air quality

EPA Brings a Low-Cost Air Sensor Network to Memphis

By Michaela Burns

air sensors on top of building overlooking memphis

Sensors installed at the Memphis Area Transit Authority facilities.

Outdoor air quality can vary from neighborhood to neighborhood within the same city. All sorts of things can contribute to this variation, including traffic patterns, local industry, and even the way air moves between buildings.

Communities are increasingly interested in learning more about what pollutants are in the air.  Knowing about the air quality in your community can help you decide what actions to take to protect your health. That is where new air sensors come into play. They are low-cost, highly portable, and offer new ways to measure air quality in and around a community.

However, this new monitoring technology may not be as precise as more traditional technology used by state and federal governments for regulation. How can scientists use data from these sensors, even if they are not as accurate as traditional models?

To help answer this question, EPA is collaborating with the Shelby County Health Department and the Memphis Area Transit Authority to conduct the CitySpace Air Sensor Network project. EPA researchers will install and field test a city-wide-network of low-cost sensors to measure air pollution across the greater Memphis area, which includes counties in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi.

The goal of the CitySpace project is to examine the value of using a low-cost air sensor network to estimate the distribution of local air quality conditions and how emerging technologies perform in this type of research.

In October and November, researchers installed air sensor pods at locations in the greater Memphis area based on the input of local communities and other local stakeholders.  Sensors are located in neighborhoods, industrial areas, and rural settings. The sensors use emerging technologies that allow environmental data to be measured and instantaneously streamed to a secure EPA website.

All of these sensors will collect data on particulate matter (PM), a common air pollutant, and meteorological conditions such as temperature, humidity, and wind patterns.

Want to know one of the best parts of the study? A majority of the air sensors are 100 percent solar powered and self-sustainable.  They won’t require a lot inspection or maintenance, so scientists can focus on reviewing the data.

Hopefully, the work won’t stop in the Memphis metropolitan area. The success of this study could encourage other cities to use low-cost air sensor networks in evaluating local pollution.  Through air research efforts like this, EPA is helping to fulfill its mission to protect air quality.

Learn more about the City Space project:

Read the press release.

Read our factsheet on the CitySpace project.

About the Author: Michaela Burns is an Oak Ridge Associated Universities contractor and writer for the science communication team in EPA’s 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.

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DIY Air Monitoring: Check Out the Online Air Sensor Toolbox First

By Ann Brown

airsensoridEPA’s online Air Sensor Toolbox puts air measurement capabilities into the hands of citizen scientists. We recently updated the Toolbox with additional information and a new look for even easier navigation.

The latest version of the Toolbox provides a variety of resources on using air sensor technologies, including new sensor performance reference tables. One of the most popular resources is the Air Sensor Guidebook, a how-to for using of air sensors and what to consider before getting started with a citizen science project. In addition, the Toolbox includes scientific reports on air sensor monitors that undergo testing and evaluation by EPA. Technical documents on operating procedures also are available.

Want to know what your monitor readings mean? The Toolbox also offers some guidance on how to interpret one-minute readings from air sensors. EPA has launched a pilot project to test a “sensor scale” for two main air pollutants–ozone and particle pollution, also known as particulate matter. The pilot is designed to help people understand what the real-time data generated by these monitors means for air quality and what to consider when planning outdoor activities.

EPA supports the advancement of sensor technologies to help citizens assess local air quality and alert them to potential concerns. The gold standard system in monitoring capability, however, is EPA’s national monitoring network. These monitors are stationary and have undergone rigorous testing for their accuracy and reliability. The data from these monitors are used by EPA, states and others to implement the nation’s air quality standards. Portable air sensors, on the other hand, are still being tested for their reliability, but are being used to examine local air quality conditions and help promote environmental awareness activities

Before you jump into an air sensor monitoring project, it is good to do your homework. The Toolbox has resources to help make decisions on what and where to monitor, what sensors to use and how to evaluate data using a free RETIGO mapping tool developed by EPA.

