air quality

U.S. Lessons Help Inform Chinese Policies to Improve Air Quality

As I stepped off the plane in Beijing, I immediately recognized the environmental challenges facing China today. The air quality during our visit ranged at times between “very unhealthy” and “hazardous”; at its worst, we could not see the tops of buildings in downtown Beijing shrouded in smog. We are reminded that many years ago we faced similar challenges in some cities in the U.S., before we took a comprehensive approach to environmental protection.

My colleague Steve Wolfson and I traveled to Beijing as part of the 19th Annual U.S.-China Legal Exchange sponsored by the U.S. Department of Commerce, January 13-15, 2015. Our task was to address legal tools for improving air quality, and the importance of transparency and public participation in implementing and enforcing environmental laws.

Drawing on our experience in the U.S., we highlighted how environmental protection need not come at the expense of economic growth — and indeed how environmental policies can be a driver for a healthy and sustainable economy. And we emphasized the critical need for public access to clear and accurate environmental data, as well as public access to a fair and even-handed court system, as pillars of sound environmental governance.

The response we got back was resounding. During our trip we met with our counterparts from the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection, as well as the National Development and Reform Commission, Ministry of Commerce, Supreme People’s Court, and other government agencies. We also engaged in lively discussions with representatives of several of China’s leading universities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), as well as with the U.S. business community. In every forum we heard common themes: the urgent need for China to continue to develop an effective environmental law regime, and the critical importance of effective implementation and enforcement mechanisms, all in support of a strong desire by China to maximize its efforts to tackle its pressing environmental challenges and embark on a sustainable path that integrates economic growth, environmental protection, and public health. We also witnessed a genuine eagerness to draw lessons from the successes that the U.S. and other countries have achieved implementing environmental laws that have significantly reduced pollution levels.

These issues were particularly timely as China is in the process of reforming and improving its environmental legal framework. The revisions to China’s framework Environmental Protection Law (EPL) enacted in April 2014 and taking effect on January 1, 2015, constitute one important milestone in this legal reform effort. A key provision of the revised EPL authorizes registered social organizations to bring environmental lawsuits in the public interest against polluters, potentially opening the door for civil society organizations to play a crucial role in addressing China’s environmental challenges.

The Chinese government recently issued interpretive guidance on implementation of these provisions, clarifying how to handle these cases and providing important encouragement for courts to accept more of them. Already there are signs that Chinese NGOs and courts are employing this new legal tool. This month an environmental public interest lawsuit filed by Chinese NGOs Friends of Nature and Fujian Green Home was accepted for consideration by the court in Fujian Province. During our visit we heard about additional NGO cases soon to be filed. The environmental community in China hopes that these provisions will help leverage the growing anti-pollution sentiment in China’s civil society to supplement governmental efforts to control pollution.

This provision is not the only important legal reform. Additional provisions are designed to enhance environmental accountability in China, including requirements for public disclosure of pollutant releases, enhanced penalties for violations of environmental laws, and strengthened mechanisms for holding government officials responsible for achieving environmental objectives. The hope is that legal reform will help develop a system of sound environmental governance, including widespread public access to environmental data, stakeholder engagement in decision-making, and multiple channels of accountability, including access to fair and transparent dispute resolution mechanisms.

China’s air pollution problems have triggered substantial efforts to improve laws and regulations in order to control emissions, an effort which EPA has worked to assist. Improving environmental governance in China can help move towards a level playing field for U.S. businesses competing with Chinese firms, including those who are doing business in China. For these reasons, cooperation on environmental law and governance is a key part of EPA’s overall cooperative engagement with China.

At every turn, I was impressed with the dedication, thoughtfulness, and energy of China’s environmental experts, particularly our counterparts in the Law and Policy Department of their Ministry of Environmental Protection, as well as their openness and genuine desire for information on successful cost-effective strategies for pollution prevention and control. Fortified with first-hand knowledge of the many inspiring individuals we met, and with blue skies dramatically appearing on the last day or our trip, we left China with a sense of hope for this critically important undertaking.

