Monthly Archives: October 2012

Science Matters: Predicting the Future of Children’s Health

Children's Health MonthTo observe October as Children’s Health Month, we will periodically post Science Matters feature articles about EPA’s children’s health research here on the blog.  Learn more about EPA’s efforts to protect children’s health by going to www.epa.gov/ochp.


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately one in every 33 babies born in the United States is born with a birth defect. Birth defects can heighten the risk of long-term disability as well as increase the risk of illness, potentially impacting a child for the rest of his or her life. Unfortunately, the causes of most birth defects are unknown.

EPA researchers are tapping powerful, high-tech computer systems and models to better determine how prenatal exposure to environmental factors might impact embryo and fetal development. Working on EPA’s Virtual Embryo (v-Embryo™) project, they create computer models of developing body systems and combine them with data from a number of EPA studies and toxicity databases to “virtually” examine the effects of a variety of prenatal exposures.

Virtual Embryo simulates how chemicals and pesticides, including those that disrupt the endocrine system, interact with important biological processes that could disrupt fetal development.  The chemicals used in simulations are identified by EPA’s Toxicity Forecaster as having the potential to affect development.

The predictions from the computer simulations need to be further tested against non-virtual observations. However, the models provide scientists with a powerful tool for screening and prioritizing the chemicals that need to be more closely examined, greatly reducing the cost and number of targeted studies needed.

“We’ve built small prototype systems, now what we want to do is move into complex systems models that will be more relevant to environmental predictions,” said Thomas B. Knudsen, Ph.D., an EPA systems biologist who is leading the project.

Virtual Embryo models have focused on blood vessel development and limb development, but are being expanded to include early development of the male reproductive system, which is known to be particularly sensitive to endocrine disrupting chemicals.

Knudsen says that having more models is important because different chemicals can affect biological systems in various ways. Luckily, the time it takes to develop new models decreases as researchers’ model-developing knowledge grows.

“The important challenge for us is to try to integrate some of this work with other issues of broad importance to children’s health,” said Knudsen. “We’re focused primarily on embryonic development, but a person doesn’t stop developing at birth. We have to take what we are learning from the embryo and extend that information into life stages beyond birth.”

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Whats in Your Water – KCWaterBug

By Jeffery Robichaud

Last week EPA Headquarters released a new app entitled How’s My Waterway.  If you live in Kansas City, you also have access to another new application with the catchy name KCWaterBug.

Several years ago, EPA’s Kansas City office embraced a goal of reconnecting citizens in urban environments to their local waters.  Initially this involved the establishment of a website and collaborative group (KCWaters.org) in concert with the University of Missouri Kansas City (UMKC), where citizens could access information and data on the lakes and streams in their neighborhoods, from multiple agencies and groups in one simple location.  

In 2011, EPA embarked upon a second phase of the project; to provide real-time awareness of the quality of local waters so citizens could make informed decisions about recreation.  Scientists at United States Geological Survey in Lawrence, Kansas had developed an innovative approach for estimating bacteria concentrations based on basic water quality parameters (which can be seen here).  Building on EPA’s existing Kansas City Urban Stream Monitoring network,  EPA scientists collected paired e-coli and turbidity samples over the course of 2011, to develop a dataset sufficient to establish the necessary relationship.  Next, EPA installed real-time water quality monitoring stations using in-stream probes and satellite telemetry. 

 

Data from the stations is transmitted once an hour via the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s GOES satellites  to servers at the University of Missouri Kansas City, where estimated E-coli concentrations are calculated using turbidity measurements and regression equations for each monitoring location (the graph below shows turbidity and estimated E-coli within the database). 

 

An hourly average estimated E-coli concentration is calculated and each stream is assigned a colored code based on an index tied to health protective levels (shown below). 

Blue denotes that the water is estimated to have E-coli concentrations that are acceptable for all forms of recreation including swimming, while Red denotes contact with water is not advised.  (Green portrays water that is acceptable for wading and splashing while Yellow denotes water that is acceptable for activities which minimally contact water).  The index was established through consideration of USEPA, Kansas Department of Health and Environment, and Missouri Department of Natural Resources water quality criteria for bacteria.

