Monthly Archives: January 2010

Science Wednesday: Small Science to Help the Planet

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

When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a scientist. At first, the only scientist I knew of was Albert Einstein, but I had no aspirations of growing up looking like him. Then I discovered a “Space Cadet” television character who was a physicist—and a woman. It was cool. Finally a role model I could follow!

What I liked about science was doing experiments and learning things that nobody else knew. I thought it would be great to learn science and help the planet at the same time.
Now I have the privilege of working for EPA where our mission—to protect the environment and human health—is based on scientific knowledge. The scientific knowledge that I use in promoting EPA’s mission is nanotechnology.

According to the National Nanotechnology Initiative, a coalition of U.S. government agencies that fund or use nanotechnology research, nanotechnology encompasses materials with dimensions between one and 100 nanometers (no small molecules need apply) and have unique properties that enable novel applications. (My colleague Nora Savage did a great job explaining nanotechnology on a previous Science Wednesday post.

Two scientists received the 2007 Nobel Prize in physics for making a nano-sized discovery: giant magnetoresistance, or GMR. GMR is a property some metals have at the nanoscale, and it was used to develop smaller computer hard drives with more storage than before. Some of these are now found in our cell phones and MP3 players.

GMR is just one example of the many types of nanomaterials that have the potential to lead to exciting new products. But could some nanomaterials also be harmful to the environment?
That’s where I come in. I work on a grant program I developed supporting research focused on nanotechnology and the environment. I may not be a Space Cadet, but I am a scientist who helps the world. It’s kind of like a dream come true.

About the Author: EPA Environmental scientist Dr. Barbara Karn focuses on “green” nanotechnologies, including using green chemistry, green engineering and environmentally benign manufacturing to make new nanomaterials and products for preventing pollution. Look for more about her work and her dream job in future Science Wednesday posts.

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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How Do You Market Behavior Change?

January is National Radon Action Month, or NRAM. Read more about EPA’s radon activities and what others are doing to reduce their radon exposure.

I was buying shampoo yesterday and was, for some reason, drawn to a particular brand I had never bought before. I didn’t realize why I was drawn to this particular product until later that day when I caught myself humming the jingle of the shampoo’s commercial on my walk home.

What influences you to change your behavior in your day to day life? An article? A friend’s message? A public official’s warning?

Our goal in public health marketing is changing individual’s behaviors, but influencing someone to test their home for radon can be challenging. Science has informed our thinking about radon. Now, we’re challenged to convey actionable messages to the public.

EPA and its partners have promoted radon awareness through a national media campaign. All of EPA’s public service announcements, or PSAs, are actually free for the public to download for TV, radio and print.

In 2001, the National Academy of Television, Arts, and Sciences bestowed a national Emmy Award to the PSA, “Take the National Radon Test: Man on the Street,” for raising awareness of the health effects of radon.

Because information from a trusted source often moves people to act, EPA developed a campaign around the Surgeon General’s Warning against radon. Similarly, the National Conference for State Legislatures works with other partners to air state legislator’s messages on local radio stations during NRAM 2010. Last year, 154 legislators urged their constituents to test their homes for radon through these PSAs.

EPA has also bundled the radon message with other environmental movements to reach the public in new ways. For example, radon is now part of a larger green campaign to sock it to radon. EPA also sponsored a YouTube video contest to promote the message: “Radon. Test. Fix. Save a Life.” The winning entry, Eddie’s Story, can be found on our Website.

EPA’s radon marketing efforts are expanding to reach a variety of audiences, but there is always room to grow. What is science without an actionable message? What have you done to influence individual behavior change through public messaging?

About the author: Rebecca L. Reindel, MFS, is an Association of Schools of Public Health Environmental Health Fellow in the Indoor Environments Division, part of the Office of Radiation and Indoor Air. She is completing her Master’s Degree in Public Health at the George Washington University. She holds a Master’s in Forensic Toxicology and has previously addressed workplace exposures for taxi drivers and was an instructor at GWU.

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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Kids, Creativity and the National Radon Poster Contest

January is National Radon Action Month, or NRAM. Read more about EPA’s radon activities and what others are doing to reduce their radon exposure.

Two months ago, I helped judge the 2010 National Radon Poster Contest.

What amazed me most was the amount of creativity in the posters submitted by children, aged 9 to 14. Several times I assumed I was staring at an entry from a junior high student and it turned out to be from a fourth grader … a fourth grader! It gave me a great opportunity to appreciate children as messengers for environmental causes. The amount of poster entries this year was incredible: 216 schools in 36 states, one U.S. territory and seven tribal nations created a total of 2,862 posters!

