air quality

EPA, Schools and Communities Work Together to Reduce Asthma

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.

About the author: 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, theater 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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Check Your AQI IQ: It’s Air Quality Awareness Week

After the winter that felt like it would not end, the weather is finally warming up in many parts of the country. And now that we can get outside without freezing, many of us are exercising more and sending our children out to play, a step that’s great for improving our health. But there’s another step we can take to protect our health, and this week is the perfect time to start: That’s paying attention to air quality.

This week is Air Quality Awareness Week  – the week each spring when we join with our partners at the CDC, NOAA and at state, local and tribal air agencies to remind people to use the Air Quality Index (AQI)  to reduce their exposure to air pollution. Even for those of us who check air quality regularly, this is a good time to refresh our knowledge of how to use the AQI to plan our outdoor activities. When air quality is good – get outside and play or exercise. When it’s not, change the type or length of your activity, or plan it for a day or time when air quality is expected to be better. More

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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Reaching for Cleaner Skies in Hong Kong

By Gayle Hagler

Skyline of Hong Kong on a bright day

Hong Kong

Hong Kong is a city of contrasts.  As a civil engineer I find Hong Kong to be a stunning city—efficient and affordable subways navigate from one island to another, skyscrapers perched on mountainous terrain survive typhoon-force winds, and elevated walkways over busy roads make it a very pedestrian-friendly city.

However, this beautiful and advanced city is frequently masked by heavy smog that results from both local pollution sources as well as pollution transported into the city from outside regions.   Facing rising vehicle ownership and energy use, Hong Kong and its neighbors in the Pearl River Delta face an enormous challenge to improve their local air quality.

I recently spent a month in Hong Kong as part of the Department of State’s Embassy Science Fellows program.  My assignment was with the United States Consulate of Hong Kong and Macau, who requested an air quality research fellow to provide technical expertise on local air quality issues.

With a 13-hour jet lag to overcome, my brainpower may have been somewhat weak for the first few days, but many cups of Chinese tea kept me going!  During my stay, I provided technical presentations at local universities, nonprofits, and at the consulate.  I met with the Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department, gave educational outreach lessons at several middle and high schools, and even had a few minutes of time on the local radio.

Encouraging students to take an interest in their region’s air quality issues was probably one of the most rewarding parts of my assignment.  Standing in front of a class of high school students in Hong Kong, I displayed a map of the Pearl River Delta region. The map showed the heavily populated southern area of China that includes major cities such as Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen with an urban population the size of California and Florida combined. I asked the students, “If I could give you equipment to measure air pollution at seven different locations in the Pearl River Delta, where would you put the monitoring equipment?” The students gathered in teams, going through a mock research study that included everything from developing research questions to deciding whether or not to buy steel-toed shoes as part of their safety equipment.  At the end, I showed them the seven locations, selected by a team of Chinese and American scientists, where I helped install the monitoring equipment and analyze the data many years ago as part of my graduate studies in environmental engineering.

The mock research experience seemed to strike a chord with the students, who were surprised to discover that studying air quality involves a wide variety of academic disciplines—ranging from engineering to public communications—and a good deal of teamwork.

At a recent gathering of experts throughout China as well as international air research colleagues, one of the presenters, Dr. John Watson of Desert Research Institute, noted that “cleaning the atmosphere is like home improvement projects, there is no such thing as a small job.”  But through international collaboration and sharing of knowledge, we all may benefit from advancing air quality science and reaching for cleaner skies.

About the Author:
Dr. Gayle Hagler is an environmental engineer researching air pollution in EPA’s Office of Research and Development, National Risk Management Research Laboratory and is located in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.  She recently spent part of the fall of 2013 as an Embassy Science Fellow working at the U.S. Consulate of Hong Kong and Macau.

Editor’s Note: The Embassy Science Fellows is a partnership between U.S. federal technical agencies and the Department of State to provide scientific and engineering staff to serve in short-term assignments in U.S. posts abroad. The goal of the program is to provide expertise in science, mathematics, and engineering to support the work of embassies, consulates, and missions of the State Department while providing international experience to EPA staff.

