Monthly Archives: March 2010

Science Wednesday: Science Matters

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

“Great work, done invisibly, cannot have impact. Communication is not merely transmitting our work; it is an essential part our work. Communication is essential in the design, definition, conduct, transfer, and implementation of the work we do if we are to have an impact.”

The above paragraph was part of The Path Forward ,  a memo Assistant Administrator Paul T. Anastas recently sent to me and my colleagues across EPA’s Office of Research and Development—the science arm of the Agency.

The memo outlines Dr. Anastas’ vision for leading EPA research, and lays out a set of principles for guiding our work into the future. As a science writer, I was thrilled to see that communication was an integral part of that vision.

It was good timing, too.

To help spread the word about EPA research, I’m happy to announce the launch of Science Matters,  an electronic newsletter devoted to sharing stories about the innovative environmental and human health science conducted by EPA researchers and their partners.

Science forms the foundation of everything EPA does. It provides the information, tools, and models the Agency needs to meet its mission to protect human health and the environment.

EPA scientists and engineers explore the complex interrelationships between people and our environment. At their core, they are problem solvers—devoting their efforts to deeply understanding problems. What they learn provides critical information for meeting the nation’s most pressing environmental and human health challenges.

The goal of Science Matters is to spread the word about that collective effort. After all, “great work, done invisibly, cannot have impact.”

Sign up!

Click here for a Science Matters e-mail subscription  (Just enter your e-mail address in the white box and hit the “go” button.)

About the Author: Aaron Ferster is the lead science writer-editor for EPA’s Office of Research and Development, and the editor of Science Wednesdays on Greenversations.

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.

OnAir@AAAR: Wildfire sparks idea in EPA scientist

Bob Devlin was 100 miles away from the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge when he looked out a window and noticed something strange.

The thick smog he noticed that day in the summer of 2008 appeared suspicious because it wasn’t smog… it was smoke.

Though far removed, Devlin caught a firsthand glimpse of the smoke plume emanating from a huge wildfire that ravaged over 30,000 acres of eastern North Carolina.

“That was the day that started it all,” Devlin said Wednesday at the AAAR conference.

After the fire, he quickly banded together a large group of scientists to collaborate on an innovative project. He sought to not only study the health effects of such a large fire, but to do so in a way that communities and states could mimic cheaply and easily during future wildfire events.

Using satellite imagery, Devlin and his colleagues looked at every North Carolina county that was covered in smoke during the three worst days of the fire. They also collected easily accessible data on daily emergency room visits during the worst fire days.

Devlin found significant spikes in emergency room visits for asthma, heart failure, arrhythmia, and pneumonia in counties that were covered in smoke during the worst wildfire days.

The data is unique for two reasons. It is the first time such associations between wildfire pollution and emergency room visits due to cardiovascular problems have been made (previously, only respiratory effects were reported). It is also one of the first case studies of a peat fire, which, in contrast to a normal wildfire, emits pollution particles closer to the ground where people may more readily inhale them.

While the findings are interesting in their own right, the larger significance of the study lies in the ability of the public health community to replicate Devlin’s analysis cheaply, easily, and without sophisticated statistical methods.

“Anybody can access these satellite images, count up the counties covered in smoke, and look at emergency room visits,” Devlin explained.

“In the future, public health officials can use this method to make decisions… [they can decide] for example, whether elderly people should be removed from the path of wildfire smoke.”

The next step, Devlin said, is to continue analysis of the 2008 fire by incorporating data on actual hospital admissions.

For an abstract of Devlin’s work, visit

About the Author: Becky Fried is a science writer with EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research. Her OnAir posts are a regular “Science Wednesday” feature.

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.

Water Pollution caused by Actions on Land

Last summer I was a lifeguard on Myrtle Beach. It was a fun yet stressful job to say the least. I was constantly asked about the presence of jellyfish and, of course, sharks, but was rarely asked of the quality of the water. Only once sections of the beach were closed were questions raised, indirectly, towards water quality.

