Air Pollution

45 Years of Fulfilling our Mission

By Gina McCarthy

Just two weeks after the EPA was established in 1970, our first-ever Administrator, Bill Ruckelshaus, issued a statement calling the birth of our agency the start of America’s “reclaiming the purity of its air, its water, and its living environment.”

Just last week, 45 years later – nearly to the day – President Obama honored Ruckelshaus with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his tireless work to get our agency up and running, protect public health, and combat global challenges like climate change.

In bestowing the award, President Obama said, “Bill set a powerful precedent that protecting our environment is something we must come together and do as a country.”

Each day, when I come to work and walk the halls at EPA, I feel proud that our agency is continuing to build on Bill’s legacy.

Later this week, I will join the US delegation to the UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris, where our agency will play a central role in negotiations that could mark a historic turning point to protect our planet for generations to come. I’m confident that the US can get the job done.

Ruckelshaus’ well-deserved honor is a reminder of the amazing progress we’ve made as an agency in just four and a half decades. We have evolved into a world-class model of environmental protection under the law.

We’ve come so far together. Fifty years ago, we pumped toxic leaded-gas into our cars; people smoked on airplanes; and residents of cities like Los Angeles could barely see each other across the street.

Today, EPA’s work has changed all of that – and more. We’ve cut air pollution by 70 percent; we’ve phased out leaded-gasoline; we’ve removed the acid from rain, we’ve helped clear the air of second-hand smoke; and we’ve cleaned up beaches and waterways, all while our economy has tripled.

Throughout it all, EPA has embodied the concept of participatory government. We’ve engaged states, communities, industry partners, and the public. We’ve listened to the needs of people on the ground, and we’ve worked transparently, hand in hand with citizens and families to protect their health, their communities, and their ability to earn a decent living. That’s something to be proud of.

At every step of the way, we’ve followed the science and the law to tackle immensely difficult challenges. And that work is continuing every day.

I thank and congratulate everyone who has played a part in building EPA’s legacy.

Here’s to working together to fulfill our mission for another 45 years!

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Refining Environmental Justice

By Matt Tejada

Before joining EPA, I spent more than five years in Houston working to protect the health of the many low-income and minority communities along the Texas Gulf Coast who share their neighborhoods with oil refineries. I cannot think of a single fenceline community from my work that does not have numerous health and environmental challenges facing local residents. And while toxic emissions from refineries are not responsible for all of those challenges, the risk from refinery pollution is an ever-present part of living in these places.

A new rule we’re releasing today helps reduce these dangerous emissions – a major victory for environmental justice but more importantly for the communities living and working along the fencelines of refineries.

The rule will reduce visible smoking flare emissions and accidental releases. For the first time in a nationwide rule, it will provide important emissions information to the public and neighboring communities by requiring refineries to actually monitor emissions at key sources within their facilities and around their fencelines. The rule also increases controls for storage tanks and cokers, parts of refineries that many folks rarely think about because they have just become part of their neighborhood background. The pollution reduced from these two types of units is very significant.

The final “Refinery Rule” – as many EJ stakeholders likely know it by – will reduce 5,200 tons per year of toxic air pollutants, along with 50,000 tons per year of volatile organic compounds. That is thousands of tons of pollution that will not be coming out of our nation’s refineries every single year. The emission reductions from this final rule will lower the cancer risk from refineries for 1.4 million people. That’s not just good for the communities that live in and around refineries — it’s outstanding. And, not just for the communities, but for the folks who work inside the refineries, as well as stakeholders in the broader community whose regional air quality would otherwise be impacted by some of these pollutants.

This rule means a lot to me personally after all the time I spent in those communities in my home state of Texas. It’s one of the biggest steps we’ve taken to protect environmental justice communities under Administrator McCarthy’s leadership. But it’s not the only one – we’ve also worked to create a Clean Power Plan that protects the needs of the most vulnerable Americans, changed the way we prioritize environmental justice in our rulemaking, created EJSCREEN to help communities learn about their environmental risks, and – just this week – released new Worker Protection Standards that keep farmworkers and their families safer from over-exposure to pesticides.

As someone who has worked on the community side of these issues, I know the importance of listening to stakeholders and communities who provide valuable input as we develop rules. The final rule incorporates community feedback and has been strengthened from proposal stage to final, accounting for important concerns expressed by the very people living on the fenceline who we are trying to protect.