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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Free “Green” Apps

By Athena Motavvef

I’m a college student who is always on the go, so being able to quickly pull out my smartphone to access e-mail, weather information, or the latest news is really helpful. As a regular user of apps and an intern with EPA’s Office of Public Engagement, I became interested in what “green” apps were available. In my role at EPA, I help get the word out about the different ways citizens can better protect their health and help the environment by contributing to the weekly production of the EPA Highlights Newsletter. I’d like to share with you my top three favorite green apps.

sunwise

EPA’s SunWise UV index

Available for iOS, Android and Blackberry
When I go hiking with friends and family or just plan a day where I know I’ll be outside often, I want to protect my skin. I have fair skin, but no matter your skin type or the weather, anyone can be at risk of damage from the sun. The UV Index app allows you to check out daily and hourly UV forecasts so you can help keep your skin healthy. I did a quick check today and despite being a sunny winter day in the nation’s capital, the UV index is at a moderate 3. The app recommends that I protect myself with SPF 30+ sunscreen (will do), sunglasses (check) and a hat (check – it is cold out)!

Get the app: http://www.epa.gov/enviro/mobile/
Learn more about protecting yourself from the sun: http://www2.epa.gov/sunwise

airnow

 

EPA AIRNow

Available for iOS and Android
As a student growing up in Los Angeles and moving to the Inland Empire for college, I have been regularly affected by higher levels of air pollution than most areas of the country. Planning outdoor activities to keep my asthma from acting up is easier now that I can check real-time air quality. Luckily for those that suffer from asthma as well, this app allows us to quickly see location-specific reports on current and forecasted air quality conditions for both ozone and fine particle pollution. Now I can better plan my day so that I know I will be able to breathe easy.
Get the app: http://m.epa.gov/apps/airnow.html
Learn more about AIRNow: http://www.airnow.gov/

iWARM

EPA iWARM

Available for iOS
If you’re like me, recycling is a habit. Sometimes, I wonder just how much energy I am saving through my actions. The iWARM app helps paint that picture by calculating the energy saved from recycling common household items. The savings are then converted into the equivalent amount of electricity, estimating how long that energy will operate household appliances. I did a quick calculation of what I recycled this week, and I saved enough energy to power my laptop for 3.4 hours! Even small actions like recycling a plastic bottle save energy and can help combat climate change.
Get the app: http://m.epa.gov/apps/warm.html
Learn more about iWARM: http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/conserve/tools/iwarm/index.htm
These three green apps are great tools to use every day, especially for someone like me who likes to eat yummy food on sunny restaurant patios and catch up with friends.

About the author: Athena Motavvef is an intern in EPA’s Office of Public Engagement in Washington DC. She is currently obtaining her bachelor’s degree in Public Policy with an emphasis in urban/environmental policy at the University of California, Riverside. She has interests in environmental education and public engagement.

 

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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Sharing Air Quality Data in Beijing

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On Monday, during my first full day in China, I had the opportunity to visit the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau air monitoring center and hear from Director General Chen Tian about the organization’s commitment to tracking important environmental information and sharing it with the public.

Founded in 1974, the center is the first ever environmental monitoring center in China. It has 195 staff and 37 stations throughout the city, and does monitoring on air, water, soil and noise pollution.

The center is responsible for monitoring an area of almost 6,500 square miles–inhabited by 25 million people–and is home to state-of-the-art equipment that provides real time reporting. Beginning last year, the center started publishing hourly data on PM2.5, the fine particulate matter that has been shown to cause serious health problems, including heart attacks, strokes and premature death.

More

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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Middle Age at EPA: Serving Communities at Home and Abroad

By Mark Kasman

The realities of reaching middle age have included watching my hair go grey, my middle thicken, and my back become less forgiving. The advantages, however, have included gaining life experiences, making wonderful friends and partners, and building strong programs that have led to meaningful environmental gains. One satisfying aspect is being able to experience the environmental results of my work in person. Recently, I had the opportunity to help celebrate twenty years of U.S. – Taiwanese environmental cooperation and see how our work has benefitted both countries.

