air quality

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.

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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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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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Village Green Project: What’s in our Air?

By Ronald Williams

What’s in our air? It’s made up of 78 percent nitrogen, 21 percent oxygen, and one percent other gases such as carbon dioxide.  An even smaller contribution comes from gaseous air pollutants such as ozone or carbon monoxide.  In addition to the gases, air contains tiny particles from both natural and man-made processes.

In the Village Green Project, my EPA colleagues and I are developing a community-based system that repeatedly measures select gases and particles so residents can monitor local air quality and know what’s in their air.

Here are three important components:

Ozone
Knowing daily changes in ozone concentrations is very important, especially to those with respiratory illnesses such as asthma.  Ozone is generally highest on sunny summer days, when sunlight fuels atmospheric chemistry and generates ozone from a mixture of emissions.   The Village Green monitor will report ozone many times during the course of the day, showing how ozone levels go up and down based upon air pollution emissions and sunlight.

Particulate Matter

Particulate matter. For a larger version, go to: http://1.usa.gov/14hbTWp

All of us are exposed to particulate matter from a wide variety of local and distant sources.  After being produced, particles can transport hundreds of miles.  We encounter it in our homes, in our cars, in our work places, and out in our yards.  Understanding how it changes in the environment on a day-by-day and even hour-by-hour basis will help local citizens be better informed about this pollutant, which has been associated with a wide variety of human health effects.

Black Carbon
There’s an old saying that ‘everyone complains about the weather, but no one ever does anything about it.’ Now here’s our chance to learn about a pollutant that may affect our climate and is also important for health. Scientists now know that combustion products, such as black carbon, have the potential to influence climate change.  Black carbon is also a good indicator of emissions from fuel-burning, including from vehicles, forest fires, and smoking.  By monitoring black carbon levels in local air, the Village Green Project will help increase our understanding of links between local pollution sources and their impact on black carbon.

Even before the monitor is up and running, we’ve received regular inquiries about the Village Green Project from community groups, environmental scientists and those involved in air quality research.  Cleary, we’ve struck a nerve with citizens, and the desire of local communities to know what’s in their air and gain information about local air quality is ever-growing!

We expect the Village Green monitor will be operating this summer.  Stay tuned to this blog for more (and for our future web site) as we move forward.

About the Author: Ron Williams is an exposure science researcher who is studying how people are exposed to air pollutants and methods to measure personal exposure.

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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Village Green Project and Use of Sustainable Energy

By Ron Williams and Bill Mitchell

Watts up, everyone? Welcome back to the Village Green Project and learn about science as it happens at EPA! For those just joining us, EPA researchers in North Carolina are designing and building a low-cost air quality monitoring system from the ground up that can be provide local air quality data to a community.

One of our project goals is to design an air quality monitoring system that is fully self-powered and can operate for a long period of time using very little energy.

Our solution: solar power. We have identified a design that will include sustainable energy (solar power) and features that will allow the monitoring system to operate for long periods of time during the night and when it is cloudy.

One of the first things we had to do was determine how much power is needed to run a large number of environmental monitors and to transmit data from the system to our web site where we hope to make data available. Our first design shows that we will need 15 Watts to fully power all of the electrical parts (sensors, fans, control circuits, communication link).

We identified two highly efficient solar panels that we can use that are 26 inches by 41 inches in size. They are small enough for the monitor and can generate up to 60 Watts of power. The extra power that is generated can be stored in a battery for the solar cells to use when conditions are not favorable, like cloudy days. The rechargeable 12-volt battery is about the size of a car battery. This was good news as we wanted to avoid having a field of solar panels that would drive up the operating cost.

We think we worked it out on paper—now the challenge will be to see what happens when we piece it all together.  Stay tuned for more updates on our discovery process.

About the Authors: Ron Williams is an exposure science researcher who is studying how people are exposed to air pollutants and methods to measure personal exposure. Bill Mitchell is an electronics expert who provides support to a variety of air pollution research projects.

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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Welcome to the Village Green Project!

Welcome to the Village Green Project, an EPA exploration into new ways of measuring air pollution.

We are Gayle Hagler and Ronald Williams, researchers on the Village Green Project team. We and others on the team will blog periodically to share the goals and challenges of the project and invite you to learn more about the work.

Check out the video clips with this blog and meet us. We are excited to be sharing our discovery process for this research project with you.

The goal of the pilot project is to design and build a low-cost, solar-powered air monitoring system that will take continuous readings of several air pollutants and weather conditions and provide data to the public every five minutes.  The project is breaking ground on many fronts and is a challenging and fun puzzle, requiring a mix of tinkering skills, strategic shopping know-how, and an eye for design.

The Village Green Project got its name from history when village greens were the heart of a town where citizens came together. We borrowed the concept because our research provides the science and technology to assess air quality and support sustainable communities.

There are some important conditions that the Village Green prototype must meet: the design has to be low maintenance, energy efficient, low cost and provide real-time data. And, of course, we need to prove the system works and provides reliable data.

We are also exploring several designs that will fit into a community setting, such as a park bench with solar panels providing shade over the bench, or a play structure.  After development, we plan to install and test the first prototype in the Research Triangle area this year.

There are many technical challenges to the project. Some of the goals and questions the team has been grappling with include:

  • Low cost to install and run – Can we run the entire system on solar or wind power? Can we make measurements without needing extra laboratory work or frequent visits to maintain instruments?
  • Real-time data – How can we provide air quality measurements in minutes or hours rather than days? This will enable researchers and community members to study changes in air pollution over time.
  • Public engagement – Can we design the structure to be suitable for a public park, playground or other outdoor environment? How can we engage someone visiting the station to learn about air-quality science?
  • Sharing the data – How can we send the measurements and process the data? How can we engage citizens in this project and make it interesting for them to learn about the science behind air quality monitoring?

Members of our research team will continue to post updates here on It All Starts with Science as we work through these challenges!  Stay tuned to learn more about the technology we are exploring, the science behind the measurements and how the prototype development process goes!

About the Authors: Ronald Williams is an exposure science researcher who is studying how people are exposed to air pollutants and methods to measure personal exposure.  Gayle Hagler is an environmental engineer who studies air pollutant emissions and measurement technologies.

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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