You can download the app for free from both the iTunes store  for apple mobile devices and Google Play for Android devices.  But make sure and hurry up and download these soon, since the weather is starting to get cold and we will be pulling the probes out of the water before too long.  Next Spring we are adding seven more streams to the network, but until then get out and enjoy a walk along your local creek.  You’ll be glad you did.

About the Author: Jeffery Robichaud is a second generation EPA scientist who has worked for the Agency since 1998. He currently serves as Deputy Director of EPA Region 7’s Environmental Services Division.  He uses KCWaterBug on his iPad before taking the family dog for a walk along Line Creek.

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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Bats: More than Tiny City Vampires

By Marcia Anderson

Bats have a reputation for being spooky or even dangerous, but they are some of the most beneficial animals to people. They are the most misunderstood and needlessly feared of the world’s creatures. Furthermore bats do not entangle themselves in hair as widely believed and they will not encounter people by choice but only in self-defense.

Very few species of bats are vampire or blood consuming. Out of the more than 1,100 different species of bats worldwide, there are only three species of vampire bats and none live in the United States. Vampire bats only live in tropical climates and typically feed on cattle, poultry or other livestock. Most North American bats have small teeth for eating insects and do not gnaw through wood or other building materials like rodents.

All of the NJ and NY bats are insectivores and they need to eat and drink every night. Their food requirements are well served by open grasslands and parks, where insects are abundant. They feed on a huge variety of night flying insects, including mosquitoes. A single little brown bat can eat 3,000 mosquito-sized insects per night.

Bats are essential to maintaining healthy ecosystems and economies, yet their populations are declining worldwide due to loss of roost trees, disturbance of dens, and outright persecution by man. Enjoy your bananas, mangos and guavas – and thank the bats that help to bring these fruits to your table. Some bats are primary pollinators for fruits and other produce and help to disperse seeds of plants vital for natural restoration of forests.

During the day they prefer to roost in tight crevices such as cracks in rocks, under exfoliating tree bark and in awnings of buildings. These locations provide protection from predators and stable temperatures. They also prefer roosting near open bodies of water. Bats can enter city buildings, especially near parks, through openings as small as one-half inch in diameter. Bats may roost in attics, soffits, louvers, chimneys and porches; under siding, eaves, roof tiles or shingles; and behind shutters. In stadiums and parking garages, bats sometimes roost in expansion joints between concrete beams.

Don’t panic. Bats are rarely aggressive, even if they’re being chased, but they may bite in self-defense if handled. As with any wild animal, bats should never be touched with bare hands. More

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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Energy Vampire

Do you have an energy vampire in your house?

vampire

Standby power is the energy used by some products when they are turned off but still plugged into an outlet. While this standby power sometimes provides useful functions such as remote control, clock displays, and timers, in other cases it is simply wasted power as a result of leaving an electronic device or power adapter plugged in. The devices causing this waste are referred to as energy vampires because these products are slowing sucking energy from your house while not providing any useful function!

The amount of energy used by products when they are in standby mode is high. The average home spends $100 per year to power devices while they are off (or in standby mode).

How can you slay the energy vampires in your house?

Look for the ENERGY STAR logo when shopping.

Use the ENERGY STAR power management settings on your computer and monitor.

Use a power strip as a central “turn off” point when you are done using stuff.

Unplug your chargers: cell phone chargers, camera chargers, battery chargers or power adapters, etc.

Wendy Dew is the Environmental Education and Outreach Coordinator for Region 8 in Denver, Colorado

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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Two Places of Unique Ecological Value in the World are Located in Puerto Rico

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By Luz V. García

Now that Christmas is near and we will be posting our lights and decorations, I still remember going with my family one night to see the Parguera  Bay in Puerto Rico. My memory of that trip has never been forgotten, since I did not know what caused the water to sparkle when agitated.  I was mesmerized by the halo of silver glow left by the boat riding through the mangroves.  All I remembered is that the boat ride lasted 30 minutes and during those precious moments, I saw the water glowing like stars.

Many times we forget the unique environments of our native land.  Back then, I was not aware of the value of natural resources, especially the value of those unique natural resources. The Parguera Bay is also known as a bioluminescent bay. Why? Because in moonless nights if you navigate thru the mangroves zone in Lajas , the boat seems to be sliding over a silver floor.