Our work to increase that protection is far from done, but this final Refinery Rule is a major step forward in controlling pollution from refineries to protect the health and well-being of those who live near them and it leaves the door open to continue to introduce technology as it advances and offers even greater protection. Because here at EPA we don’t see environmental justice as something to be achieved in one action – but as something we are committed to continually advancing in everything we do.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Home Energy Audits are Easy and Worth Your Time

By Curt Spalding, Regional Administrator

I had a great visit recently with a couple of eager young energy consultants sent by my electric utility, and I’m feeling rather good about the results. I learned that all in all, my 2,500-square-foot colonial home is reasonably energy efficient. And I learned that I can invest just $1,000 to make improvements that will more than pay me back in three years.

Since EPA New England is encouraging residents across the region to take advantage of home energy audits, I asked my utility, National Grid, to audit my house. I wanted to find out first-hand what happens in these audits, which, by the way, are often offered for free.

Even though I am the regional administrator at EPA’s New England office, my experience was pretty much what any homeowner could expect – if you ignore the two suited, but very polite executives that trailed me and the consulting engineers eagerly checking on everything from my boiler, insulation and wiring to my refrigerators, stoves and windows.

The entire visit was actually quite fun, but then, I love this kind of stuff. And in just two to three hours I found out that the areas where I thought I was doing well with energy efficiency were not always that great. I learned that my 93-year-old four-bedroom colonial could use a bit more insulation, and that it hosts an attic fan that turns on when it shouldn’t. I was also surprised to hear that the high-priced, energy-efficient air conditioner I so proudly purchased was installed wrong. The installers hadn’t connected the duct work correctly, so I’ve been cooling a 100-degree attic, in addition to our living space.

If I correct these issues, about 60 percent of the $2,500 cost of improvements will be paid for by tax credits and government subsidies, leaving me with just a $1,000 bill. Oh and, they also gave us 10 free LED light bulbs to replace less efficient ones.

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Subsidies and programs already in place in New England put us ahead of the curve of national policy. The US Clean Power Plan, which EPA expects to finalize this summer, will require all states to draft a plan to help cut carbon pollution from the power sector by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. EPA suggests states look at using less fossil fuel, using fossil fuel more efficiently, cutting back on demand and increasing the use of low emission, no–emission or renewable resources. Every state can tailor its own best plan based on their needs.

Each state has its own incentives, and many provide free audits. EPA also offers the ENERGY STAR Home Advisor, an online tool to help consumers save money and improve their homes’ energy efficiency through recommended home-improvement projects. Simple actions, like upgrading a bathroom showerhead, can save thousands of gallons of water a year, which translate to lower water and energy bills.

I asked for a utility audit because I wanted to take part in a program EPA encourages. I wanted to see what is was like to have a home energy audit. It was so satisfying I felt compelled to wander over to neighbors, utility folks trailing behind me, and share with them the lessons I had learned from my audit. I know the improvements I make may only be a tiny difference in the nation’s emissions, but if each of us makes a few recommended changes, it quickly adds up to a big deal.

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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What Does Air Quality Mean for Your Exercise Routine?

By Alison Davis

We read or hear about it every day: exercise plays a critical role in keeping us healthy. So, what do you do when you want to exercise outside, but the air quality forecast is Code Orange – or higher? Does that mean you shouldn’t exert yourself outdoors?

Unless you’re looking for a reason to head for the couch, there’s good news. On most days, you can exercise outside – even if air quality isn’t the best. By using the Air Quality Index (AQI) to make simple changes to your workout plan, you can still get physical activity outdoors, while reducing the amount of pollution you take into your lungs.

If checking the AQI isn’t part of your daily routine, this is the perfect time to start. Air Quality Awareness Week is April 27 through May 1.

Join us at 1 p.m. EDT Thursday, April 30 for a Twitter chat about air quality and physical activity. EPA’s experts will be joined by experts from CDC, the National Weather Service and the National Park Service to answer your questions about how using the AQI can help you get the exercise you need to stay healthy when air quality is poor. Join the conversation: follow the #AirQualityChat hashtag @EPAlive, @CDCenvironment, @NWS, and @NPSair. If you don’t have a Twitter account, you can post your questions in the comments below and follow the #AirQualityChat hashtag during the chat. We look forward to talking with you!

About the author: Alison Davis is a Sr. Advisor for Public Affairs in EPA’s Office of Air Quality Planning & Standards.

