Air Pollution

Bringing EPA Research—and Confidence—to the Classroom

By Dana Buchbinder

As an undercover introvert I never imagined myself returning to the chaos of middle school, but this spring I took a deep breath and plunged in. For ten Wednesdays I co-taught an afterschool air science apprenticeship for sixth and seventh graders in Durham, North Carolina. The curriculum, “Making Sense of Air Quality,” was developed and taught by two EPA researchers who have volunteered for the past three years with a not-for-profit educational organization.

Students demonstrate air pollution sensors

Making Sense of Air Quality: students demonstrate the air quality sensors they built.

I joined the ranks of these EPA “Citizen Teachers” to help close the opportunity gap in education. The public middle school where we taught serves students from low income families, with 84% of students eligible for free or reduced lunch programs. 15 students participated in our apprenticeship to learn career skills and become air science experts at their school.

At first it was challenging to relax in front of a room of squirmy kids, but I was surprised by how quickly I adapted to students’ needs. Lessons don’t always go as planned (okay, almost never), but patient teaching in hectic moments inspires students to become more observant scientists. When I could step back and appreciate the weekly progress, I recognized the class’s accomplishments.

The students built air sensors from kits an EPA researcher created for outreach. None of the middle schoolers knew electrical engineering or computer programming when we began, but they learned the foundations of these skills in just a few weeks. I watched one student who had struggled with air pollution vocabulary build a working air sensor from a diagram. Meanwhile, his classmate formulated a hypothesis about how her sensor would react to dust in the air.

We asked students to think like environmental scientists: Where would they choose to place air sensors in a community? How could they share what they learned about air pollution?

They saw air quality sensors in action during our field trip to the Village Green Project, an EPA community air monitor at a Durham County Library. Exploring the equipment gave the apprentices more hands-on practice with science.

In addition to teaching kids about EPA air research, this spring’s apprenticeship focused on two 21st century skills: technology and communicating science. These are career tools for a host of much-needed occupations, but are also vital to advancing research for protecting human health and the environment.

We challenged students to share their new air quality knowledge creatively. They designed posters for a community Air Fair and crafted rhyming “public service announcements” to explain how EPA’s AirNow School Flag Program helps young people stay healthy.

The highlight of the apprenticeship for me was standing back as the students showcased what they learned in a scientific presentation for parents, teachers, and scientists. Nearly 300 people attended this culminating event for all the spring apprenticeships. With remarkable professionalism our class explained figures on poster displays, operated their air sensors, and quizzed the audience with an air quality game.

The guests were impressed by the students’ knowledge and caught their enthusiasm in learning about air quality. Asked if the sensor measured pollen, one student said, “oh no, that’s much too big, we are measuring very tiny particles.” Such responses exhibited scientific thinking, focus, and vastly improved understanding of air pollution.

As Citizen Teachers, we were proud to see even the shyest kids present with confidence. These students reminded me that introverts can share passionately when strongly motivated by the subject. By the end of the apprenticeship I had gained my own confidence as an educator from this young flock of scientists.

About the Author: Dana Buchbinder is a Student Services Contractor in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. She hopes you will attend the upcoming Air Sensors Workshop, where speakers in Research Triangle Park, NC will present on air quality monitoring with students.

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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Breathe Easier This Mother’s Day

By Tonya Winders

Untitled-1I still remember my first Mother’s Day. It was 1999 and my firstborn son Kaleb was eight months old when I learned I was three months pregnant with our second child, Kaylee. Little did I know that 15 years later I would be the mother of five children, four of whom have asthma and/or allergies.

I soon learned I was not alone.

Untitled-2More than 26 million Americans – including 7 million children – have asthma, a chronic and potentially serious disease marked by airway inflammation and bronchoconstriction. Asthma is often made worse by exposure to pollutant “triggers” like vehicle exhaust and industrial emissions, tobacco smoke, and pollen. Often, urban environments have high levels of outdoor pollution and poor housing conditions, which frequently are associated with increased levels of indoor pollution. Disproportionate numbers of people of color and people from low income households live in these areas, and thus may be exposed to higher than average levels of air pollution, both indoors and outside.

Surprisingly, most people don’t know every day in America:

  • 44,000 people have an asthma attack.
  • 36,000 kids miss school due to asthma.
  • 27,000 adults miss work because of asthma.
  • 1,200 people are admitted to the hospital due to ashtma.
  • 9 people die because of asthma.

Even more alarming is the fact that roughly two to three times as many African Americans as Caucasians die from asthma each year. Although it is a disease that can be managed, often low income, single mothers and hard working parents don’t have the time to get the information that they need to manage the asthma problems of their family members and possibly prevent unnecessary deaths.