The bioluminescence is caused by microorganisms living in water bodies where they emit light. The scientific name for this microorganism is dinoflagellate that needs to photosynthesize in order to survive. They can be found in salt water (oceans) –which has the term “Marine bioluminescence”–, but in the case of Puerto Rico,  they are located  in the bay zone.

In Puerto Rico, there are two locations with those bioluminescence microorganisms—one in the island of Vieques at Puerto Mosquito Bay and the other in La Parguera  in the town of Lajas. These specific microorganisms are so fragile that it is prohibited to swim in the bay.  In fact, the greater the conglomerate of these organisms, the greater and brighter the display of light produced. The ecosystem can be destroyed by polluting the waters or by the increase of housing development near the area. It is being said that the Mosquito bay in Vieques is considered the place with highest concentration of dinoflagelates in the WORLD.

I believe that in the mind of every child who has visited the place, it is still the memory of that water glowing as if the bay were a place where  stars are falling from the sky .

About the author:  Ms. Luz V. García M.E. is a physical scientist at EPA’s Division of Enforcement of Compliance Assistance. She is a four-time recipient of the EPA bronze medal, most recently in 2011 for the discovery of illegal pesticides entry at U.S. Customs and Border Protection in New York.

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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Walking to School

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By Gina Snyder

At a recent visit to Birchmeadow Elementary School in my hometown to talk to students about our watershed, I noticed a poster on the wall saying “October is National Walk to School Month”. I was delighted – not just because walking is good for public health and the environment, but also because I had just learned that this would mean students would be more attentive when I spoke.

At a recent lecture by Mark Fenton, an adjunct professor at Tufts University, I learned that teachers can tell when children walk or bike to school. “They are better behaved in class and more ready to learn,” Fenton had said.

Fenton, a nationally known public health and transportation consultant and former host of the “America’s Walking” series on PBS television, noted that obesity among children is so widespread that this generation will be the first to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.

Whether we have children or not, we can all help students to live healthier lives.

For instance, by driving respectfully and stopping for pedestrians, we can encourage walking and biking. Like many people living in the Boston area, I have nearly been run over by crazy drivers, so I know the role drivers play in making walking safer.

Drivers can also become role models by leaving cars home. It’s healthier and better for the environment when we use our own people-power to get around.

And remember, children learn through experience. Walking with adults lets children practice crossing streets.

As you walk, follow these tips:

  • Look for traffic at each driveway and intersection. Be aware of drivers in parked cars getting ready to move.
  • Obey traffic signs and signals.
  • Cross the street safely.

Wear bright-colored clothes, and carry flashlights or wear reflective gear if it is dark or hard to see.

As days get shorter, don’t let darkness keep you from walking. When walking or biking at dawn or dusk, wear light-colored clothing and add reflective gear. Also, carry a flashlight – point the beam downward and slightly outward, and move it as you swing your arm with your natural walking rhythm.

When bicycling in dark or low light, have a headlight. Massachusetts law requires a front white headlight and a rear red reflector or red light on bicycles operated between 30 minutes before sunset and 30 minutes after sunrise.

So, keep stepping, peddling, or pounding the pavement – safely! It will be good for your health and for the environment.

About the author: Gina Snyder is an engineer at EPA’s New England office and volunteers with the Ipswich River Watershed Association and Walkable Reading. A 10-year participant in the Garden Club’s Adopt-an-Island program, Gina is hoping to help her home town plant rain gardens.

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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Scientist at Work: Interview with Thomas Knudsen

Dr. Tom Knudsen is a developmental systems biologist at EPA’s Center for Computational Toxicology. His research focuses on developing predictive models of developmental toxicity, building and testing sophisticated computer models such as the Virtual Embryo Project. This effort explores the potential for chemicals to disrupt prenatal development—one of the most important lifestages.

In addition to his research at EPA, Dr. Knudsen is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Louisville, Editor-in-Chief of the scientific journal Reproductive Toxicology, and Past-President of the Teratology Society.

Before joining EPA, he was Professor at the University of Louisville.

How does your science matter?

I am part of an exciting effort to develop new ways to explore development toxicology and prioritize the testing of chemicals using vast amounts of data and biological knowledge, powerful computers, sophisticated computer models and very large databases. Instead of the conventional approach to developmental toxicology, which over the past 50 years or so has relied on tests conducted on pregnant lab animals, we are developing virtual models that are both faster and less expensive.

