AAAR

OnAir: EPA & Auto Industry Partnership Fills Need for Trusted Science

The Health Effects Institute (HEI) is one of the most respected research organizations in air pollution science.

The Institute was founded in 1980 through an unprecedented partnership between the EPA and the automotive industry. With equal funding from agency and industry (by market share), HEI is in a unique position to provide “high-quality, impartial, and relevant science,” on air pollution health effects, according to their website.

blog_HEI_20100406“HEI began because there was a need for independent science that could be trusted by everyone,” said Dan Greenbaum, HEI’s president.

“What we find is that with industry, EPA, and environmentalists at the table, they are really asking the same scientific questions…even though they may not always want the same answers.”

To maintain objectivity, HEI’s review committees are staffed by participants who are not involved in any advocacy for industry or the environment. The Institute also avoids making regulatory recommendations.
“We don’t make policy here,” Greenbaum said. “We deliver relevant science to the doorsteps of decision-makers so they can do their jobs.”

Greenbaum is known for communicating well across business, environmental, and political realms. He has applied this savvy at the helm of HEI and steered the Institute toward the highest standards of scientific integrity.

“The scientific review process can be a little intense,” Greenbaum admitted, “but it’s so important to have research that is above and beyond reproach.”

Because of the integrity of HEI’s research, their data is often used in important decision-making processes.
In 1997, for example, the EPA reviewed national standards for PM and ozone. To ensure the review incorporated the best-possible information, HEI was asked to reanalyze large datasets from two major air pollution studies.

“They trusted us to treat the data well,” Greenbaum said, “and after tearing it apart and putting it back together again, we confirmed the results and found higher effects of air pollution in people with lower socioeconomic status.”

HEI continues to push the research envelope. Through a new committee, HEI is identifying needed research on the potential health consequences of new fuels and engine technologies.

“We are forecasting a range of new technologies and looking to see whether they could have unintended consequences for public health,” Greenbaum said.

“This is a great example of research to fill gaps in understanding. The key thing we do is listen to what information people need and then do the research to get it.”

For more information, visit: http://www.healtheffects.org/

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.

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OnAir: Research Underdogs Fill Atmospheric Blind Spot

AAAR_underdogs1Andy Grieshop and Ben Murphy call themselves underdogs.

“A few years ago when we presented our research… people would just stare at us blankly,” Andy recalled.

But now, several years and publications later, the skeptical tone has changed. During a presentation at the 2010 AAAR conference in San Diego, audience members seemed encouraged by what they saw.

Andy and Ben are two members of a group of Carnegie Mellon scientists who have spent years trying to fill a big blind spot in atmospheric modeling.

Historically, most models of atmospheric air pollution significantly underestimated the amount of a specific kind of particle, called secondary organic aerosol (SOA).

“What we actually observe in the atmosphere is a factor of 3 – 100 times more than the SOA traditional models predict,” Grieshop explained.

This means that the information used by scientists and policymakers to make important pollution control decisions is not representing everything that people breathe.

According to Grieshop and Murphy, the traditional models overlook some key reactions and processes that take place as particles age and transform in the atmosphere. Most people do not breathe particles emitted directly from a tail pipe, they explained. People breathe in particles that have spent time in the air, moving and reacting with other chemicals.

“When particles dilute, evaporate and then condense back to particles, a lot about them changes,” Murphy said.

Some of these changes could be important to human health.

“Health researchers need accurate models to understand what people are actually exposed to,” Murphy said.

If SOA, as some preliminary studies suggest, is more toxic to people, the new models could be critical for protection of public health.

The new model incorporates atmospheric processes that contribute to SOA formation and does a much better job of predicting what people breathe.

“It’s pretty close to right-on,” Grieshop said, “in terms of matching what we observe in the atmosphere.”

Though more research needs to be done to “drill deeper” into atmospheric processes that may change particles, both scientists agree that this finding could have a big impact.

Their research is already being incorporated into state and local air quality models that are used to manage and control pollution.

“You never really expect that your specific research in atmospheric chemistry may be important for national policy so early on in your career,” Grieshop said excitedly.

“This has been a really great opportunity for us to make a difference.”

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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OnAir@AAAR: Kicking off Air Science 40

Dan Costa, national program director of EPA’s Clean Air Research Program, presented Air Science 40 at Tuesday’s AAAR conference lunchtime lecture.

The presentation marked the beginning of a yearlong celebration of 40 years’ worth of air pollution research at EPA.

Over the course of 2010, a five-part Air Science 40 seminar series will take place on Capitol Hill and at EPA Headquarters in Washington, DC. The series will include lectures on the hottest topics in air science by some of the most prominent researchers in the field.