Creators of the winning 2010 posters are being recognized today at the Indoor Air Quality Tools for School Symposium in Washington, D.C. The national first place winner is pictured in this column and you can find posters for all national, state, territorial and tribal nation winners here. Posters were judged on criteria set by the National Safety Council, Kansas State University, and Environmental Protection Agency, co-sponsors of the 2010 contest.

It’s important to get children involved early with simple messages. Some messages we stress through the Radon Poster contest are:

  • Radon is a colorless, odorless, and tasteless.
  • Radon is a radioactive gas that can reach harmful levels if trapped indoors.
  • Radon comes from the soil underneath your home.
  • Radon causes lung cancer.

Simple messages to children inspire adults to take action. Our action message is clear, “Test. Fix. Save a life.” That is, test for radon in your home, school and other buildings; fix existing radon problems; and build new homes to be radon resistant.

Kansas State University’s National Radon Program will co-sponsor upcoming radon poster contests. Get involved! Promote the National Radon Poster Contest at your school. Organize a local awards ceremony to honor the winner selected by your school, community or state. Contact your state radon program to get started.

Children play key roles as messengers. They are our radon, and environmental, advocates of the future.

About the Author: Rebecca L. Reindel, MFS, is an Association of Schools of Public Health Environmental Health Fellow in the Indoor Environments Division, part of the Office of Radiation and Indoor Air. She is completing her Master’s Degree in Public Health at the George Washington University. She holds a Master’s in Forensic Toxicology, has previously addressed workplace exposures for taxi drivers and is an instructor at GWU.

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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Pick 5: Spread the Word!

Hey Pick 5’ers, it’s time again for you to share what you’ve done and how you did it. If you haven’t done it yet, Pick 5 for the Environment and then come back to comment. Today we cover action #10: Spread the word! Please share your stories as comments below.

Over the past several months I’ve done a series of Pick 5 blogs. I’ve shared with you my “Pick 5 experiences” and have encouraged you to commit to environmental action. It has been a great experience making changes in my life to benefit the environment. I’ve learned so much that I’ve wanted to share with you.

I’ve also spoken to kids of all ages about “Pick 5 for the Environment.” My neighbor’s five-year-old son asked me, “what do you mean, Pick 5 for the Environment?” I explained to him some simple steps he could take to help the environment. He was thrilled! He said, “you mean I should recycle instead of throwing everything in the kitchen trash can?” I explained to him why recycling’s important. After a couple of weeks went by, my neighbor said “I can’t believe how serious he is about this!” She said he went to school and told his teacher and friends that they are ruining the earth by throwing trash in the trash can, and that they need to recycle. Now his teacher has recycling bins in the class room. By spreading the word about the environment, you never know how far it will go. Tell a few friends to Pick 5; if they each tell their friends, in no time at all there’ll be thousands of Pick 5’ers. So spread the word!

Don’t hesitate to share your other Pick 5 tips on how you save water , commute without polluting, save electricity , reduce, reuse, recycle , test your home for radon , how do you check your local air quality, use chemicals safely , eCycle, and enjoy the outdoors safely!

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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Is it a Car or a Plane?

As I was getting ready for work the other day, I heard a radio report that caught my attention: flying cars might become a reality in our lifetime. Yes, you read this correctly, the federal government is seriously considering several proposals to design a transportation vehicle capable of driving and flying. These flying vehicles have moved beyond the realm of science fiction. These unique vehicles could very well be produced during this new decade.

As I mentioned in one of my blog entries last summer, I’ve always been fascinated by the cartoon series, the Jetsons. When it first came out in the 1960s, the technological gadgets used in the Jetsons’ household seemed well ahead of their time. I had noted that of all the contraptions portrayed in the animated series, the only one that still was not widely used in the 21st century was the flying car. Obviously, technology could change everything in the near future.

While the federal government seems to be considering the military applications of this new transportation vehicle, I imagine that commercial applications will be considered as well. I guess it might be pricey in the beginning years, but it would be truly a step in the right direction to have a new vehicle that was completely green with zero emissions, great mileage, that could both fly and drive in the nation’s roadways. Now, I cringe at the thought of having to teach my youngest how to drive/fly this new vehicle. Yikes! She’s only eight now. Who knows what type of car she’ll be able to drive when she’s sixteen….that’s only eight years away.

