air research

EPA’s MESA Air Study Confirms that Air Pollution Contributes to the #1 Cause of Death in the U.S.

By Dr. Wayne Cascio

This week we took a giant leap forward in our understanding of the relationship between air pollution and heart disease with the publication of results from the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis Air Pollution Study (MESA Air) in the leading medical journal The Lancet.

medical graphic of a coronary artery

Fat accumulation in the wall of a coronary artery

For more than two decades, scientific evidence has shown fine particle pollution (PM2.5) in the outside air is a cause of cardiovascular illness and death, and has justified improving the PM2.5 annual National Ambient Air Quality Standard to protect public health.  Yet, MESA Air was the first U.S. research study to examine a group of people over a period of 10 years and measured directly how long-term exposure to air pollution contributes to the development of heart disease and can lead to heart attacks, abnormal heart rhythms, heart failure, and death.  MESA Air did just that, and Dr. Joel Kaufman, the leader of MESA Air at the University of Washington and his colleagues should be commended for their accomplishment.

MESA Air was funded by EPA and made possible by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, which supports  a larger study on atherosclerosis called MESA. The additional air pollution study had the ambitious goal of seeking an answer to the question of whether long-term exposure to PM2.5 and nitrogen oxides (NOx) was associated with the development and progression of cardiovascular disease.  A total of 6,800 people with diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds and residing in six locations throughout the country agreed to participate in the decade-long study by researchers at the University of Washington who received the grant.  And the results are in!

The researchers used computerized tomography imaging to measure coronary artery calcium content in the same person repeatedly during the study as an indication of coronary artery disease. The results showed that long-term exposure to PM2.5 and NOx increased coronary artery calcium. The increase observed is at a rate that, over the period of the study, would change the risk of heart attack in some.

This study is extraordinary in many ways. First it provides the strongest evidence yet that air pollution can and does contribute to cardiovascular disease–the number one killer of Americans and people in developed countries throughout the world.  Secondly, the results define the relationship between air pollutants and the progression of coronary artery disease over time.  This relationship will help estimate the long-term health impacts and economic burden of air pollution within our population.   And, third the study shows the power of intra-agency cooperation to conduct valuable and cost-effective science.

The findings of MESA Air will continue to reverberate throughout the environmental science and public health communities for some time, but it’s time for healthcare providers, air quality managers and state and local planners to take note and to begin to consider long-term exposure to air pollution as having long-term health implications, even at levels near the National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

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

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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Simulating Wildland Fires in a Tube to Protect Public Health

By Dina Abdulhadi

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

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

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

Tube used to conduct simulation

Biomass Fuel Combustion System

 

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

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

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

map of potential fires across US

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

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

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

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

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Gamify the Grid! New EPA game Generate! Helps Students Understand the Relationship between Climate Change and Energy Production

By Rose Keane

When you’re teaching someone, sometimes you never know what’s going to stick. Some people need to hear the information, others might need to read it, but chances are the best way to get someone to remember is to have them try it themselves.

EPA researcher Rebecca Dodder is helping teachers provide middle school and high school students with these kinds of opportunities through her new Generate! game, a board game that requires the player to consider the costs and benefits of the type of energy we use and impacts on air quality and climate.

Hands-on learning! Kids play the Generate! game during Earth Day festivities at EPA’s campus in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

Hands-on learning! Kids play the Generate! game during Earth Day festivities at EPA’s campus in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

Having students actually grapple with the realities of financial limitations, carbon emissions, and limited natural resources makes the lesson much more tangible and long lasting. I had the chance to see these connections being made when students came to EPA’s campus in Research Triangle Park, N.C., to play the game during Earth Day festivities.

Here’s how it works.  In the first round, students select which sources of energy—for example, coal, natural gas, nuclear, solar or wind—that they would like to use given a finite amount of resources (in this case the number and types of energy pieces). Each energy source comes with its associated installation and maintenance costs, and the aim is to meet energy demands (filling up the full board space) while spending as little as possible.