Plan to spend a little money to purchase one or more air sensors or find a partner with resources:  sensors can cost a couple hundred dollars or more. And finally, you can get your daily air quality forecast and current air quality information for your area on the AirNow.gov website.

Visit the Toolbox

Learn about local air quality

 

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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Air Sensors in Puerto Rico: Empowering a Community with Scientific Knowledge

By Christina Burchette

Drop a stone in a placid lake and you’ll notice that the impact of stone hitting water creates a ripple effect that spreads outward in gentle, incremental waves. It is a quiet but powerful image of something we all know to be true: a small act can generate great significance over time.

EPA researchers Ron Williams and Maribel Colón hope to start a ripple effect in Tallaboa-Encarnación, a small community that sits along the Southern Coast of Puerto Rico. Williams, Colón, and EPA’s Caribbean Environmental Protection Division will work with local community action group DISUR (Desarrollo Integral del Sur) to install and maintain low-cost air monitoring devices in Tallaboa-Encarnación. These devices  will help community members analyze local pollutant levels and better understand the local environmental conditions.

aerial view of the community

The Tallaboa/Encarnación community in Peñuelas, Puerto Rico was selected for this project and has an interest in collecting environmental data to support environmental awareness.

Researchers are currently building the community’s air monitors in EPA’s Research Triangle Park laboratory. The rectangular devices are about ten inches wide and will collect data on two common air pollutants: total volatile organic compounds (tVOC), which come from sources like vehicle exhaust, and fine particle pollution (PM2.5), which is emitted from motor vehicles, smokestacks, forest fires, and other sources that involve burning.

Once the devices are installed in the area, which is near a highway and several industrial facilities, community members and members of DISUR will participate in a day-long training using EPA’s Air Sensor Toolbox for Citizen Scientists to learn how to use the devices to collect, validate, and summarize environmental data.

Now more than ever, lower-cost air sensors are making air pollution monitoring citizen-accessible. People all over the world are collecting and analyzing local data to better understand air pollution in their communities and to make choices to protect their health. Our researchers’ involvement in the Tallaboa-Encarnación community project is especially important because the community would not have otherwise had access to these types of air monitoring tools and resources.

The small act of installing air monitoring sensors in such a remote community is about more than new air quality data. A community being able to take the fate of their health and environment into their own hands through scientific discovery is an amazing achievement—one that could create significant ripples in the pond of citizen science.

Learn more about this project by viewing our citizen science air monitoring in Puerto Rico fact sheet.

About the Author: Christina Burchette is an Oak Ridge Associated Universities contractor and writer for the science communication team in EPA’s 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.

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EPA Offers up to $80,000 to Communities to Develop Air Sensor Data Best Practices

By Ann Dunkin, Chief Information Officer

SMART CITIES AIR CHALLENGE INFORMATION

Application Deadline: October 28, 2016
Announcement of Winners: Around December 1, 2016
Initial award: Up to $40,000 each to two communities to deploy air sensors, share data with the public, and develop data management best practices from sensors
Additional funding: Up to $10,000 each to the winning communities in 2017 based on  their accomplishments and collaboration.

To learn more, visit the Smart City Air Challenge website.

I came to the EPA with a firm belief that data can make a difference in environmental protection. Since I’ve been here I’ve found that communities are leading the way by using data to understand local conditions and operate efficiently. That’s why I’m excited to announce EPA’s Smart City Air Challenge.

This new challenge encourages communities to install hundreds of air quality sensors and manage the resulting data. EPA is offering two communities up to $40,000 each to work with their residents to crowdsource air quality data and share it with the public online. The projects will give individuals a role in collecting the data and understanding how environmental conditions affect their health and their community.