Yet we have tools available to help patients keep symptoms under control. Early on, Allergy & Asthma Network Mothers of Asthmatics (AANMA) understood the key ingredient for asthma control usually begins with mothers. AANMA emphasized the importance of providing practical tools, information and inspiration.

Untitled-3As moms, most of us place our children’s health over our own, but asthma must be a priority for all women, including mothers. AANMA recently launched a new program designed specifically for women with asthma: Women Breathe Free. This will offer four telephone counseling sessions based on motivational interviews and national asthma guidelines to better equip women with effective self-management skills. One key aspect of the program helps women identify asthma triggers in their environment and implement targeted control measures to reduce exposures to pollens, dust, mold, smoke and other irritants. AANMA will incorporate its Indoor AIRepair kit, developed in coordination with EPA, to provide helpful, practical and inexpensive tips on reducing exposures at home, school and play.

May 1, 2014, in observance of Asthma Awareness Month, AANMA launched another new initiative to help families — a prescription assistance program open to the public. This will allow families to save up to 75 percent off all of their medications, including those that play a critical role in their comprehensive management of asthma, which is especially important for low-income families who sometimes may have to make trade-offs between medication and other essentials.

I am so proud to work for AANMA, which is an amazing and essential organization dedicated to ending needless death and suffering due to asthma, allergies and related conditions through education, outreach and advocacy. Since 1985, we have helped hundred of thousands of patients and families breathe better together.

Untitled-2As a mother, I am grateful for organizations like AANMA that are committed to medically accurate, patient-friendly educational materials and advocacy. I also understand there are many mothers out there that are working incredibly hard to provide for their families and don’t have enough time to find out about all of the available information and resources to help them protect their children. This information has helped me to be a better mother, and I hope it reaches these mothers and helps them breathe a little easier this Mother’s Day.

About the author: Tonya Winders. MBA is currently the President and Chief Executive Officer of Allergy & Asthma Network Mothers of Asthmatics, the leading patient advocacy organization dedicated to ending the needless death and suffering due to asthma, allergies and related conditions. Tonya has over 16 years of experience in leadership roles within the allergy and asthma industry. From sales and marketing leadership to managed markets access, she has worked tirelessly to ensure patients have access to effective diagnostic and treatment tools.

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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EPA, Schools and Communities Work Together to Reduce Asthma

Reposted from It’s Our Environment

By Dr. Teresa Lipsett-Ruiz

Visitors to Puerto Rico often come to bask in the island’s warmth and waves. But, our tropical environment also contributes to the asthma problem that affects about 1 in 10 people here.

In close partnership with EPA, our university-based indoor air quality program builds partnerships with students, schools and the community to improve the environmental conditions in schools and reduce student absences caused by asthma. It has worked!  Over the past 6 years, the schools that we’ve worked with have seen significant decreases in the number of missed school days.

Mountainous areas such as the Puerto Rican municipalities of Caguas and Gurabo are surrounded by humid valleys known as “asthma hotspots,” yet asthma education is not always available there. In response, we created a program with EPA that focuses on three key elements: (1) information resources and checklists, (2) school “walkthroughs,” and (3) partnerships with school officials and the community to physically remove indoor environmental asthma triggers.

Our program relies on EPA’s Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) Tools for Schools guidance and Spanish-language indoor checklists to educate the community and schools on managing environmental asthma triggers. Working with the Puerto Rico Department of Education, we hold IAQ Workshops on asthma triggers.

During school walkthroughs, we often find pest problems—cockroaches, rats and mice—as well as moldy, wet cardboard boxes overflowing with paper. We then formulate a plan to address these asthma triggers.

At first, some teachers were skeptical. They were worried that this was another burden piled onto their busy schedules. Enthusiasm grew, however, when the students and the community began to help. As the old saying goes, “many hands make light work.” The school community came together for a “mega green cleaning” of the school. To check our effectiveness, we collected mold samples before and after our plans were put in place and mold counts dropped significantly.

With the support of school officials, we implemented our program at 32 schools, which resulted in a 38 percent reduction in student absenteeism due to asthma. Based on these impressive results, we now are expanding the program in partnership with EPA. To learn more, listen to my presentation in EPA’s Back-to-School Webinar: Managing Asthma in Schools. Our communities are proud to have improved both their health and student attendance. We invite you to pursue similar programs in your schools and community.

Dr. Lipsett-Ruiz is the Dean of the School of Science and Technology in Universidad del Turabo in Puerto Rico. Her partnership with EPA has trained more than 150 teachers in 100 schools on practical steps to asthma management. The program leverages school clubs, blogs, conferences, theatre play, and role modeling exercises, along with EPA information resources to reduce student absenteeism due to asthma.