The answer as to why beaches were being closed was easy to answer: the waters in the areas closed down were unsafe because of environmental degradation. Streams of water leading from the land beyond the beach to the ocean are caused by “swashes.” Swashes are areas of the beach where water has washed onshore after an incoming wave has broken, causing sand and other light particles to cover the beach. There are signs around the swashes warning beach-goers that it is not safe to play in the streams for fear of health concerns, as the water in the streams harbor bacteria caused by pollution. However, the shallow, calm waters and large, rounded rocks provide a seemingly harmless playground to children and families.

The pipelines that surge run-off from the land to the ocean create an easy access for pollution to reach the water on our beaches. Sections of the beach close down usually after periods of rainfall, as rain moves ample amounts of pollutants into the ocean. Most of the pollutants that are in the water are caused by what people are doing on land. Some actions that cause ocean contamination and pollution include:

  • Automobile and boat use
  • Pesticide use
  • Garbage dumping
  • Land-clearing
  • Toxic waste dumping
  • Oil spills

The bacteria, pollutions, wastes, and pesticides in oceans and on beaches can have detrimental health effects to humans, especially children. These health effects include:

  • Sore Throat
  • Gastroenteritis
  • Meningitis
  • Encephalitis
  • Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA)

The problem in our coastal waters is one that should concern us. Children like to play on the sand and in the water, making them more susceptible to the health effects caused by pollution.

About the author: Nicole Reising is an intern at the Office of Children’s Health Protection. She is a sophomore studying non-profit management at Indiana University.

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: What kind of gardening plans have you made this year?

What kind of gardening plans have you made this year?

Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow? The warm weather is coming our way and our thoughts are turning to the great outdoors. Many of us will be planning and planting a vegetable or flower gardens or both, or even an herb garden in a balcony window box. Are you? Your name may not be Mary, but we’d still like to know. During your planning stages, don’t forget to set aside room for composting, it can really make a difference!

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: ¿Qué tipo de planes de jardinería tiene para este año?

Las temperaturas cálidas se avecinan y fijamos nuestra atención en las actividades al aire libre. Muchos de nosotros estaremos planificando para sembrar legumbres en el huerto o jardines de flores, o quizás tener tiestos con hierbas aromáticas en el balcón. ¿Y usted? ¿En qué está pensando en esta temporada? Nos encantaría saber. Durante la etapa de planificación, no se olvide de dejar un espacio para hacer compostaje ya que puede hacer una gran diferencia!

¿Qué tipo de planes de jardinería tiene para este año?

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.

Becoming an Environmental Justice Advocate

Back in 1999, I attended a forum called the National Conference for Public Interest Lawyers, which was basically a job fair for new lawyers. I knew I wanted to do environmental work, but I wasn’t quite sure exactly what that would look like or what was available. As I walked to the different tables, I landed in front of one that had several informational sheets, but one said ‘Environmental Justice.’ What is Environmental Justice? As I read through the sheet it explained that working for environmental justice meant working with and in low income communities and communities of color that were overburdened by environmental pollution. And, that the concentration of facilities and pollution had deleterious health impacts for the people living and working in these communities. That was it. I knew I wanted to work with this group -only one problem: they didn’t have any jobs! I could have moved on, but I knew that no other job would be as rewarding. So, I did the only thing I could, I offered to work as a volunteer.

Working with communities I witnessed the burdens they were living with and met many great hard working citizens who had a passion and love for their home. As a legal advisor I worked together with community groups to advance their visions and address disproportionate impacts. This was very rewarding and it strengthened my commitment and desire to work hand in hand with communities.

In January 2010 the Administrator announced her seven priorities, one being to: Expand the Conversation on Environmentalism and Work for Environmental Justice. Now, in my new position I have the opportunity to continue to work with communities in implementing the Administrator’s priority to ensure all communities are healthy places for people to live, learn, work, and play.

