never happen” because if it can legally, it may.

Then envision the future with the various options for your “at risk” places. Standing there, looking at each property and then closing your eyes envisioning changes might help. Even better would be a graphics person who could mock up what your town could look like from the worst case to the best case.

Then survey your neighbors. What are their “sacred places”? Places that are important to them and help define your community. These might include an old movie theater, a train station circle, a woods and stream, church bells at noon, even the scent of donuts coming from a local bakery in the morning.

Find out about financial incentives, such as tax breaks, for conserving or not fully developing land. Are there grant programs that might have money? Could a “life estate” be set up so that the current property owner could stay on the property until his/her death, possibly avoiding paying real estate taxes and upkeep expenses during that time? Good places to look for information are your local land conservation organization and your county planning agency.

Once you have all your facts, and not before, approach those who own the properties. Then educate, educate, educate. Many people do not understand the environmental and economic implications of changing land use. And, you may not be the best person to do this education. Maybe a local non-profit or teacher might have more success.

Try to understand where the other person is coming from. What’s their motivation? What do they want for the future? Are they willing to work with you? You won’t get what you want all the time, but by being proactive you’ll have a better chance than if you wait.

About the Author: Nancy Grundahl has worked for the Philadelphia office of EPA since the mid-80’s. She currently manages the web for the Environmental Assessment and Innovation Division. Before getting involved with the web, she worked as an environmental scientist. Nancy believes in looking at environmental problems in a holistic, multi-media way and is a strong advocate of preventing pollution instead of dealing with it after it has been created.

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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