About the author: Ethan G. Shenkman is EPA’s Deputy General Counsel. He was previously with the US Department of Justice, Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD), where he served as Deputy
Assistant Attorney General from 2010 until May 2014.

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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Radon Risk? You Don’t Know Until You Test

By Henry Slack

My neighbors Pete and Beth (not their real names) met while in their twenties, and got married. A great couple. Had two beautiful girls, who grew up in no time at all – field trips and soccer, high school sports, college, adventures abroad. A strong couple, who helped lead the PTA, the band parents, you name it. Never smoked, good folks, the kind you like to have as neighbors.

Then Pete got lung cancer. They had some optimism over treatment, but the optimism faded as the disease strengthened, and he passed pretty quickly. Lung cancer, unfortunately, has a survival rate lower than many other types of cancer.

I don’t know for sure that Pete’s lung cancer was caused by radon. But, radon is the #1 cause of lung cancer for non-smokers. Elevated radon is found in one out of 15 homes nationally, and the only way to know if a home has high levels is to test it.

As EPA’s indoor air guy for the southeast, I get calls every day. Most people are worried about mold. A few are worried about odors, or chemicals they may have been exposed to, or some health issue that they think might be related to indoor air quality. Very few people call with concerns about radon – and yet, radioactive radon gas kills more people than any of those other things that people call about. Radon kills over 21,000 people a year in the U.S.

Twenty-one thousand. That’s around 400 a week, every week, every year. Some of them are parents, spouses, partners, best friends, and neighbors who leave behind a world of grief for family, like Beth.

Test your home. It’s easy and inexpensive. You can get low-cost test kits online through the National Radon Program Services or other vendors. And if you have a high level – 4 picocuries and above – get your home fixed.

About the Author: Henry Slack has been the Indoor Air coordinator in Region 4 since 1991 and still enjoys it. A mechanical engineer by training, he’s on the Radon Team, but has had assignments to CDC and Barbados. In 2014, he became a Distinguished Lecturer for American Society of Heating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), speaking about mold, indoor air, and ventilation.

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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Want Kids to Do Better in School? This Environmental Approach Can Help

Schools are busy places, with bustling schoolyards, kitchens full of lunchboxes and trays, and kids and adults who constantly come and go. These busy environments can sometimes have pest problems that need to be addressed – like flies, spiders, yellow jackets, roaches and ants, for example.

As a parent, I know how important it is to me that my kids and their classmates have a healthy environment to learn, thrive and grow. Unhealthy school environments – including poor air quality — can affect children’s health, attendance, concentration and performance. Pest exposure can also trigger asthma, which can cause kids to miss class and a chance to learn.

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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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Visualize Air Quality with RETIGO

By Kayla Schulte

EPA scientists developed  “RETIGO.”

EPA scientists developed “RETIGO.”

Today, more and more researchers and citizens are collecting their own air quality data using lower cost and portable instruments. While air quality monitoring technology has expanded into the hands of the individual with the creation of apps and small mobile sensors, the means to explore the measurements in-depth has been fairly restricted—until now.

EPA scientists recently developed the Real-Time Geospatial Data Viewer, or “RETIGO,” a free, web-based tool that allows users to visualize air quality data derived from any number of monitoring technologies.

RETIGO puts the power of analysis in the user’s hands with its interactive platform and easy-to-navigate interface. The user simply uploads their air quality data to the online tool system to visualize and interact with small to large data sets over space and time. Data collected while driving, riding a bicycle, or walking along a planned route can be explored on a map interface and also shown on several other graphs.

Learn More!
Interested in giving RETIGO a try for yourself? EPA researchers are conducting four training webinars in November where you will be able to learn more, pose questions, and chat with them and other participants. The interactive component will be conducted by both text and audio (you will need to use a computer microphone or connected headset for live audio).