Air quality sensors are becoming less expensive and people are beginning to use them to measure pollution levels in their neighborhoods and homes. They’re developing rapidly, but most sensors aren’t ready for regulatory use. However, by networking these devices, communities can better understand what is happening at the local level. Communities will figure out where to place the sensors and how to maintain the devices. It’s up to each community to decide what pollutants they want to measure.

The prize funds serve as seed money, so communities will need to partner with other parties, such as sensor manufacturers, data management companies and universities. These partners can provide resources and expertise in topics where communities lack experience. In doing so, communities will learn how to use data analytics, which can be applied to other aspects of community life.

What does EPA get out of this? We’ll learn how communities collect, store and manage large amounts of data. We’ll also get a better understanding of the quality of data communities collect using sensors for non-regulatory purposes. We’ll see how communities transfer data from sensors to databases and visualize the results. Finally, the sensors will produce as much as 150 gigabytes of open data a year —data anyone can use.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy often says communities are “incubators for innovation.” We’re hoping the challenge will inspire communities to come up with innovative approaches for managing data so their residents and other communities can benefit. Show us how it’s done.

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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Collaborating with Local Communities to Measure Air Pollution

By Michaela Burns

I am no stranger to air pollution. Since I grew up in New York City, my walk to school every morning put me in constant contact with car exhaust and smoke rising from the vendor stations that lined the sidewalks. None of these experiences ever struck me as odd. They were just a part of the city’s charm! We had the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, and we had air pollution. On particularly smoggy days, when I could barely see the city from my window, I always comforted myself with the fact that it was a problem far out of my league. After all, I was just an ordinary kid, not a scientist — what could I do to help? Nothing of course.

Once I started working at EPA, I found out that I had been completely wrong. Managing air pollution is a big job, but it can be made easier when the whole community gets involved. We call it “citizen science” — where people without a background in research can use scientific tools to address problems in their environment. To support this fast-growing field, EPA’s Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program is funding six grants to evaluate how effective low-cost, portable air sensors are when used in communities.

APM4C Blog Picture

EPA researcher Eben Thoma adjusts an SPod monitor.

EPA grant winners at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will use community-based air sensors to measure air quality and volcanic smog (“vog”) exposure on the Island of Hawai‘i (“the Big Island”). Up the coast at the University of Washington, researchers plan to deploy air sensors in student-directed studies examining heavy wood smoke impacts in their rural community. The team will work in partnership with Heritage University, whose students represent the local population of predominantly Yakama Nation and Latino immigrant families, to identify effective ways to communicate pollutant results to a broader audience. And this is just a sample of the diverse group of projects being done to help make air sensors more available to the public across the U.S. Other efforts include:

Carnegie Mellon University. Researchers will investigate the accuracy and reliability of existing air sensors, as well as their efficacy when put to use in Pittsburgh communities.

Kansas State University. Researchers will investigate if communities in South Chicago become more engaged in learning about their environment if they are provided with low-cost air sensors and the information generated by them.

Research Triangle Institute This research team will investigate how low-cost sensors can be used to help the Globeville, Elyria, Swansea (GES) community north of Denver, Colorado measure and understand data indicating the air quality in their neighborhood. The team will also evaluate the effectiveness of how information is presented to enable residents to understand their exposure to indoor and outdoor air pollutants and potentially empower them to take action to protect their health.

South Coast Air Quality Management District. This research team will provide local California communities with the knowledge necessary to select, use, and maintain low-cost, commercially available air monitoring sensors and to correctly interpret sensor data. The group will communicate the lessons learned to the public through a series of outreach activities.

By supporting the development and deployment of air monitoring technology, EPA is empowering ordinary citizens to take action against air pollution. Looking out for your community can be as easy as using our air sensor toolbox for citizen scientists to find out how to monitor the air quality in your neighborhood. With tools in reach, there’s no reason not to become a citizen scientist today!

About the author: Michaela Burns is an Oak Ridge Associated Universities contractor and writer for the science communication team in EPA’s 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.