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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Deep Impact

Research to support environmental justice is a priority for EPA’s Office of Research and Development. To highlight that important work, we are reposting the following from the Environmental Justice in Action blog.

 

By Gelena Constantine

Learning about environmental justice is much more than participating in meetings or sending e-mails. To fully understand what communities are experiencing first-hand, you have to experience it. That’s why I embarked on a learning opportunity with EPA’s Region 3 Philadelphia Office of Enforcement, Compliance and Environmental Justice (OECEJ) last summer to learn how the elements of environmental justice, science, and technology coalesce in communities.

My first day consisted of the typical introductions. I met with the Region’s Counsel, Danny Isales, who advises OECEJ on multi-media enforcement issues, many involving environmental justice. At that time, Danny was providing input on a new enforcement case involving a compost center that takes in food waste and places it into large piles for composting. The size of the compost and outdoor temperature created an overpowering odor for the neighboring community.

Truck parked at a composting facility

Mountains of material waiting to be processed.

When I drove by the facility with other EPA personnel, the stench was definitely apparent from a distance, and I could see its proximity to the community. There were mountains of material that also included more plastic bags than I could count. We were followed and approached by a worker from another company in a pick-up truck. He inquired about our actions, and once we shared that we were from EPA and what had been reported, he proceeded to share his unfortunate experiences with the foul smell. According to him, “…depending on the wind direction, some days you’d be knocked off your feet.” It was interesting to see that it wasn’t just the residents that were being affected, but the neighboring workers were as well.

 

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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How Many Breaths Do You Take Each Day?

By Ann Brown

Map of U.S. with color-coded air quality index

It’s Air Quality Awareness Week!

Watching the news and the problems that some countries are having with high levels of air pollution makes me appreciate the Clean Air Act, which calls on EPA and the states to protect air quality through programs based on the latest science and technology. I am especially appreciative today, the first day of Air Quality Awareness Week.

When I joined EPA’s Office of Research and Development 16 years ago, I didn’t think much about the quality of the air I breathe. I took it for granted. It is an unlimited supply. I don’t have to pay a monthly bill for it. It is just there for the benefit of my body.

Then as I began to work with scientists and engineers conducting air research at EPA, I gained an appreciation for this precious resource.  Their research showed me why it is important to know what is in the air, how you can be exposed to any pollutants it contains, and what the related risks and health effects might be. I’ve also learned about their work on advancing control technologies to reduce air pollution. EPA scientists are working in all these areas to provide the science that can be used to protect air quality.

The average person takes between 17,280 and 23,040 breaths a day. That is a lot of breaths…and each one is an opportunity to put pollutants into your lungs and body and to increase health risks if you are exposed to air pollution. For example:

  • Research shows that air pollution is linked to health effects and disease, including heart disease and stroke. EPA is a partner in the Million Hearts initiative to educate the public, especially those with heart disease, about the dangers of air pollution to their health. You can learn more about air pollution and heart disease at www.epagov/healthyheart.
  • Air pollution can cause or worsen asthma. Extensive research links asthma to ozone, particle pollution and a host of common indoor environmental asthma triggers. Join EPA experts to discuss asthma and outdoor air pollution on a Twitter chat on May 1 at 2 p.m. (Eastern Time) on @EPALive. Use the hashtag #asthma.

Air quality awareness week is a good time to learn what you can do to protect your health and the health of your friends and family. Many resources are available to learn about air quality and how to protect your health. A good start is to use the Air Quality Index where you can get daily local air quality reports and information to protect your health from air pollution.

Scientists continue to investigate air quality to protect our health and the environment. I’m glad to be a small part of this effort. Learn more about what scientists are doing at www.epa.gov/airscience.

About the author: Ann Brown is the communications lead for EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy Research Program.

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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Deep Impact

By Gelena Constantine

Learning about environmental justice is much more than participating in meetings or sending e-mails. To fully understand what communities are experiencing first-hand, you have to experience it. That’s why I embarked on a learning opportunity with EPA’s Region 3 Philadelphia Office of Enforcement, Compliance and Environmental Justice (OECEJ) last summer to learn how the elements of environmental justice, science, and technology coalesce in communities.

Untitled-3

mountains of unprocessed material

My first day consisted of the typical introductions. I met with Regional personnel who discussed a composting facility which EPA was concerned may have been the source of certain odors in the neighborhood. Additionally, I was informed that the facility had been found out of compliance by the state environmental agency and had been issued an order and was fined by the state.