To find out how you can use this innovative visualization tool to explore your measurements and discover how factors such as nearby pollution sources and wind direction can affect your observations, join one of the following webinars:

  • Monday, November 17, 9:00 am to 10:00 am, EST
  • Monday, November 17, 11:00 am to 12:00 pm, EST
  • Wednesday, November 19, 9:00 am to 10:00 am, EST
  • Wednesday, November 19, 3:00 pm to 4:00 pm, EST

Webinar: https://epa.connectsolutions.com/retigotutorial/
Contact: retigo@epa.gov for more information.

Launching RETIGO is just one of the many ways EPA encourages environmental awareness by inviting individuals to explore their surroundings through innovative science. Join use later this month to learn more!

About the author: Kayla Schulte is a Student Services Contractor with EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy program. She is devoted to communicating pertinent information about the environment to the largest possible audience.

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 Grant Makes Great Strides in Education and Health

One of the many things we do in the EPA Denver office is work on education and children’s health. We wanted to share some work that Denver based National Jewish Health completed as part of an environmental education grant. This grant allowed National Jewish Health to work with regional projects that focused on environmental education and health. One of the objectives is to work with research organizations to bring the best science to address children’s health.

National Jewish Health is a Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Center (Children’s Centers). Jointly funded by EPA and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Children’s Centers conduct research to understand the complex interactions between the environment, genetics, and other factors, and how those interactions may affect children’s health.

Air quality and health was a program that allowed a network within EPA Region 8 to increase skills related to air quality and human health, and provide environmental education to schools, higher education institutions, and not for profit organizations to help tailor implementation and stewardship activities to meet the needs of their community.

image of two girls standing in front of lockers at a display table

East Middle School in Aurora, Colorado during a back to school night discussing asthma and environmental impacts on lung health.

In total, there were 19 projects reaching over 25,000 youth in EPA Region 8. More than 15 lesson plans/resources were developed and nine public schools, three higher education institutions, and seven community organizations were funded to conduct a variety of activities in diverse settings. Here are some of the projects:

  • The Clean Air Engines Off! program is an anti-idling education program offered through the American Lung Association to local schools.
  • At the Conservation Center in Paonia, Colorado, students conducted investigations on topics including airplane emissions, indoor air quality, effects of train traffic and the creation of carbon dioxide during physical exertion. Students presented their findings to the public through a community meeting organized by The Conservation Center.
  • At the Denver Green School students’ projects included connecting basic circuits to a microcontroller and programming it both to control the circuit and to interface with a user. The students worked with environmental sensors to measure temperature, humidity, and air quality.
  • At the John McConnell Math and Science Center in Grand Junction, Colorado an interactive, computer‐based program and kiosk was developed to teach students about:
    1. Formation and sources of ground-based ozone
    2. Differences between “good” and “bad” ozone
    3. Effects of ozone on lung health and the environment, and
    4. Exploration of what individuals can do to reduce the creation of ozone.
  • The Utah Society for Environmental Education provided skills in linking air quality and health and offered three workshops reaching teachers from along the Wasatch Front.

It’s very rewarding to see the successful outcomes of our grant programs. These grants allow environmental programs to reach a greater audience than EPA could reach alone.

For more information about protecting children’s health, visit www2.epa.gov/children.

About the authors: Wendy Dew is the Outreach and Education Coordinator for EPA Region 8. Kim Bartels is the Children’s Environmental Health Coordinator for EPA Region 8. The authors are sharing these stories to celebrate Children’s Health Month.

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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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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Moisture Control: A Key Factor for a Healthy Indoor Environment

EPA’s mission is to protect public health and the environment. While a large part of this mission involves protecting the air and water outdoors, we also need to make sure that people have the tools and information they need to keep the air clean in the areas where they spend up to 90 percent of their time – indoors.  And the agency is doing that through voluntary actions and information sharing, not regulations.

Some of the biggest threats to indoor air quality stem from moisture issues. Leaking roofs, plumbing problems, condensation issues, poor indoor humidity control, and lack of drainage around the base of buildings are commonly reported causes of moisture problems in the United States. Not only does excess moisture damage the structural integrity of buildings, it can increase people’s exposure to mold and other biological contaminants. Such exposure is associated with increases in the occurrence and severity of allergies, asthma and other respiratory illnesses. And, climate change will only worsen these issues as we see an increase in the frequency and intensity of severe storms and flooding that damages homes and buildings.