The second round, however, made things a bit trickier. As with our energy sources in real life, there is a cost associated with the carbon emissions of each energy piece, with heavier costs for higher carbon-emitting sources like coal, and smaller or no carbon costs for the renewable energy sources. These costs refer to the idea that for each ton of carbon dioxide emitted, there are increased costs to communities from climate change. As students factored these numbers in, they realized their original plan was no longer sustainable and also way too expensive. You could practically hear the groans coming from each group’s table when the final tallies came in.

In the third round, students were offered pieces called “efficiencies,” which represent our behaviors, consumer choices, and energy efficient appliances. These pieces incur relatively small costs initially (for example, how much it would cost to replace your washer and dryer), but in the long run actually save the player money. “Think about it,” Dodder said to the students, “A lot of these big decisions are out of our control, like whether or not to build a nuclear power plant, for example. The thing about the smaller energy efficiency pieces is that’s all the stuff that we can change – it’s all in our control.”

Making climate change and its impacts tangible for younger generations can be extremely difficult, but games like Generate! make these kinds of activities fun, educational, and remind the students that their energy choices are in their hands. Educators can use this game to help their students recognize the relationships between energy usage and climate change, and encourage them to investigate their role in the carbon cycle further.

Dr. Dodder’s innovative approaches to educating the younger generation about science and her research contributions are being recognized today at a ceremony in Washington, DC where she will receive a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists.

Learn more about the Generate! game and download your copy here.

About the Author: Rose Keane is an Oak Ridge Associated Universities contractor with 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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Particulate Matter in a Changing World: Grants to Combat the Impacts of Climate Change

By Christina Burchette

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

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

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

landscape of Death Valley National Park with dust storm

A dust storm in Death Valley National Park

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

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

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

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

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Air Quality Awareness: A New Generation of Research

By Dan Costa, Sc.D.

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

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

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

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

About the Author: Dan Costa is the national program director for EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy Research Program.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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EPA Supports the Science that Makes a Difference for Heart Health

By Dr. Wayne Cascio

By Presidential proclamation, February 2016 is American Heart Month and once again we turn our attention to keeping our hearts healthy.  In his proclamation, President Obama asks us to, “remember those we have lost to this devastating disease, promote healthy lifestyles that mitigate its impacts, and pledge to continue our fight against it.”

Here at EPA we are doing just that. In the Office of Research and Development, scientists are working to understand how our experiences with our environment interact with genetic, social and health factors to contribute to the progression of blood vessel and heart diseases like high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes and heart failure.  And we stand with our President and our partners at the CDC’s Million Hearts Initiative to promote a healthy environment and lifestyle to keep hearts healthy and prevent heart disease and stroke and eliminate health disparities.

In the U.S. the prevalence of high blood pressure is highest among African American men often leading to stroke, heart disease, and kidney failure.  So, today at 3 p.m. ET, we are joining Million Hearts and Men’s Health Network for a conversation on “What African American men need for a healthy heart” on Twitter using #HeartMonthChat.

The message is a simple one: Control risk factors for heart disease like high blood pressure, eat healthy, and stay active. Yet for some this is not an easy task.  Who we are and where we live may limit our ability to follow this simple guidance.  EPA is working to make a difference by helping communities benefit from healthier environments and enjoy healthier lives.

EPA researchers and research funded by EPA has greatly contributed to our knowledge of the connection between our environment and heart and blood vessel disease. Science shows that outdoor air particle pollution exposure increases blood pressure and increases the risk of stroke and heart attacks. And that improved air quality has translated into longer lives. Yet, it’s still the personal decisions we make about our lifestyles that have the biggest effect on our health. So taking action on lowering our risk factors for heart and blood vessel disease, making heart healthy food choices and increasing the availability of healthy environments to live and be active in can be a goal for all of us.

If you have heart or blood vessel disease the factsheet “Heart Disease, Stroke and Outdoor Air Pollution”  tells how to use the Air Quality Index and its daily forecast to reduce exposure to air pollution and protect your health.  It also includes information about risk factors and the warning symptoms of heart attacks and stroke.

You can access more information from EPA’s Healthy Heart Toolkit and learn about the science we are doing to protect heart health.Million Hearts twitter chat information

Reference:

  1. Mozaffarian D, et al; American Heart Association Statistics Committee and Stroke Statistics Subcommittee. Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics-2016 Update: A Report From the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2016 Jan 26;133(4):e38-e360.