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We’re at Our Best When We Work Together: The 2016 Wildfire Smoke Guide for Public Health Officials

By Wayne Cascio and Susan Stone

The summer wildfire season is upon us and almost every day we hear of communities endangered by wildfire or wildfire smoke.  Even now, as we write this blog, there are more than 20 large wildfires across the U.S. that could be affecting your health.  So, when wildfires threaten, where can public officials, communities, and individuals turn for the most up-to-date public health guidance?  They can look to the 2016 Wildfire Smoke: Guide for Public Health Officials.  The Guide has been a trusted source of information for those responsible for protecting the public’s health and welfare since 2001.

cover of the wildfire guideThe updated 2016 guide is an easy-to-use source of information that outlines whose health is most affected by wildfire smoke, how to reduce exposure to smoke, what public health actions are recommended, and how to communicate air quality to the public.  This just-published guide is the product of a collaborative undertaking by federal, state, and non-governmental wildfire experts. These include EPA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Forest Service, California Air Resources Board, California Department of Public Health, Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The recommendations are founded on scientific evidence, and EPA researchers have contributed much to our understanding of the adverse health effects of wildfire smoke.  Today, EPA researchers are actively working to increase what we know about the health effects of the smoke produced by different kinds of natural fuels such as grasses, pine and hardwood forests and peat.  We are learning about the chemistry of the emissions of wildfires, how the smoke is transported, and how it changes over time.  We are also looking at ways to identify communities at particularly high risk from the health effects of wildfire, and how policies related to air quality could consider wildfire smoke.

The increasing size and severity of wildfire in the U.S. over the last three decades represents one of the many complex environmental health challenges we face today that are best solved through the cooperation of local, state and federal government, public health organizations, communities and individuals.  The fact that wildfires are contributing to a greater proportion of our air pollution, and impacting populated areas more frequently underscores the importance of this challenge.  The 2016 Wildfire Smoke: Guide for the Public Health Officials represents a great example of cooperation to meet an environmental challenge and protect the health of the public.

You can learn more about the health effects of wildfires, obtain current fire advisories, and learn what to do before, during, and after a fire on the AirNow website, a place to get information on daily air quality forecasts based on EPA’s Air Quality Index.

USDA Forest Service Active Fire Mapping Program

Learn about EPA’s wildland fire research

About the authors:

Dr. Wayne Cascio spent more than 25 years as a cardiologist before joining EPA’s Office of Research and Development where he now leads research on the links between exposures to air pollution and public health, and how people can use that information to maintain healthy hearts.

Susan Stone, senior environmental scientist in EPA’s Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, is the Air Quality Index team leader, the project lead for revisions to the wildfire guide, and contributor to EPA wildfire health research.

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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It’s Air Quality Awareness Week. How Can You Be Aware of Your Air Quality?

Rooftop air monitor

Rooftop air monitor (photo: NYSDEC)

By Bob Kelly

There are at least three levels of air quality data you can use in everyday life: neighborhood data, sidewalk data and right-where-you-are data. (Data from satellites are interesting, but not used so much on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour, personal level.)

‘Neighborhood’ data are from the air monitors run by the state air pollution agencies. You can get these data in within an hour or so of sampling from AirNOW.gov. Based on these data and weather conditions, state agencies forecast air quality alerts, when needed. Be alerted by signing up for email notifications from your state or via your state’s EnviroFlash.info page. Neighborhood data are often from rooftop locations since we need information on air pollution over large areas using the fewest monitors possible to efficiently spend taxpayer dollars. Neighborhood sites are often selected because they have air pollution concentrations similar to air pollution in other areas not monitored. This way, you get good quality data which gives an overview of air pollution across the city.