For example, in the Virtual Embryo project we are using a suite of screening models that look at the interactions of various chemicals with the complex biology of a developing embryo. We think that these models and tools will be a new way of asking questions about how a pregnant woman’s exposure to chemicals in the environment might result in a risk to development.

Our work will help protect human health, greatly increase the number of chemicals we can screen quickly, and reduce costs all at the same time. So I guess it really does matter.

What do you like most about your research?

Most days I feel like I have the best job in the country!

The team that I work with consists of bright and exceptionally talented scientists, among them more than a half dozen outstanding young scientists and post-doctoral fellows. As a like-minded team, we strive to unravel complexity in a biological system such as the embryo.

I really enjoy the many opportunities for productive collaboration here at EPA. The opportunity to conceptualize the Virtual Embryo Project and see it grow and evolve has been most gratifying, not only because of the innovative science that it allows, but also because of the opportunities that it presents for professional development of young scientists.

Click here to keep reading Thomas’s interview.

To read more Scientists at Work interviews, click here.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Una historia violeta

Por Elías Rodríguez, M.P.A.

Durante el Mes de la Salud Infantil, me gustaría compartir una historia con moraleja sobre las buenas intenciones de una madre. Criándome en la sección de Nueva York llamada Loisaida, uno de los recuerdos de mi niñez es el uso frecuente de un remedio casero aplicado por mi madre. Esta mezcla medicinal aparentemente mágica era conocido por nuestros siete hermanos como “tinta violeta.” Fue, dice mamá, un medicamento utilizado por su madre y su abuela como una panacea tópico para casi cualquier dolencia en la parte externa del cuerpo.

Tinta violeta era un remedio de primera opción en muchos gabinetes de medicina en Puerto Rico. Ubicado en una botellita de cristal con cuentagotas, era una dimensión interesante a nuestra herencia. Mamá “juraba” por su tinta violeta. ¿Cuál era la solución para el arañazo que sufrí en el parque? Untarme un poco de tinta de violeta. ¿Cuál era el alivio para las picaduras del mosquito? Aplica una gota de tinta violeta. ¿Al accidentarme en una caída y rasparme la piel?… Rápido… Añade una chispa de tinta violeta para evitar una infección. Parecía que las profundas manchas violetas ocupaban toda área de mi piel en un momento dado u otro. El líquido oscuro aparentaba ser un remedio rápido y de bajo costo para casi cualquier mordedura, rasguño, picazón o enfermedad externa.

¿Qué había en la tinta violeta? Yo no tenía ni la más remota idea. ¿Cuándo, si alguna vez, es conveniente utilizar tinta violeta? ¿En qué cantidades debe aplicarse la tinta violeta? ¿Fue aprobado por la FDA? Este muchachito no estaba preocupado por esas exigencias. El único inconveniente que podía observar era que las profundas manchas oscuras me hacían parecer como un personaje de Willy Wonka y la Fábrica de Chocolate. Los padres, por su parte, tienen la responsabilidad de hacer lo que la EPA ha recomendado durante años: PROTEJA A SUS HIJOS. ¡LEA LA ETIQUETA. PRIMERO!

Mis hermanos y yo no éramos los únicos que recibieron el tratamiento. Un día, nuestro querido perro sufría de una desagradable enfermedad en su piel que causó la pérdida de la mayor parte de su pelo. No podíamos sufragar una visita al veterinario, por lo tanto, la consulta fue con la doña de la casa. Se tomó un par de semanas, pero nuestro querido pastor alemán se curó totalmente y en breve volvió a la normalidad – ¿Cuál fue la receta de mi madre, la “doctora”? ¡Tinta violeta al rescate de nuevo!

Mi santa madre, ahora de 83 años de edad, dice que siempre supo que tinta violeta era potencialmente tóxica, lo que explica por qué sólo lo administraba en pequeñas cantidades y lo mantuvo lejos de nuestro alcance. Eso fue una acción prudente, pero me pregunto cuántos padres continúan utilizando los recursos y remedios que heredaron de otros sin saber mucho acera de lo que utilizan. ¿No deberían mis padres haber sabido que esa tinta violeta es un colorante de gran potencia que causa cáncer en los ratones? Las medicinas tradicionales pueden contener sustancias químicas que pueden perjudicar su salud. Nunca administre un remedio sin una cuidadosa consideración de la fuente y sus efectos potenciales para la salud.