 

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

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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Getting an Upgrade to Protect Air Quality

CMAQ_EM_magazine

EPA scientist Havala Pye uses CMAQ to show emissions related to vegetation in the Southeast United States.

By Dina Abdulhadi

What technology upgrades matter to you? Most people I know get excited about their new phones: faster speeds, better cameras, and new traffic apps, to name a few.

You know that camera on your old phone? The images were pixelated; if you zoomed in, you could not see the details of your dog’s whiskers or the horizon on a smoggy day. Just like your new phone with a better camera, scientists have an upgrade to an important tool used to visualize the earth’s atmosphere.

With this major upgrade to an atmospheric model – the Community Multi-scale Air Quality model (CMAQv5.1) – researchers and air quality managers have improved options to understand how air pollution moves throughout the atmosphere locally, nationally, and globally. The upgrade provides air quality managers an even more powerful tool to evaluate air quality and protect the air we breathe.

For example, one new option is like the zoom feature on a cell phone camera. “Zooming out,” researchers can see how multiple air pollutants—including ozone, particulate matter (PM), and several air toxics—move across the Northern Hemisphere. This expanded scale helps to see what actions can be taken locally or nationally to improve air quality.  Researchers can also “zoom in” using the model to the city or neighborhood scale, where CMAQ can help identify pockets prone to higher air pollution. Modeling pollution at this smaller scale allows researchers to estimate pollution exposures more accurately, which can be used to determine air pollution risks to health.

While people are not standing in long lines outside of a retail store for this latest version, the model is used worldwide to conduct air quality research and to make decisions on how best to protect air quality.

CMAQ was first launched 15 years ago, and since then, air quality has improved with the use of this and other tools. More recently, CMAQ was used to determine the impact of EPA’s new standards for car emissions and fuels. The standards aim to reduce sulfur in gasoline by 60 percent starting in 2017, helping avoid up to 2,000 premature deaths per year and 50,000 cases of respiratory ailments in children.

Researchers are using the model to learn more about what air pollution can do to our health. By using CMAQ to estimate ozone levels across North Carolina, for example, researchers found that ozone concentrations may be linked with an increased risk of lower birthweights in rural and urban areas. By estimating the levels of PM and ozone exposures over time for farmers in North Carolina and Iowa, researchers also found a potential elevated risk of Parkinson’s disease.

Science and technology constantly advances, and in turn it changes how we think about the world and our environment. Powerful tools like CMAQv5.1 are making a big difference in protecting public health and the environment and will continue to evolve, much like the technology we use every day to connect with friends and family, find out if it will rain, and even get a daily forecast of air quality using the Air Quality Index.

 

For more information: http://bit.ly/EPA-CMAQ  

About the author: Dina Abdulhadi works with the science communication team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Learn About Your Environment with Science Bite Podcasts

By Jocelyn Buckley

I know you’re really busy. I know that as much as you want to stay updated on the latest news, you just don’t have the time to sit down and read a newspaper. We want to make it easier for you to stay informed about some pretty cool science that is protecting your health and environment. Instead of downloading the latest Maroon 5 song, you should check out EPA’s “Science Bite” podcast. While each episode is only about three minutes long, they provide a healthy dose of research news.

Science Bite graphic identifier: illustration of globe with headphones“Science Bite” explores the research conducted by some very dedicated EPA scientists and engineers to protect air quality, prepare for climate change impacts on human health and ecosystems, and make energy decisions for a sustainable world. Researchers talk about their work and why it is important.  I had the privilege of meeting some of these researchers while helping write the most recent podcast, and I have never met such passionate, intelligent people.

I found out a lot about environmental issues and interesting facts by listening to these podcasts. Here’s a quick sampling of my three favorites (there are more):

  • July’s episode focused on the dangers of cookstoves fueled on wood, charcoal and other traditional fuels, and how they affect the health of many, many people around the world as a result of their indoor emissions.
  • In May’s “Science Bite,” EPA researchers talked about the Village Green Project, and how this state-of-the-art park bench can measure air pollution.
  • The most recent podcast discusses wildfire emissions. Who knew that there are many more things to consider besides your lungs? Researcher Ian Gilmour talked a little bit about his experience with the 2008 study of a peat fire in Eastern North Carolina.