When I first visited Taiwan twenty years ago, it was not a clean place. The cities were choked with air pollution, the rivers were full of industrial and solid waste, and there was a lot of litter. It reminded me of many places in the United States when I was a child before EPA was established. Indeed, Taiwan had just established its Environmental Protection Administration (EPAT). With a small staff and limited budget, EPAT turned to U.S. EPA for advice on environmental standards and technologies that could apply to Taiwan. EPAT adapted our approach to most of its environmental challenges and has made significant improvements. Twenty years later, the air quality has improved dramatically, the rivers and lakes are cleaner, the soil is healthier, and Taiwan is recognized as an environmental leader in the region.

Now, the benefits of this experience are expanding beyond Taiwan. At U.S. EPA’s urging, EPAT is sharing our experiences throughout the Asia Pacific region and beyond. With funding from Taiwan, we’ve established regional working groups on e-waste management, site remediation, mercury monitoring, environmental enforcement, and environmental information. These working groups share best practices and information that is helping the region address its environmental challenges. Experts from Africa, as well as Central and Latin America, have even joined our efforts on e-waste to establish the International E-Waste Management Network.

And the benefits are coming directly back to the U.S. as well. The program has connected schools and communities in the U.S. and Taiwan to share best practices to make our communities more sustainable. U.S. businesses are benefitting from the resulting demand for their goods and services in Asia. With over 80% of the mercury deposition in the U.S. coming from the Asia Pacific region, it is important that our work is helping us understand how the mercury gets here. And with much of the rice, vegetables, fruit, and fish on our table today coming from Asia, it is important that it’s not contaminated at its source.

Challenges remain. However, it’s rewarding that the work EPA is doing at home also helps communities abroad, and that those overseas changes then benefit us in the U.S.

About the author: Mark Kasman is Senior Advisor of EPA’s Asia Pacific Program.  Before coming to EPA 27 years ago, Mark worked at the United Nations Development Program in Jakarta, Indonesia and the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia.

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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Equipping Students To Monitor and Improve Their Local Air Quality

By Joni Nofchissey

I live and work in Shiprock, New Mexico, on the Navajo Reservation. It’s a rural place, far away from any big city, and yet, despite the community’s rural setting, the rates of asthma and pulmonary diseases are comparable to those found in highly populated urban areas. In fact, Shiprock Indian Health Service Center sees five times the number of children with upper respiratory health problems than other centers on the Navajo Nation.

Surrounding Shiprock are two large coal-fired power plants and thousands of natural gas wells, each with a diesel engine. During the winter, air pollution is highly visible because thermal inversions trap particulate matter and smog near the ground. You can see this smog, and it’s only made worse by the use of wood and coal stoves in residential homes, which many students at Diné College and families in Navajo Nation depend on for warmth and cooking.

Last year, I co-led an EPA Tribal ecoAmbassadors project with some Diné College professors, staff, and several groups of students to collect and analyze air quality samples collected by M-PODs part of the Mobile Air Quality Sensing System (MAQS)—devices you can wear that collect data on five gases, one of which is nitrogen dioxide (NO2). NO2 is produced when natural gas or other fuels undergo incomplete combustion. One of the very useful and fun applications of the MAQS was the Android application and website interactive user-faces developed by University of Colorado Boulder.

At the end of the project, three classes of students were able to use advanced air quality sampling technology to collect and assess the air quality in the Shiprock area, as well as in their homes and schools. What they found was that each of the residences tested exceeded the recommended healthy levels of 0.05 parts per million of NO2 for the sampling period. Further testing showed high levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in homes. According to the department of health guidelines for indoor air quality, the recommended range of CO2 concentration indoors is 600–1000 parts per million. In one of the homes tested, the readings were more than five times the maximum recommended healthy range.