The good news is moisture problems in buildings can be controlled with steps that can be taken to make buildings more moisture resilient. For example, design landscaping to slope away from building foundations. Doing simple steps like this can prevent economic losses on multiple fronts by avoiding building damage as well as negative health impacts as it makes our indoor spaces healthier and more comfortable.

That’s why EPA pulled together experts from across the country to develop new, practical, state-of-the-art guidance for controlling moisture in buildings.  EPA recently published the result of that work, entitled, “Moisture Control Guidance for Building Design, Construction and Maintenance.” Encouraging voluntary actions to control moisture and other indoor contaminants will be a critical part of our climate adaptation strategy for ensuring healthy buildings as we continue to address our changing climate.

The key to controlling mold and many other indoor contaminants is moisture control.  It’s a simple concept, but it takes attention to detail to get it right. That’s why this practical guidance will be helpful to people who design, build or keep buildings working. Building professionals who incorporate the principles provided in this guide can enhance the health and productivity of Americans and the sustainability and resiliency of our communities. While this guidance is primarily for building professionals, EPA also offers mold and moisture control guidance for homeowners and residents at epa.gov/mold.

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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Interested in air sensors? Tune in to our webinar!

By Dustin Renwick

Soccer goalie with outstretched hand

Goal? Sensors will help make the call.

Sensors are everywhere these days. Some determine whether the ball has crossed the goal line in the World Cup. Others help EPA, state and local agencies, and communities take a more in-depth look at air quality.

Commercial manufacturers continue to develop low-cost air sensors that are portable and can relay data in nearly real-time. EPA researchers have begun to develop sensors and test their potential applications. Join our webinar on July 8 at 1 p.m. ET to learn more.

EPA researcher Ron Williams presented a small set of findings at the 2014 Air Sensors workshop in June, the fourth in a series of workshops designed to explore the opportunities and challenges associated with next-generation air quality monitoring technologies and data. Check out the Twitter feed for a look at the discussions that happened last month.

The sensor team, including Williams, has tested these new technologies in the laboratory and in the field. The group assessed how the sensors performed under a range of environmental conditions and with several different kinds of air pollutants. The team also evaluated the technical side of the sensors, including features such as data transmission and battery life.

EPA's Village Green Project, a solar-topped bench with air sensors

EPA’s Village Green Project

Williams will share much more information on the webinar, including the progress of the Village Green Project air monitor prototype and newly published reports about the use of these low-cost technologies.

“We have a lot to learn about sensors, their use, and how they can be applied for a wide variety of air monitoring applications,” Williams said.

“This presentation will give viewers an opportunity to understand what we at EPA have been doing and where the future lies in better understanding sensors and their potential applications.”

If you have any interest in the how sensors are transforming clean air science, the webinar will be worth watching!

About the author: Dustin Renwick works as part of the innovation team in the EPA 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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DISCOVER-AQ: Tracking Pollution from the Skies (and Space) Above Denver

NASA four-engine turboprop P-38 takes to the sky

NASA four-engine turboprop takes to the sky for clean air science.

 

EPA scientists have teamed up with colleagues from NASA to advance clean air research. Below is the latest update about that work. 

Denver is the last of four cities in a study by EPA and partners that will give scientists a clearer picture of how to better measure air pollution with instruments positioned on the earth’s surface, flying in the air, and from satellites in space.

The NASA-led study is known as DISCOVER-AQ, and is being conducted July 14 to August 12 in Denver.  The research began in 2011 with air quality measuring conducted in the Baltimore-Washington, DC, area followed by a field campaign in California’s San Joaquin Valley and Houston in 2013.

Right now, monitoring for pollutants such as sulfur dioxides, nitrogen oxides, particulates and ozone is done by ground-based systems strategically located across the U.S. to measure air quality in metropolitan areas and on a regional basis. Researchers want to tap satellite capabilities to look at pollution trends across wide swaths of the country.