Sobre el autor: Elías sirve como portavoz de la EPA en la Región 2. Antes de unirse a la EPA, el nuyorican trabajó en Time Inc. para las revistas Time, Life, Fortune y People. Es un graduado de Hunter College, Baruch College y el Instituto Teológico de la Asamblea de Iglesias Cristianas en Nueva York.

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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Around the Water Cooler: EPA researchers assist utilities during extreme weather events

By Lahne Mattas-Curry

Natural disasters or extreme weather events, like Hurricane Sandy that is headed toward the East Coast this weekend, can threaten our drinking water and wastewater infrastructure with flooding, increase peoples’ exposures to bacteria and toxins, and generally, wreak havoc on our communities.

Hurricanes can also have lasting effects on the water quality of lakes and coastal systems. Storm-related power outages are also a concern, something we all know very well here in the Washington, D.C. metro area.

Last summer, EPA, along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, State National Guard units, and others provided drinking water to many Vermont water utilities when Tropical Storm Irene put them out of commission for an extended period of time.

During larger-scale disasters like Hurricane Katrina, or the earthquake that devastated Haiti, the recovery period is even longer. These major events require extremely innovative approaches to scaling up mobile water treatment units, developing temporary distribution systems or even relocating people to areas that have better water supplies and shelter.

Hopefully Hurricane Sandy will take it easy on us this weekend and stay farther out to sea than predicted.  But in the event that we do experience flooding and power outages, here are some things you can do to make sure your water supplies are adequate and safe:

  • Keep at least a 3-day supply of bottled drinking water on hand per person–and don’t forget your pets!
  • Limit contact with any flood waters–they could have high levels of raw sewage or other contaminants.

In addition to these very practical suggestions, EPA scientists and engineers in the Homeland Security Research Program have published Planning for an Emergency Water Supply.  This report was a joint effort with the American Water Works Association and encourages utilities and communities to consider alternative ways of providing drinking water whenever disasters strike. It contains information on how local water utilities can develop an emergency drinking water plan.

For more information on hurricane preparedness, please visit: http://www.epa.gov/hurricanes/.

About the Author: Lahne Mattas-Curry works with EPA’s Safe and Sustainable Water Resources research team and a frequent “Around the Water Cooler” contributor.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Greetings from Liberia

By Jeffery Robichaud

We have been lucky to have some great interns work for our Water Monitoring group over the years, and I know that the staff definitely miss them when the leave and head back to school.  I just received an email from our 2011-2012 intern, Andy, who graduated from KU this Spring and headed off to Africa as a member of the Peace Corps.  He just got back from Liberia a little earlier than he had expected.

Hello!

I hope the past four months have been well for you all, and I bet that sampling this summer was interesting. I heard it has been extremely dry here in the Midwest. Unfortunately the ankle injury that had me in a boot this spring did not heal as the doctors had thought, and I have recently been sent home from Africa back to Kansas to see an orthopedic surgeon. I had a great time during my short stay in the Peace Corps as a physics instructor and hope to re-join once my ankle is fully recovered.
I have been wanting to send you all an email, but there is little to no internet access where I was at in Africa. The living conditions were very basic, and after drinking filtered and bleached rain water for four months, I really appreciate the water quality we have here in America!
These are some of the pictures I have taken in Liberia, West Africa. I thought you all would find the first picture extremely interesting – it is the Republic of Liberia Environmental Protection Agency HQ in the capital city! A nice green building.

I’ve asked Andy to help out with a blog post or two about his experiences in Liberia and with EPA as an intern.  And the picture of Liberia’s EPA building makes me again appreciate our new EPA office, although I am quite partial to this color green (Go Seahawks!)

About the Author: Jeffery Robichaud is a second generation EPA scientist who has worked for the Agency since 1998. He currently serves as Deputy Director of EPA Region 7′s Environmental Services Division.  Much to the chagrin of all the Chiefs fans in the office, he roots for the Seahawks.

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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