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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Promoting Healthy Lifestyles and Hearts – Don’t Forget About Air Pollution

Healthy Heart graphic identifier

By Wayne E. Cascio, MD

Each February during American Heart Month our attention is once again drawn to the importance of promoting heart health. Heart attacks and strokes are on the decline thanks to the dedicated efforts of many health care professionals and organizations and scientists on the frontlines of cardiovascular research and health education. Yet, while progress is being made, cardiovascular diseases still account for the largest number of deaths each year in the US (one death every 40 seconds) and impose an enormous emotional, physical and economic burden on individuals, families and our communities. This underscores the importance of continued vigilance in the fight against heart disease and stroke.

Most Americans by now can recite the major heart healthy lifestyle factors: regular physical activity, a healthy diet and weight, controlling blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose, and no smoking. Yet, too few know that exposure to air pollution is a risk factor for heart disease, even though scientific evidence is clear that air pollution contributes to heart disease.

Just last December cardiologists and health scientists on behalf of the European Society of Cardiology published a paper in the European Heart Journal adding their voices to a growing chorus of environmental health scientists and physicians calling for increased public awareness of the link between air pollution and cardiovascular disease.

EPA’s Healthy Heart initiative was created in 2013 to increase environmental health literacy among health care providers, patients with heart disease who are at highest risk from the ill effects of air pollution, and the general public. Heart patients and caregivers can access information about protecting their heart from air pollution on the Healthy Heart web page. The site includes links to local air quality forecasts on the airnow.gov web page.

Individuals are empowered to take action to protect their hearts from air pollution. They can adjust their daily activities to keep air pollution exposure to a minimum when outdoor levels are high. They can avoid exercise near a busy road and reduce activity level on high pollution days (for example, go for a walk instead of a jog.) Adding these steps to other healthy lifestyle activities can protect hearts and save lives.

And while much scientific progress has been made to uncover the heart-air pollution link, many questions remain that require more science. EPA and other scientists across our country and around the world are hard at work to learn more about why some people are so susceptible to polluted air and what sources may be contributing the most to heart attacks and strokes, among other questions. One such effort is the CATHGEN Air Pollution Study, being conducted by EPA in collaboration with the Duke University School of Medicine. This multi-year study and others under way are anticipated to fill big gaps in current scientific knowledge on the health impacts of air pollution.

About the Author: Cardiologist Wayne E. Cascio, MD is the Director of EPA’s Environmental Public Health Division, a Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a Fellow of the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology. Dr. Cascio’s research explores the effects of air pollution on the heart and blood vessels.

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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American Ingenuity on Display at Next Gen Tech Demo Day

•Administrator McCarthy, then-Deputy Administrator Perciasepe and Assistant Administrator Giles learn about water pollution monitoring technology.

Administrator McCarthy, then-Deputy Administrator Perciasepe and Assistant Administrator Giles learn about water pollution monitoring technology.

 

I’ve been talking a lot about the impact and promise of EPA’s Next Generation Compliance strategy. As a vital program to reduce pollution, build transparency and save costs, it has become a driving force to unleash American ingenuity and innovation. This was certainly evident last week, when EPA hosted a “Next Generation Compliance Advanced Monitoring Tech Demo Day” that convened some of the latest advances in pollution monitoring across the country. Walking through the event with Administrator McCarthy and then-Deputy Administrator Perciasepe was so much fun, not to mention inspiring. EPA, academia, industry and non-profit organizations presented so many solutions there, each with a unique approach to solve complex pollution challenges.

Here’s a quick recap of what we saw.

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Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Working Together to Tackle Environmental Challenges

By Walker Smith

The United Nations Environment Program Compound in Nairobi, Kenya, where the first meeting of the United Nations Environment Assembly of the UNEP, or UNEA, was held.

As I sat in traffic on my way back to the Nairobi airport, I watched the children weaving between the old taxis and buses that clog Nairobi’s streets, breathing in the black plumes pouring out of the tailpipes. The sight was a powerful reminder of why I’d traveled to Nairobi in the first place – for the first meeting of the United Nations Environment Assembly of the United Nations Environment Program, or UNEA.

Over 160 nations came together at the first UNEA to address the critical environmental challenges facing the world today, like air quality, marine debris, illegal trade in wildlife, and hazardous waste. UNEA provided its participants with an opportunity to discuss, learn, negotiate, and, most importantly, identify concrete ways to improve environmental quality around the globe.