Recognizing the importance of communicating this research to policymakers and the public, the American Heart Association (AHA) and the American Thoracic Society (ATS) have joined the celebration as sponsors of selected seminars. The AHA will use Air Science 40 as a platform to release an important statement from the cardiology community that contains new information on the impacts of air pollution on cardiovascular health.

In another Air Science 40 milestone, the new Clean Air Research Centers—each funded by a multimillion dollar EPA grant—will be revealed in 2010. The Centers will provide the fundamental scientific research EPA needs to develop multi-pollutant policies and manage air quality sustainably. They will also expand the scope of previously funded EPA PM Research Centers, which gave critical new insights into the sources and health effects of outdoor particles.

Another goal of Air Science 40 is to promote an informed public. Americans are directly impacted by regulatory decisions based on air research; they need and deserve to understand the science behind these important decisions.

Air Science 40

Throughout 2010, the public will have new opportunities to learn about air science and how it has directly impacted their lives. A 10-minute documentary film on the history of air pollution research and its major contributions to environmental and human health will be presented at regional meetings and on the web. Print literature and web features will also be widely distributed to increase awareness about timely air quality issues.

Since 1970, EPA has provided the research to support the development and implementation of national air quality standards. The scientific information, tools and technology to reduce and control air pollution are products of air science research. It deserves to be celebrated.

More information about the Clean Air Research Program

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.

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OnAir@AAAR: Ironing out Trace Metal Measurements

Michelle Oakes has developed a new instrument to more accurately measure a dangerous air pollutant: Iron (II).
Oakes, an EPA STAR grantee and scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, presented the new instrument Monday at the 2010 AAAR conference on air pollution and health.

blog_ironII_michelle oakes

Iron (II) is commonly emitted by sources like biomass burning and coal-fired power plants and is associated with the production of harmful reactive oxygen species in the body. Oakes’ device, called a Particle-to-Liquid Sampler, measures the dangerous trace metal significantly better than previous methods ever have.

“People usually use a filter that works over 24 hours to measure Iron (II),” Oakes explained.
“But what we found is that the filters underestimate Iron (II) by a lot.”

She reported that in some cases, the Particle-to-Liquid Sampler measured Iron (II) levels twice as high as those measured by the filters—a very significant difference.

Because the Sampler conducts automated measurements every 12 minutes, it does a better job than 24-hour filters at capturing changes in Iron (II) levels throughout the day.

As wind speeds change, it is common for Iron (II) levels to fluctuate, producing what Oakes calls “transient events,” or periods of time where iron levels oscillate strongly from high to low.

The average daily Iron (II) measurements produced from the filters tend to mask these fluctuations.
Oakes explained that her device and its ability to more accurately reflect Iron (II) variations over time could significantly benefit the public health community.

“From a health standpoint,” Oakes said, “you need something that’s reliable…you want to be able to see the times of day when it’s most dangerous for people to be outdoors.”

But there are additional advantages to the “totally new” device.
“Not only does it do a better job measuring variations, but it’s also much less labor intensive than using filters which require lots of hours and work,” Oakes pointed out.

Once adapted to become more easily deployable, the sampler could potentially help States measure trace metals more easily.
Oakes presented the work during Monday’s AAAR poster session and seemed pleased to share the new technology.
“I really enjoy working on this,” Oakes said smiling, “it’s a way to do chemistry, be outdoors, and make an impact.”

AAAR_intro

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: Reporting on EPA Science from the 2010 Specialty Conference”

AAAR_introNext week, I’ll have the exciting opportunity to spend time amongst the best and brightest air pollution scientists in the world at the 2010 AAAR “Air Pollution and Health” specialty conference in San Diego.

The conference is co-sponsored by EPA and this year the theme is “bridging the gap from sources to health outcomes”, a topic relevant to protecting human health both within the U.S. and abroad.

According to the conference website, I can expect to find “rigorous debates,” “state-of-the-art products” and “the latest information on linking adverse health effects of air pollution to emissions sources and atmospheric pollutants.”

During my 5 days navigating a sea of posters, talks, panels, and vendor fairs, I will plan to share daily photos and posts on the exciting EPA-relevant science I encounter. This is a unique opportunity to communicate up-to-the-minute information on science that is happening now.

Hot topics to look out for:

  1. Cardiovascular disease, asthma, and diabetes as air pollution risk factors: What underlying health problems put you at higher risk?
  2. Mortality and long-term particle exposure: Can pollution exposure lead to an earlier death?
  3. Genetics and air pollution: Is our capacity to deal with air pollution written in our DNA?
  4. Multi-pollutants: How can scientists study particle mixtures that contain hundreds of chemicals?
  5. Atmospheric transport and transformation: What happens to pollutants once they are in the air?
  6. Successes and challenges: Have actions to improve air quality been successful? Have there been unintended consequences?

Stay tuned…

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.

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.