About the author: Lina Younes has been working for EPA since 2002 and chairs EPA’s Multilingual Communications Task Force. Prior to joining EPA, she was the Washington bureau chief for two Puerto Rican newspapers and she has worked for several government agencies.

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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¿Es un auto o un avión?

Mientras me preparaba para ir al trabajo los otros días, escuché un reportaje por radio que capturó mi atención: los aviones voladores podrían convertirse en una realidad durante nuestras vidas. Sí, ha leído correctamente, el gobierno federal está considerando seriamente varias propuestas para diseñar un vehículo de transporte capaz de guiar por tierra y de volar. Estos vehículos voladores se están moviendo del mundo de la ciencia ficción. Es muy probable que estos vehículos singulares serán elaborados durante esta nueva década.

Como mencioné en uno de mis blogs el verano pasado, me encantaba la serie animada de los Jetsons. Cuando la serie comenzó en los años 1960, los artefactos tecnológicos utilizados en el hogar de los Jetsons definitivamente tenían un aire futurístico. También destaqué que de todos estos enseres innovadores, el único que no era comúnmente usado en el siglo 21 era el vehículo volador. Obviamente, con los avances tecnológicos todo podría cambiar.

Mientras el gobierno federal está considerando aplicaciones militares para este nuevo vehículo de transporte, me imagino que se considerarán otras aplicaciones comerciales también. Aunque podría ser costoso al inicio, podría ser un paso en la dirección correcta para crear un nuevo vehículo completamente verde con cero emisiones, excelente rendimiento de millas por galón y con la habilidad de volar y transitar por nuestras carreteras nacionales. Eso sí, me aterra la idea de tener que enseñarle a mi hija menor cómo manejar/volar este nuevo vehículo. ¡Horror! Ella sólo tiene ocho añitos ahora. Quién sabe qué tipo de vehículo podrá conducir cuando tenga diez y seis años…sólo quedan ocho años más para descubrirlo.

Sobre la autor: Lina M. F. Younes ha trabajado en la EPA desde el 2002 y está a cargo del Grupo de Trabajo sobre Comunicaciones Multilingües. Como periodista, dirigió la oficina en Washington de dos periódicos puertorriqueños y ha laborado en varias agencias gubernamentales.

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: OnAir: Breathe Cleaner, Live Longer

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

On my second day of work, I was asked to find a Stephen Colbert video.

I found it on the Comedy Central web site

The subject of Colbert’s mockery is actually one of the most significant air studies recently published. It presents evidence, for the first time, that breathing cleaner air actually makes people live longer.

A 2009 study by Arden Pope, Majid Ezzati, and Doug Dockery published in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that cleaner air in the U.S. has increased life expectancy by an average of 5 months.

Over the past few decades, EPA has regulated air pollution because various scientific studies have determined that it is harmful to human health. As particles emitted into the air have been gradually reduced, pollutant levels in air have significantly decreased.

But despite the obviously cleaner air, it has been extremely difficult to confirm the resulting health improvements. Couldn’t better health also be attributed to decreased cigarette smoking, better eating habits and health care, or a variety of other changes?

Pope, Ezzati, and Dockery—an EPA PM Research Center grantee—matched air monitoring data with life expectancy data spanning three decades and 51 cities across the US. Using advanced statistical models, they accounted for any other factors that might also affect life span (like cigarette smoking) in order to see the effects of air quality alone.

Their results showed that an increase in life expectancy of 5 months was directly attributable to an average reduction of 6 micrograms per cubic meter of fine particle air pollution between 1980 and 2000.

The implication of the study—that EPA air regulations have directly and substantially lengthened human lives—is a triumph for both regulatory agencies and researchers world wide because it shows that air research and policy really do work.

Stephen Colbert isn’t the only one to recognize the importance of this finding. News of the study was reported in the Washington PostNew York Times, and in an entire segment on NBC Nightly News.

I spoke to Doug Dockery, investigator of the study and scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health, to get his take on the impact of this finding.

“There is an important positive message here,” he said.

“Efforts to reduce particulate air pollution concentrations in the United States over the past 20 years have led to substantial and measurable improvements in life expectancy.”

About the Author: Becky Fried is a student contractor with EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research, part of the Office of Research and Development.

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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Seven Priorities for EPA’s Future

Today, Administrator Lisa P. Jackson announced seven priorities for
EPA’s future:

  • Taking Action on Climate Change
  • Improving Air Quality
  • Assuring the Safety of Chemicals
  • Cleaning Up Our Communities
  • Protecting America’s Waters
  • Expanding the Conversation on Environmentalism and Working for Environmental Justice
  • Building Strong State and Tribal Partnerships

Read her memo for the details.