One of the goals of the U.S. delegation attending UNEA was to ensure that this nearly universal group of nations strengthened the United Nations Environment Program’s (UNEP) efforts to improve air quality around the world. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 7 million people died as a result of air pollution in 2012 alone, making air pollution the world’s largest single environmental health risk. Poor air quality has a staggeringly high human cost, but it’s an issue we can, and must, do something about.

We’ve already made progress domestically and abroad. In the United States from 1970 to 2012, Clean Air Act programs have lowered levels of six common air pollutants by 72 percent! Internationally, the UNEP-led Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles (PCFV) has worked tirelessly to remove lead from fuels since its founding in 2002. Through successful efforts to eliminate leaded gas in all but 6 countries, we avoid 1.2 million premature deaths per year – 125,000 of which are children.

Looking out the car window, I thought about the progress we had made through PCFV and efforts like it, but also of the steps still to be taken. Without these efforts, the children along the road beside me would be breathing in lead, a powerful neurotoxin with irreversible health impacts; however, many of them are still exposed on a daily basis to sulfur dioxide and black carbon from vehicles and from dirty stoves in their homes. And, in the United States, we still feel the effects of air pollution, generated from both domestic sources and across the ocean.

The world faces serious environmental threats, many of which cannot be solved by one country alone. Working through UNEA and with partners like UNEP, we’ill continue to move forward, finding new solutions and forming partnerships to help us tackle these challenges. I hope one day children in Nairobi, and around the world, will live and play in a cleaner, healthier environment.

About the author: Walker Smith has served as the Director of the Office of Global Affairs & Policy in the Office of International & Tribal Affairs since 2009. She previously served as Director of the Office of Civil Enforcement at EPA and as the Principal Deputy Chief of the Environmental Enforcement Section in the Department of 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.

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Acting on Climate Change: Nurses Managing Patient Care in their Communities

Health care workers strive day in and day out to provide the best care for their patients. Yet too many Americans are still exposed to air pollution, which can lead to illnesses like asthma. Carbon pollution from power plants comes packaged with other dangerous pollutants like particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide, putting our families’ health at risk. Rising temperatures from climate change bring more smog, more asthma, and longer allergy seasons—and the elderly, children, and the infirm are most vulnerable.

That’s why health practitioners like, the nurses with Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments (ANHE), have such an important role to play in managing environmental risks that impact human health. EPA recently took part in a briefing hosted by ANHE and spoke with nurses about mentorship opportunities through the Asthma Community Network and the EPA Breathe Easies asthma education campaign – a great resource for school and pediatric nurses.

Nurses from the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments (ANHE) talking with a mother and a child.

ANHE nurse counseling family on how to manage asthma on days with poor air quality.

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Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Keeping Your Cool on a Heat Island

Jessica on Heat Island

Jessica on Heat Island

It’s 9 a.m. and I’m on my way to my internship at EPA. I’m sweating through my clothes, my hair is plastered to my neck, and mascara is pooling under my eyes. The summertime heat and D.C.’s swampy humidity are bad enough, but an extra dose of suffering comes from the heat island effect.

Washington, D.C., like many developed areas, is a heat island: all of the pavement and buildings absorb and retain much more heat than less built up areas. This means they can be 1.8 to 5.4°F warmer on average, and up to 22°F warmer in the evening.

 

 

Temperatures climb more among buildings and roads than open land and vegetation.

Temperatures climb more among buildings and roads than open land and vegetation.

Heat islands aren’t only uncomfortable, they can be hazardous to people’s health. And, they can create a vicious cycle: higher city temperatures mean more electricity is needed to cool buildings, which in turn may increase air pollution. Also, when an extreme heat wave hits a city already stressed by the heat island effect, it can increase the risk of heat-related illness and death. This risk is worse for children, the elderly, and the ill, who are more vulnerable to extreme heat and polluted air.

EPA’s Heat Island Reduction Program suggests several strategies that cities can take to reduce summertime heat islands:

  • Planting trees near buildings: Trees and other plants help cool the environment.
  • Installing green roofs: Green roofs provide shade and remove heat from the air.
  • Installing cool roofs: Cool roofs have a high solar reflectance that helps reflect sunlight and heat away from the building.
  • Using cool pavements: Cool pavements reflect more solar energy, enhance water evaporation, or have been otherwise modified to remain cooler than conventional pavements (like those that allow water to permeate below the surface).

These tactics reduce demand for energy to cool buildings, which cuts carbon pollution and lowers bills. Using these cool technologies reduces the heat island effect, helping everyone stay cool.

Permeable pavement reduces runoff, mitigating heat buildup and improving drainage.