When I drove by the facility with other EPA personnel, the stench was definitely apparent from a distance, and I could see its proximity to the community. There were mountains of material that also included more plastic bags than I could count. We were followed and approached by a worker from another company in a Untitled-2pick-up truck. He inquired about our actions, and once we shared that we were from EPA and what had been reported, he proceeded to share his unfortunate experiences with the foul smell. According to him, “…depending on the wind direction, some days you’d be knocked off your feet.” It was interesting to see that it wasn’t just the residents that were being affected, but the neighboring workers were as well.

I thought that a compost center would be a positive addition to the industrial park it was located in and the local neighborhoods, but it turned out to be much more complex than that. I’d learned that the compost wasn’t being processed within an appropriate amount of time, partly because of the sheer amount, in addition to insufficient staffing.  The company was eventually fined by the state and they hired additional workers.

Residences in close proximity to the composting plant

Residences in close proximity to the composting plant

Next, I visited the office of The Clean Air Council, an EPA EJ grantee that works with communities in the same area. They have interviewed residents about their concerns with the compost plant to help enable the community to find a solution for this problem. When I followed up with the grantee several months later about their work with the composting facility, they shared that none of the residents wanted to speak against the company in court, and they were trying to figure out a way around that challenge. They were afraid of being victimized economically, as many of the residents are employees of the neighboring companies, or just fear in general fear of speaking out.

The community expressed the problem and worked to collaborate and communicate with federal and state government to fix it.  However, the momentum and power of holding the facility accountable and deter them from future mistakes were somewhat impeded because of fear.

My visit was extremely illuminating. There are many laws and technologies in place to assist in environmental justice efforts, but implementation and enforcement is not always clear-cut as one might think. My experiences helped cultivate a better understanding of what I’ve spent the last two and a half years of my professional career assisting the Agency and many other partners doing: Positively impacting human health and general well-being, people’s livelihood, their history and future.  It is gratifying to know that we are making a difference, and doing what we can for those whose voices sometimes go unheard.  Although not all problems can be solved completely, they can and must be addressed somehow.

For those who haven’t had a chance – especially those of us at EPA— I would highly encourage at least one visit to a community with real environmental justice issues. I’m confident it will be as enlightening and an invaluable experience for you as it was for me!

A relative newcomer to the EJ Community, Gelena Constantine works as an EJ Coordinator in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.  She has worked with several NEJAC workgroups and EPA committees on EJ. 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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How EPA Research Supports Taking Action on Climate Change

By Lek Kadeli

As my EPA colleagues and I prepare to join millions of people from across the nation and around the globe to celebrate the environment on April 22, it’s a good time to remember how much we’ve accomplished together since the first Earth Day in 1970.

Forty-four years ago, it wasn’t hard to find direct evidence that our environment was in trouble. Examples of air pollution could be seen at the end of every tailpipe, and in the thick, soot-laden plumes of black smoke flowing from industrial smokestacks and local incinerators. Litter and pollution-choked streams were the norm, and disposing of raw sewage and effluent directly into waterways was standard practice. A major mid-western river famously ignited, sparking both awareness and action.
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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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Helping to Protect the Communities of Port Arthur, Texas

A view of the Flint Hills facility at night

A view of the Flint Hills facility at night

By Cynthia Giles

Pollution can affect us all, but communities in Port Arthur, Texas, a major hub for America’s energy and chemical facilities, are especially overburdened. Anyone who lives close to chemical plants knows all too well that breathing in dangerous air pollution can cause a variety of health impacts, including asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis, and other respiratory illnesses. It can also be a barrier to economic opportunity and middle class security, often gaps that affect low income and disadvantaged communities.

Advances in pollution controls and information technology used in our enforcement cases can stem these impacts and help those who need it most.

This week’s settlement with Flint Hills Resources of Port Arthur, a major chemical company, is the most recent example. The agreement requires the company to significantly reduce emissions, be transparent about pollution issues, and conduct projects to improve the local environment.

Flint Hills worked with EPA to develop and will implement state-of-the-art technology to reduce pollution from industrial flares. Improper flaring can send hundreds of tons of hazardous pollutants into the air. EPA wants companies to flare less, and when they do flare, to fully burn the harmful chemicals found in the waste gas. In addition, the company will take steps to reduce “fugitive” emissions, which refers to pollution that can leak from valves, pumps, and other equipment, by monitoring more frequently, installing “low emission” valves, and other measures.

A fence-line air monitor

For the past several years, Flint Hills has operated a system to monitor the ambient levels of the hazardous air pollutants benzene and 1,3 butadiene at the boundaries of the facility, also known as the “fence line.” As part of this settlement, they are now taking a step further by agreeing to make this data available online to the public every week. In addition, twice a year, the company will post a report that summarizes the data collected, plus any required corrective actions for pollution above threshold levels. This information will provide critical information to the community on the state of environmental conditions where they live.