One way we have been working to bring the voices of the communities to the forefront is through our Faces of the Grassroots: Environmental Justice Video Contest. You can share your environmental justice stories by submitting either a 30 or 60 second public service message or a longer 3 to 5 minute informational video that captures your environmental justice story. Our contest closes April 8th. We want you to join the conversation!

For more info, visit

About the author: Lisa Garcia , Senior Advisor to the Administrator for Environmental Justice

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.

OnAir@AAAR: For Policymakers on Panel, Environmental Justice is High Priority

At AAAR’s Wednesday panel on air pollution policy and research, members of local, state, and national air quality regulatory bodies had environmental justice on the mind.

According to EPA, environmental justice “will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.”

Throughout the discussion, each of the six panelists tied air pollution research priorities to environmental justice.

Dr. John Balmes, a member of the California Air Resources Board, explained that communities with inadequate access to health care, limited green space, high stress levels, and other factors working against them could be more vulnerable to the effects of air pollution.

“We are serious about protecting these communities from further health effects that could be caused by air pollution,” Balmes said. One way to ensure protection of these highly impacted communities is to incorporate “sociodemographics” into future air pollution research, he explained.

Lydia Wegman, of the office of Air Quality Planning and Standards at EPA, echoed Balmes’ sentiment. She suggested that air pollution scientists approach research on vulnerable communities as “a multidimensional problem.”

Also on the panel was Lenore Lamb, environmental director of the Pala Band of Mission Indians. Though the Pala Band is an autonomous body that can set its own local air quality rules, the tribe must still adhere to federal air quality regulations. Lamb stressed the importance of building sound science, monitoring networks, and data collection in tribal communities that often lack these important building blocks of improved air quality.

Al Armendariz, Regional Administrator for EPA’s Region 6, used part of his time at the microphone to dare an audience full of air pollution scientists to develop “inexpensive, low-cost, self-contained, rain-proof” community air quality monitors to ensure that everyone, even disadvantaged communities, can afford to monitor the air they breathe.

Environmental justice is becoming a priority across all levels of government. Wednesday’s panel was a call to action for air pollution scientists, challenging them to seek out new ways to research air pollution and its health effects on potentially vulnerable communities.

About the Author: Becky Fried is a science writer with EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research. Her OnAir posts are a regular “Science Wednesday” feature.

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.

OnAir@AAAR: Urban V. Rural—How Do Coarse Particles Compare?

I sat down with Mike Hannigan, EPA grantee and UC Boulder scientist, Tuesday to talk about his innovative research on coarse particles.

mike hannigan

“Coarse particles are basically what we think of as dust,” Hannigan explained.

“But what’s tricky is that depending on where you are, the dust can look very, very different.”

In an urban environment, for example, a large percentage of coarse particle pollution comes from the brake-wear of stopping and slowing vehicles. In rural areas though, agricultural dust and windblown soil play a big role.

“The major question we’re trying to answer is—do these different kinds of coarse particles cause different health effects? And if so, should this impact the way coarse particles are managed in the future?”

A handful of studies have suggested increased hospitalizations for cardiovascular and respiratory illness with exposure to coarse particles, but a comparison of urban and rural effects has never been done before.

Hannigan and colleagues set up monitors in Denver, Colorado and in a rural town called Greeley, about 100 miles to northeast of Denver. The monitors measure both coarse and fine particles continuously, producing hourly averages that give a clear picture of how particle exposures vary over time.

Hannigan’s group has been monitoring for just over a year and will continue for another two. After monitoring is complete, the data will be turned over to epidemiologists to look for any associations between coarse particles and hospitalizations, deaths, and birth outcomes in Denver and Greeley.

“ Nobody has ever looked at birth outcomes as a possible effect of coarse particle exposure before,” Hannigan said, “so this is very new.”

Over the three years of monitoring, Hannigan and colleagues will also collect samples for lab analysis in an effort to determine the origins of coarse particles in each area.