While these findings were troubling, I wouldn’t say they were necessarily surprising. Going into the project, we knew there were concerns—we just needed a “from the ground up” way to assess the degree of indoor and outdoor air pollution Shiprock residents faced. Now that a group of Diné students and professors have the ability to do this, we’re placing the emphasis on continued monitoring, awareness, and low-tech solutions like proper ventilation and safe wood-burning practices. To create a greater awareness of the issue, each student shared the results of the data with their families and communities through poster sessions and presentations. Diné College also strengthened partnerships with University of Colorado-Boulder, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and surrounding air quality labs, where students now have access to all kinds of data.

My students even provided insight to the developers of the M-POD and MAQS technology on how to improve the air quality monitors—and stressed the importance of exploring alternative heating sources (such as solar, wind, and biomass) to improve residential air quality in the northern regions of the Navajo reservation in and around Shiprock.

This year, I’m delighted to co-lead a second-year Tribal ecoAmbassador project that will result in a curriculum using these air quality monitoring tools to relate carbon emissions to climate change. DEI Spring interns have been able to use particulate counters “Dust Tracs” to measure levels of 2.5 μ particulate matter (PM2.5) in their families home to create discussion on occupant behavior and PM2.5 levels. In addition to looking at indoor heating behaviors effects on PM2.5 levels, interns also assisted in assessing ambient CO2 levels with readings collected by the Autonomous Inexpensive Robust CO2 Analyzer (AIRCOA) developed and maintained by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). We’re sharing the results through college classroom presentations, college science labs, K-12 hands-on workshops, professional conferences, and community hands-on workshops/seminars/presentations. Something I’ve learned over the last two years is that you can collect all the data in the world, but you’ll never get anywhere on a problem like air quality without the involvement and support of your local community.

I am very excited to start our summer internship which includes two weeks of intensive air quality studies in July with six DEI interns and DEI staff as well. The eight week internship pertaining to environmental science will end with a series of workshops and presentations to community members and K-12 students. The interns will also be very instrumental in providing insight to a meeting regarding another DEI project, the Indoor Stove Coal Use Project.

 About the author: Joni Nofchissey serves as the Environmental Technician of Diné College – Shiprock Campus, Diné Environmental Institute (DEI).  As the co-lead of the Diné College Tribal ecoAmbassador project, she helps interns design studies and analyze data collected with a stationary carbon dioxide monitor developed and maintained by the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

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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Asthma Awareness Month

Asthma Awareness Month banner

Now that spring has arrived, it’s time to raise awareness about asthma!  Asthma is a serious, sometimes life threatening chronic respiratory disease that affects the lives of almost 25 million Americans, including an estimated 7 million kids.  The U.S. EPA is celebrating Asthma Awareness Month by spreading the word about how serious asthma can be and how important it is to manage environmental asthma triggers like secondhand smoke, dust mites, pet dander, mold and many others.  Please join the EPA in raising awareness of this condition by teaching others what asthma is and how the environment can affect people with asthma.

Although I have never suffered from asthma, I understand how it can affect someone’s day to day activities.  My childhood best friend, Katherine, suffers from asthma. My pet cats and dog would make it difficult for her to breathe when she would come over to play. With her inhaler in tow, Katherine was always aware of how pets could affect a play date with friends.

The EPA makes it easy for students to learn how to manage the environmental triggers of asthma.  You and a parent or guardian can visit http://www.epa.gov/asthma/ to learn more about asthma triggers and Asthma Awareness Month.  What is even cooler are all of the interesting materials the EPA offers to raise awareness about asthma.  Tell your parent or teacher they can visit the EPA’s website to get a free copy of Clearing the Air of Asthma Triggers.  You and your friends can also read Why is Coco Orange? to learn about asthma and air quality. During Asthma Awareness Month this May, help spread the word about asthma!

Shelby Egan is a student volunteer in the EPA’s Air and Radiation Division in Region 5, and is currently obtaining her Master’s degree in Urban Planning and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  She has a passion for protecting natural resources, cities she’s never been to and cooking any recipe by The Pioneer Woman.

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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Air Quality Awareness Week: EPA Clean Air Science

By Maggie Sauerhage

Recess at last!