Permeable pavement reduces runoff, mitigating heat buildup and improving drainage.

 

The city heat can be a real nuisance (especially when trying to look professional for work!), but it can also be dangerous. Luckily, there are plenty of things that can be done to combat the heat island effect and keep safe in the heat. Listening in on heat island webinars and calls, I’m excited to hear about how communities are taking action to make life safer and more comfortable for residents. There’s a lot we can do as individuals and communities to reduce heat island, and those efforts can add up and have a big impact for us and the environment.

And there’s some good news for D.C. The District Department for the Environment recently created a Green Building Fund Grant Program, which has several goals, including assessing the health impacts of urban heat islands in this city. So, hopefully, future interns will benefit from this research and resulting policy changes. What is your city doing to reduce the heat island effect?

About the author: Jessica D’Itri is a Master of Public Policy student at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. Prior to attending the Ford School, she served as an environmental educator with Peace Corps Nicaragua. She is interested in learning how communities and local governments can implement policy to best benefit people and the environment.

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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Clean Power, Cleaner Communities

By Jalonne White-Newsome

My daughter and I love to cook together, and one of our favorite shows is “Chopped,” where chefs come from across the country and are given 20 to 30 minutes to create an appetizer, an entrée and a dessert with a mystery basket of ingredients. This show is intriguing in that all the chefs are working with the same ingredients, but ultimately, the way they decide to transform the basket of ingredients is unique. While the Food Network was not the first thing on the minds of EPA’s rule writers, I believe the EPA is providing yet another opportunity for us to create a program that will not only be fulfilling, but enhance the quality of life for all.

At the end of July, environmental advocates across the country will be testifying at public hearings to make their voices heard about EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which sets state limits on the amount of carbon dioxide that can be produced from one of the largest sources of carbon pollution — power plants (or referred to in the plan as “electricity generating units”). This plan is the next big step in President Obama’s Climate Action Plan introduced last year, which set forth an agenda to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, build community resilience, and encourage energy efficiency.

Yes, this is a huge step forward in addressing climate change and there is a need for ALL voices to be heard, especially those of us who are disproportionately impacted by power plant emissions and numerous co-pollutants from exhaust stacks in our community. There is a need for us to not only be present at the public hearings across the country, but to start to engage with utilities, environmental agencies, entrepreneurs, and other stakeholders – at the local and state levels – to ensure that equity is a major part of the state-implementation planning process for this proposed rule. Additionally, if you can’t speak at one of the public hearings, there are other ways to comment in writing. The comment period on the proposal is open until October 16, 2014, and you can click here for tips on how to effectively comment on EPA proposed rules and changes.

This rule, I believe, will be a game changer. It is a federal rule but, similar to other federal regulations that are crafted in the Beltway, the State environmental agencies have the responsibility of creating a unique ‘menu of options’ to meet state-based carbon dioxide emission goals. This ‘menu’ can include things like improving emission rates through technological upgrades from power plants, converting current coal-fired utilities to natural gas, enhancing state-level renewable energy requirements, and other options. So while having options on any menu is a good thing, it is also crucial that environmental justice and social justice advocates across the country help create the ‘best menu’ possible – at the state level – that will ensure that EVERYONE feels full and satisfied.

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To understand how you can chime-in, WE ACT for Environmental Justice is hosting a webinar next Monday, July 21st to unpack the Clean Power Plan and highlight some of the key equity concerns that could arise. We know that there are many local environmental challenges that require time, energy, and resources that, quite frankly, do not leave much space to work on federal policy. However, it is my hope that environmental advocates across the country will listen in, and see how much we really have at stake if we do NOT get engaged. The EPA’s Clean Power Plan will have a local/state impact that – in one way or another – will probably touch on issues of energy, air quality, alternative fuels, civil rights, green jobs, and education which align with the work you already are engaged in.

Let us all be at the table and make sure we make the menu work for all of us. There’s a lot at stake.

About the author: Dr. Jalonne L. White-Newsome is WE ACT’s Federal Policy Analyst, based in Washington, DC. Prior to joining WE ACT, Jalonne was the inaugural Kendall Science Fellow with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), engaging in independent research on climate change adaptation and public health. While matriculating through the Environmental Health Sciences Department at the University Of Michigan School Of Public Health, her dissertation research focused on understanding the public health impacts of extreme heat events, specifically related to indoor heat exposure and how the urban-dwelling elderly adapt to hot weather.

 

 

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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