Flint Hills has also agreed to spend $2 million dollars on diesel retrofits for vehicles owned by the City of Port Arthur, a project that will reduce pollution over the next 15 years. It will also spend $350,000 on technologies to reduce energy demand in low income homes.

Once fully implemented, EPA estimates that the settlement will reduce harmful emissions of benzene and other hazardous air pollutants by an estimated 1,880 tons per year, and will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 69,000 tons per year. I know that this settlement won’t fix all of the problems in Port Arthur, but it’s an important step to clean the air and to ensure companies operate responsibly in overburdened communities.

About the author: Cynthia Giles is the Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, where she leads EPA’s efforts to enforce our nation’s environmental laws and advance environmental justice. Giles has more than 30 years of service in the public, private and non-profit sectors. She received a BA from Cornell University, a JD from the University of California at Berkeley and an MPA from the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government.

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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EPA Study Shows Poverty Is a Risk Factor for Heart Disease

Cross posted from Science category.

By Ann Brown

In 2008, lightning started a peat bog wildfire in eastern North Carolina. Dry peat is an organic material that makes a perfect fuel for fire. For weeks the fire smoldered, blanketing communities in 44 rural counties with toxic air pollutants that exceeded EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards at times. As a result, many people went to the emergency department with congestive heart failure, asthma and other health problems from smoke exposure as documented in an EPA study.

Untitled-1The wildfire provided a unique opportunity for researchers to evaluate the reasons behind the heart and respiratory problems caused from smoke exposure. They were interested in whether there are community characteristics than can be used to identify residents whose health might be at risk from wildfires or other sources of air pollution. What exactly did the communities along the Coastal Plain of North Carolina have in common?

Researchers analyzed daily rates of visits to the emergency departments during the fire event and community health factors such as access and quality of clinical care, health behaviors, socioeconomic factors and the characteristics of the physical environment. The findings, published in Environmental Health, indicate low socio-economic status alone can be used to determine if a community is at risk for congestive heart failure or other health problems observed. Low socio-economic status is a term used to describe a group of factors such as low income, inadequate education and safety concerns.

While the knowledge that people in poverty are at greater health risk from air pollution is not new, this study provides scientific evidence that a community’s socio-economic status can be used to identify those at greatest risk from air pollution. This is good news for the public health community and others interested in reaching people with heart or lung diseases who may be at risk of air pollution. This study and others being conducted across the country by epidemiologists are helping to find ways to address health problems in communities.

About the author: Ann Brown is the communications lead for EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy Research Program.

 

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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Are Your Genes Making You Susceptible to Air Pollution?

 

Healthy Heart graphic identifier

 

By Ann Brown

Smoking, high-fat diets and a couch potato lifestyle are risk factors for heart disease.  Kicking the habit, changing your diet and exercising are ways to reduce those risks and enhance quality of life.

But there may be a risk factor for heart disease that is more complicated to address: our genes. Our genetic makeup that we inherit from our parents may contribute to the development of heart disease, but our genes may also play a role in how our cardiovascular system responds to air pollution.  

We all have the same set of genes, but there are subtle differences in the makeup of those genes that vary from one person to another.  These individual variations are called polymorphisms and have been shown to make some people more susceptible to things like breast cancer or diabetes. 

Research has shown that high levels of air pollution, particularly fine particles emitted by cars, trucks, factories and wildfires, can trigger heart attacks and worsen heart symptoms in people who have heart disease. But are some people with heart disease more responsive to high levels of air pollution than others because of their genes?  

EPA researchers and collaborators are investigating the contributions genes may have in the way individuals respond to air pollution exposure. The study is made possible by tapping into a unique database of genetic and clinical information called CATHGEN, developed by Duke University Medical Center. The database contains health information from nearly 10,000 volunteers, most who have been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease. 

The database is providing an opportunity for EPA and other environmental health researchers to ask whether specific genetic variations make people more susceptible to the damaging effects of air pollution on the heart. While people cannot change their genetic make-up, it is hoped that the knowledge gained from this research can one day be used by health care providers to educate their patients with heart disease. Heart patients don’t have to wait for more research to take action, however.

EPA recommends people who are more sensitive to air pollution, such as those with heart disease, take steps to reduce their exposure during times when pollution levels are higher. You can check current and forecasted air quality conditions at www.airnow.gov.

Learn more at: epa.gov/healthyheart

About the author: Ann Brown is the communications lead for EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy Research Program.

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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