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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Community Action For Radon – An Important Step For Better Indoor Air Quality

January is National Radon Action Month, or NRAM. Read more about EPA’s radon activities and what others are doing to reduce their radon exposure.

While many people have heard of radon and some even know it is a carcinogen, not enough are taking action to reduce their risk. That’s why the EPA Radon program is working with others to improve public awareness and promote action. One example is the Radon Leadership Initiative, or RLI, developed by the Conference of Radiation Control Program Directors, with EPA support.

The RLI is designed to engage communities at the grassroots level, to demonstrate results and mobilize leaders. Communities promote radon risk reduction locally and form coalitions with states and others organizations. With EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson’s support for stronger focus on community initiatives, it seems like good timing to kick off another project rooted in local action.

This first year, the RLI has four communities tackling radon exposure in creative ways to increase action through awareness, testing and building new homes with radon resistant new construction, or RRNC:

  • Maine Indoor Air Quality Council: train code officials and builders in RRNC code.
  • Southern Illinois Radon Awareness Task Force: recognize homeowners with radon systems and develop participation from local health professionals.
  • Minnesota State University-Mankato: train realtors on RRNC and improve quality and marketability of RRNC homes.
  • Kentucky Association of Radon Professionals: increase awareness through social marketing and the traveling T-shirt.

You can read more about Kentucky’s RLI program here.

The RLI is part of Radon Leaders Saving Lives, a campaign bringing together government, industry, non-profits and other groups to address radon exposure in communities of all shapes and sizes. The dialog on the campaign’s Web site has been truly impressive; we’ve always known that people who work with radon are passionate, but we now have proof! Check it out. This is also where you can track the progress of the four RLI programs throughout the year.

The RLI is one more innovative way to bring the radon message closer to home for many people. I’m curious how you first learned about radon and what you are doing to promote radon action locally. Please share your experience in the comments section below.

Remember… Test. Fix. Save a life.

About the author: Rebecca L. Reindel, MFS, is an Association of Schools of Public Health Environmental Health Fellow in the Indoor Environments Division, part of the Office of Radiation and Indoor Air. She is completing her Master’s Degree in Public Health at the George Washington University. She holds a Master’s in Forensic Toxicology and has previously addressed workplace exposures for taxi drivers and was an instructor at GWU.

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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Weatherizing Right

With the subfreezing temperatures here in DC, the cold spots and drafts around my apartment are constant reminders to do the weatherizing projects I put off in the late fall. My procrastination has paid off in one sense – since joining EPA two months ago, I’ve learned a lot about keeping a home healthy while weatherizing or renovating.

This weekend I installed some plastic sheeting or film over a couple of old, single-pane windows in my apartment. It’s a short-term fix which should cut down on heat loss and make our rooms a bit more comfortable. As long as there is still some ventilation or outdoor air exchange elsewhere in my unit, it shouldn’t raise any health concerns.

I’ve also got a tube of caulking that I’m planning on using for the edges of a few windows that I don’t want to use the plastic around. Caulk is pretty easy to use, but proper ventilation is important during installation since some caulks may contain toluene or other potentially harmful chemicals. I’m planning on setting up a fan and opening one of the windows I haven’t weatherized yet in order to tackle this project.

If you’ve been looking to fill a larger crack or hole, you’ve reached for a can of spray foam sealer at your local hardware store. I used a can in my last house because it provides great insulation for cracks and crevices. At the same time, spray foams pose a health hazard if not used with proper personal protection (respirators and gloves) and work site ventilation. Spray polyurethane foams contain diisocyanates, which are potent lung and skin sensitizers (or allergens) and irritants. Click here to link to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s resource page or check out a presentation from EPA’s Green Building experts.

I’m not planning on ripping out any windows or otherwise disturbing the old paint in my apartment, since I don’t own the unit. My building was built around 1930, well before 1978, so if I did attempt larger modifications, it would be very important to avoid spreading lead. Come April, all contractors working in pre-1978 houses will be required by EPA to use lead-safe work practices. Here are three basic steps to lead-safe renovations: contain the work area to capture dust and debris, minimize dust, and clean up thoroughly.

About the author: Matthew H. Davis, M.P.H., is a Health Scientist in EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection, working there on science and regulatory policy as a Presidential Management Fellow since October 2009. Previously, he worked in the environmental advocacy arena, founding a non-profit organization in Maine and overseeing the work of non-profits in four other states.

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.