A second level of air quality data we can call ‘sidewalk’ data. Since pollution varies from your sidewalk compared to many other sidewalk locations, we would need hundreds of air quality sites to know what’s happening all the time. But special studies tell us what is happening at the sidewalk level. A good example of this is the New York City Community Air Survey. New York City uses special monitors for two weeks at a time, applying statistics to ‘fill in’ the areas between the neighborhood monitors. Even if you don’t live in New York City, use the information from this study to ‘fill in’ the areas between monitors in your location. Do you live near major highways, or a large boiler that combusts oil or gas (or wood)? This way, you can adapt neighborhood data to where you live, work or exercise.

A third level of air quality data is right-where-you-are data. Perhaps you have a portable air pollution sensor, as many do on their smartphones, to sample the air around you. As you learn where air pollution is highest, you can spend less time in locations with higher concentrations. You may even find cleaner places with your sensor. You can compare data from your sensor with neighborhood monitors and when air quality alerts are issued to find how widespread air pollution affects the where-you-are level. Most importantly, you can use all this information from every level with awareness of how you feel on any given day to learn what level of air quality affects your health. Is it harder to breathe on some days? Are your running times or amount of exercise you can do different as air pollution levels change?

Compare your health with air quality measurements from neighborhood monitors, information from sidewalk statistics and data from right-where-you-are to make your own decisions on where you’ll go today and what kind of exercise is best for your health today.

 

About the author: Bob is an air pollution meteorologist with the Air Programs Branch. He enjoys taking a few minutes from reviewing state air pollution cleanup plans to pass along the air quality forecasts to help keep people informed about what is happening in the air around them.

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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Simulating Wildland Fires in a Tube to Protect Public Health

By Dina Abdulhadi

After a long day of backpacking in the woods, I always look forward to watching the story arc of a campfire. The flames grow slowly, then leap up as the fire builds momentum. As the fire calms, the logs smolder and glow with heat.

Wildfires have similar phases. During an active fire, flames rapidly move over the landscape. The remaining embers can smolder on for days to weeks after the fire front passes, depending on what trees or other vegetation are there to fuel the fire. These two factors—what is burning and whether it’s flaming or smoldering—affect the smoke that people ultimately breathe.

To study the potential health risks of breathing wildfire smoke, a major form of air pollution, researchers at EPA are now using a technology that mimics these phases of a fire in a laboratory in Research Triangle Park, N.C. Originally developed to investigate tobacco’s health effects, this Biomass Furnace System allows researchers to study the chaotic nature of fire in a controlled setting and compare emissions from different trees during the fire and smoldering stages. Knowing these differences will provide more information to protect public health and enable air quality managers to prepare for the increased wildfires we expect in the future due to climate change and drought.

Tube used to conduct simulation

Biomass Fuel Combustion System

 

Particulate matter (PM) is one of the main pollutants created by fire. These tiny particles are produced when anything is burned—whether that’s the logs to your campfire or gasoline ignited to fuel your car’s engine. Many studies have linked it to effects on the heart and lungs.

During 2011, wildfires and controlled burns alone contributed up to 41 percent of emitted PM pollution in the U.S. This pollution can have drastic effects on the local community, but it can also affect the air breathed by those far away as the smoke drifts.

To understand the growing impact of wildfires on human health, researchers plan to look at effects on the heart, nervous system (such as headaches), and respiratory system from a variety of wood fuels by using models. They’ll also investigate if PM from wildfire smoke is more or less harmful than PM from other sources of air pollution, like car exhaust.

map of potential fires across US

Map showing distribution of potential wildfire fuels across the United States (Credit: Yongho Kim)

According to the National Fire Center, two fires are burning right now in my state of North Carolina alone. When you consider what could be happening in the other 49 states as well, this kind of research becomes that much more valuable for scientists working to protect public health.

Want to learn more about the research EPA conducts on wildfires to protect human health and the environment? Listen to our Science Bite Podcast Following the Smoke: Wildfires and Health.

About the author: Dina Abdulhadi is a student contractor working with the science communication team in EPA’s 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.