“You can measure barium in samples, for example,” Hannigan explained, “and since brakes are really the only place you find barium… that tells us something about the source of those particles.”
In the future, Hannigan hopes to expand his analysis to include biological sources of coarse particles like pollen and bacteria.

“We can sequence the DNA of particles off the filters from the field and understand more about where they are coming from,” he said.

“It’s all very exciting; it’s going to add a lot of knowledge to the scientific community.”

About the Author: Becky Fried is a science writer with EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research. Her OnAir posts are a regular “Science Wednesday” feature.

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.

Envoltura innovadora

Como mencioné en uno de mis blogs anteriores, una de mis resoluciones verdes ha sido tratar de minimizar los desechos durante los almuerzos que preparo diariamente para mi hija menor y para mí. Por el momento, no he usado las pequeñas bolsas de sándwich plásticas desechables. He continuado usando envases reutilizables para los almuerzos que preparamos para la escuela y el trabajo. Cuando estaba de compras en el supermercado la semana pasada buscando opciones más verdes, encontré una bolsa de papitas fritas que era “100 por ciento compostable”. Me sorprendió su alegación verde. No obstante, leí la envoltura y visité su sitio Web para información adicional. Conforme a la compañía, la envoltura está hecha a base de plantas y se descompone totalmente en el compostaje. Incluso la compañía insiste que la bolsa puede desaparecer en menos de cuatro meses si se coloca en el compostaje. ¡Increíble! La única desventaja de la bolsa es que el material es demasiado ruidoso. Francamente, ese es un pequeño precio a pagar si consideramos que la bolsa puede ayudar a reducir desechos.

Hay numerosos beneficios medioambientales en el compostaje (abono orgánico. Mientras los desechos de alimentos y recortes de hierbas son las cosas en las que pensamos cuando estamos hablando del contenido del compostaje, estas nuevas bolsas y envolturas definitivamente añaden una nueva dimensión.

Con mayor frecuencia, un mayor número de compañías están desarrollando nuevas tecnologías para asegurar que sus productos sean más “verdes”. Otro esfuerzo innovador consiste en reemplazar la espuma de poliestireno (Styrofoam ) en el embalaje y la construcción con materiales biodegradables elaborados con el micelio de hongos benignos.

Diariamente las compañías están utilizando la tecnología para beneficiar al medio ambiente. En muchas ocasiones, las compañías emprenden estos esfuerzos no tan sólo porque quieren ser buenos ciudadanos corporativos, sino porque se están dando cuenta que el contenido y el mercadeo verde también atrae más clientes. Es muy rentable. Esperamos encontrar soluciones innovadoras para muchos de nuestros retos ambientales.

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.

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.

Innovative Packaging

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, one of my green resolutions for the year has been to strive for “waste free lunches.” So far, I have not used any plastic sandwich bags and I have been using reusable containers regularly both for my daughter’s and my lunches. So, as I was grocery shopping last week looking for greener options, I came across a bag of chips that was made of “100% compostable packaging.” I was completely surprised by their green claim. Nonetheless, I read the label on the bag and visited their website for additional information. According to the company, the package is plant-based which makes it completely compostable. The company claims that the bag will disappear in less than four months after placing in a composter. Incredible! The only drawback that I found was that the bag was very noisy. Frankly, that’s a small price to pay when you consider how the bag can help reduce waste.

There are numerous environmental benefits to composting. While certain food scraps and yard trimmings are usually what you think of when adding contents to a composter, these packages add a whole different dimension.

Increasingly, more companies are developing new technologies to green their products. Another innovative green effort to replace Styrofoam in packaging and construction also uses biodegradable material developed from the mycelium of benign fungus.

Every day we see how more companies are using technology to go green. Not only are some of these companies trying to be good corporate citizens, they are realizing that green contents and marketing definitely sell. Hopefully, we’ll find innovative solutions to many of our environmental challenges.

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.

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.