Impatiently, you watch the second hand tick, tick, tick around the clock. Is it possible that it’s slowing down? Finally, it hits the 12 and you hear that magical sound: RRRRING! It’s time for recess! You jump out of your seat, knocking over your chair, and run to freedom alongside your classmates. Throwing the doors open, you’re welcomed by the warm glow of sunshine and the scent of grass, flowers, and blacktop. Taking a deep breath, you fill your lungs with air before running off to join friends in a game of kickball, tag, or to see who can swing highest.

Recess was one of the best parts of my day when I was younger. I was lucky. As reported recently in The New York Times, many kids in China’s cities often have to stay indoors because of high levels of air pollution. Teachers there check the U.S. Consulate’s website or their own government’s website for an air quality reading, to make sure it’s safe for children to go outside.

While air pollution levels in the United States are significantly lower, many cities still have days when the air pollution exceeds what is considered healthy, especially for certain at-risk populations such as those already dealing with asthma or cardiovascular problems (also see EPA’s Green Heart initiative). That’s why EPA scientists are conducting air research and learning how to keep us healthy.

EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards—for six principal pollutants—were developed to help protect human health and the environment. EPA scientists study how the six pollutants are formed, the ways they interact in the atmosphere, and their impacts.

The Clean Air Act requires EPA researchers to periodically review the science behind these standards to ensure the latest findings are used to inform efforts to protect human health and the einvironment. These reviews include scientific assessments of all the existing research on each pollutant.

Scientists must also closely monitor daily levels of pollutants in the air to make sure they aren’t unhealthy. They’ve developed models that are used by the National Weather Service to give daily U.S. ozone forecasts, and states use them to make sure they are complying with clean air standards.

All of this research helps EPA calculate the Air Quality Index (AQI) each day to inform the public of air quality in their neighborhood. The AQI is an easy-to-use table that’s color-coded to match levels of air pollution. The scale goes from 0-500, and the higher the value, the more harmful the level of pollution. To check your air quality forecast, all you have to do is enter your zip code. You can also download an app for your phone to check air quality on the go.

Unfortunately, I’ve outgrown recess. But air quality is still as important to me as it is to the millions of kids who depend on clean air to go outside and play with their friends. So don’t forget to check the AQI next time you want to enjoy the great outdoors!

About the Author: Maggie Sauerhage is a student services contractor working on the Science Communications 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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No Big Red Fire Trucks But We Still Fight Fires

By Jeff Bechtel

EPA is known for its environmental monitoring efforts through air, water and soil sampling. Often those sampling efforts lead to additional actions to protect human health and the environment. My response team was recently called to don fire-fighting gear because of such monitoring.

In May 2012, a fire broke out at the Hillcrest Industries recycling facility in Attica, NY, and the smell of burning plastic was noticeable throughout the town. State and local officials were overseeing the fire-fighting efforts of a smoldering 40-foot high pile of plastic and organic waste. Concerns over air quality prompted my team to be called in to monitor the surrounding area. We used an air monitoring system called “VIPER” that lets anyone, including the public, view air monitoring results in real time.

On September 13, we identified volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can lead to short and long term health problems, in the immediate area of the smoldering pile. After we learned about the VOCs, we provided information to the community about the potential dangers of the burning debris, but this was only the beginning of our response efforts.

After four months of unsuccessful attempts to extinguish the fire, we were asked to step in and take over the fire-fighting efforts. We determined the best course of action was to dismantle the waste pile. A team from Hillcrest began excavating the debris pile under our supervision, and they started from the side of the pile with the lowest temperatures and worked inward. My team continued to monitor the air throughout the excavation and fire-fighting process, and these efforts were critical in providing area residents with the health and safety information they needed. After a couple of weeks of work, the fire was officially extinguished on October 14, 2012, 10 days ahead of schedule. Over a two week period, we moved nearly 50,000 cubic yards of material to make the fire-fighting easier.

After the fire was extinguished, we determined that air quality was back to normal and continued to work with Hillcrest Industries to resize the piles to avoid re-ignition. The company also developed a plan to better protect the surrounding community by fostering better management of the site to avoid future fires.

About the author:  Jeff Bechtel is an 18-year veteran of EPA, currently serving as an On-Scene Coordinator in Emergency Response.

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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