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Particulate Matter in a Changing World: Grants to Combat the Impacts of Climate Change

By Christina Burchette

There are certain things that are always changing: the weather, fashion trends, and technology (which iPhone are we on again?) are a few that come to mind. I can always count on the fact that these things won’t stay the same for long. But there are other things that I typically expect to remain the same: I expect to get hungry around lunchtime, I expect the bus to come every morning, and I expect to be able to breathe clean air. I don’t even think about the possibility of these things not happening—until something changes.

I definitely don’t think about air quality often or expect it to change. As long as I’m breathing and well, why would I? But in reality, air quality changes every day, and over time it may change a lot depending on how we treat our environment—and we need to be ready for these changes. This is why EPA recently awarded research grants to 12 universities to protect air quality from current and future challenges associated with climate change impacts.

Climate change is affecting air quality by influencing the type and amount of pollutants in the air. One type of pollutant present in our air is particulate matter, or PM. Long-term exposure to PM is linked to various health effects, including heart disease and lung function, and it doesn’t take a high concentration to affect our bodies. The more PM there is in the air, the more likely we are to be affected by health conditions.

landscape of Death Valley National Park with dust storm

A dust storm in Death Valley National Park

With EPA Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grants, university researchers are approaching the future of air quality from multiple angles with a focus on learning more about the PM-climate change relationship. They will study the impacts of increased wildfire activity that generates PM, often called soot, in the Rocky Mountains. They will look at the impacts that climate change and land use change have on the development of dust storms in the West and Southwest; and they will evaluate the best means of energy production in California where air quality is among the worst in the nation to reduce health care costs and lower levels of PM and greenhouse gases.

Over the next few decades, climate change will be the catalyst for various environmental trends, so finding a way to manage the impacts of these trends is essential to protecting our health. The work these grantees do will help to inform air quality managers and others to make sustainable and cost-effective decisions that keep our air quality at healthy levels and protect public health and the environment. That way, future generations will think of good air quality as something we can expect.

To learn more about these grants and read the abstracts, visit the Particulate Matter and Related Pollutants in a Changing World results page.

About the Author: Christina Burchette is an Oak Ridge Associated Universities contractor and writer for the science communication team in EPA’s 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.

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Air Quality Awareness: A New Generation of Research

By Dan Costa, Sc.D.

Graphic of clouds and buildings in a silhouette cityscape. It’s Air Quality Awareness Week! This week, EPA is showing how we care about the air by announcing grants to three institutions to create air research centers. We now understand more than ever about the threats of air pollution to environmental and human health, but there is still more to learn. EPA has a history of supporting research and development that complements the work of our own staff scientists to bolster scientific knowledge about the effects of air pollution. EPA uses this knowledge to address many pressing questions and understand connections between our changing environment and human health.

Since 1999, EPA has funded three rounds of research centers through a competitive grant process. The scientific experts at these centers have contributed to a more complete understanding of the persistent air quality challenges that continue to face our nation. The first round of EPA funded air research centers focused on particulate matter and examined the link between particulate matter and cardiovascular disease. In 2005, the next round of centers focused on whether differing health effects could be linked to specific sources of air pollution. By 2010, it was clear that to get an accurate understanding of real life exposures, we needed to examine the health effects of exposure to multiple pollutants at once instead of just one or two at a time. The third round of centers took on this complex challenge. The next step is to delve into questions regarding how the health effects of air pollution may vary in different cities and regions across our country – each with its own unique characteristics and set of pollution sources.

This leads us to today and our exciting announcement–EPA is awarding $30 million through its Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program to fund the establishment of Air, Climate, and Energy (ACE) Research Centers at Yale University, Harvard University and Carnegie Mellon University. These Centers will consider changing energy production methods and local climate, while investigating the effects of global climate change, technology, and societal choices on local air quality and health.

I am eagerly anticipating the many new tools and ideas that will be produced by this next generation of EPA funded air research centers.

About the Author: Dan Costa is the national program director 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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