“The advantage of using satellites is you can cover a wider area,” said Russell Long, an EPA project scientist.  “But right now, it’s hard for satellites to determine what air pollutants are close to the ground.”

Satellites could be an important tool for monitoring air quality given the large gaps in ground-based pollution sensors across the country and around the world. Improved satellite measurements should lead to better air quality forecasts and more accurate assessments of pollution sources and fluctuations.

However one of the fundamental challenges for space-based instruments that monitor air quality is to distinguish between pollution high in the atmosphere and pollution near the surface where people live.

Ground-based air sensor station

Ground-based air sensor station from the study’s previous Baltimore and Washington area component.

The ground-based sensor readings taken by EPA and other partners in DISCOVER-AQ will be compared to air samples taken by NASA aircraft flown between 1,000 and 15,000 feet in the skies above the Denver metropolitan area. EPA scientists are using the opportunity during the DISCOVER-AQ study to also test various types of low-cost and portable ground-based sensors to determine which ones work the best.

“Our goal is to evaluate the sensors to see how well they perform,” Long said. “By including more sensors it increases our understanding of how they perform in normal monitoring applications and how they compare to the gold standard (for measuring air quality) of reference instrumentation.”

New sensors could augment existing monitoring technology to help air quality managers implement the nation’s air quality standards.

Another big part of EPA’s involvement in DISCOVER-AQ is working with schools and academic institutions to develop a robust citizen science component for pollution monitoring. In Houston, hundreds of student-led research teams all worked to test the air pollution technology by taking regular readings at their schools when NASA aircraft flew overhead.

In Denver, most schools are out for the summer, but EPA researchers will be partnering with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to share what they are doing in DISCOVER-AQ with the general public.

Long says he is also working with University of Colorado Boulder to look at a unique three-dimensional model of air pollution in the great Denver area. The end result of DISCOVER-AQ will be a   global view of pollution problems, from the ground to space, so that decision makers have better data and communities can better protect public health.

Learn More

EPA DISCOVER-AQ

NASA Discover-AQ Mission

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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Four Things to Remember on the Fourth

By Maddie Dwyer

 Maddie, last Fourth of July, at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge, Maryland.


Maddie, last Fourth of July, at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge, Maryland.

During the summer, it’s hard to think of anything other than vacations, cookouts, family, and friends. I find this to be especially true during the excitement of the Fourth of July. The Fourth is one of my favorite holidays; I love the parties, the fireworks, and the awesome outfits! During this time of patriotism and national pride, it’s easy to forget about some important summer environmental issues, and this leads to people like myself to get horribly sunburned and exposed to other significant health risks.

Here at EPA, there are four things we recommend you keep in mind while enjoying the summer fun.

  • Air quality: The increased temperatures, humidity, and pollen of summer can translate to poor air quality. It’s important to keep in mind when you go outside. You can check the air quality in your area, or the area you are vacationing in, using our AirNow website or mobile app.
  • Beach safety and protection: Beaches are a top summer vacation destination. If you find yourself at one this summer, be aware of the issues that can affect your health and safety. From marine sanitation to dune protection, EPA has lots of great resources to help you plan a fun and safe trip to the beach.
  • UV index: It’s a no-brainer that sunburns and UV over exposure are more common in the summer. EPA’s UV Index, which can give you a UV risk forecast for your zip code, is a great resource to use when you are planning a day in the sun.
  • Going green at home: The fourth and final thing to keep in mind this Fourth of July (and beyond) is what you can do at home to protect the environment. A lot of people want to be greener at home, but are unsure of where to start. Check out EPA’s Resources for Concerned Citizens for some ideas on saving energy, conserving water, and much more.

So this Fourth of July, break out your coolest red, white and blue clothes, watch some fireworks, and protect yourself and the environment.

 

Fireworks display in Washington DC

Fireworks display in Washington DC

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the author:  Maddie Dwyer studies environmental science and policy at the University of Maryland. She works as an intern for EPA’s Office of Web Communications.

 

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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