Science-Bite1So, if you’re driving to work or eating breakfast, spare a couple of minutes to hear what’s going on in your environment. Go to www2.epa.gov/research/science-bite-podcasts for more information.

About the Author: Jocelyn Buckley was a student intern in EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy Research Program this summer. She will graduate from high school next year, and hopes to pursue environmental policy and journalism.

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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Are Some People More At Risk from Air Pollution?

By Dina Abdulhadi

Rearview mirror during an early morning commute.

A study by researchers from EPA and Duke University reflects how traffic-related air pollution can impact the health of people living in nearby communities.

I’m driving in rush hour traffic, waiting for the slow crawl of cars to reach the speed I would be moving had I biked home. My heart rate rises slightly; it’s a beautiful summer day and I’m thinking of the many things I’d rather be doing than sitting in traffic.

The congestion eventually eases though, and I’m home. I breathe deeply, and my heart rate lowers.

The stress I felt had an immediate but temporary effect on my health. For people who live in communities near these congested roadways, however, traffic can have a longer-term impact on heart health. And even then, air pollution does not affect everyone equally.

A new study suggests that women and African-Americans who live near busy roadways may have a greater risk than their white male counterparts for developing high fasting blood sugar levels, a risk factor for heart disease.

The study used a database called CATHGEN, developed by Duke University. It contains health information on nearly 10,000 people who received cardiac catheterization, a common test for heart disease. Researchers at EPA and Duke University are using the participant’s health data to see how air pollution also affects the progression of heart disease.

A large body of research has connected fine particulate matter, a common air pollutant, to health effects, including heart problems. Many studies have even found that consistent exposure to the same elevated level of air pollution can have a stronger impact on blood glucose for women than men. But the race-related disparity is a new observation, researchers conclude in the study.

This study is one in a series that aims to see how factors like age, sex, race, disease status, genetic makeup, socioeconomic status, and where a person lives can put someone at greater risk from the health effects of air pollution. The knowledge gained through CATHGEN studies can be used to develop public health strategies for protecting those at greater risk from air pollution and to support review of the Air Quality Standards under the Clean Air Act.

Ongoing EPA CATHGEN studies are expected to provide more answers to the question of whether air pollution may affect people differently. In the meantime, read this first CATHGEN study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives and titled, Association of Roadway Proximity with Fasting Plasma Glucose and Metabolic Risk Factors for Cardiovascular Disease in a Cross-Sectional Study of Cardiac Catheterization Patients.

Air pollution most strongly effects those already at risk for heart disease, mainly older adults and those with high blood pressure, cholesterol, or history of heart problems. Though I’m young and healthy, days with higher pollution levels can still make me winded while exercising even if they don’t trigger a heart attack. Reading papers like this reminds me to check the Air Quality Index before planning long summer bike rides and makes me appreciate how important environmental quality is to human health.

About the Author: Dina Abdulhadi is a student contractor working with the science communication team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Release of Community Air Monitoring Training Videos

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Community leaders and EPA presenters

By Amanda Kaufman

I have seen a fast expansion of next generation air pollution sensor technologies while working in the field of citizen science for the past three years. Small, hand-held air quality sensors are now commercially available and provide citizens the ability to plan, conduct, and understand local environmental air quality as never before. Many of these cost less than $1,000, making them more accessible for community groups and even individuals to purchase.

While the new sensor technologies generally do not provide regulatory-grade data, such devices are rapidly advancing to improve data quality and can be used to enhance monitoring efforts. They can be used in a wide range of situations including to investigate air quality concerns in local communities and to teach people about the importance of clean air to public health and the environment.

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EPA’s Kristen Benedict talks about sensor messaging

With the rapid growth of sensor technologies, there is a great demand for information on how to select the appropriate monitoring technology and use it to gather viable information. That is why I am pleased to announce the availability of six air monitoring training videos, developed to help citizen scientists conduct air quality monitoring projects. The videos feature presentations by EPA experts and a citizen science professional given at EPA’s Community Air Monitoring Training workshop on July 9, 2015.

EPA hosted the training workshop as a pilot venture to share tools used to conduct citizen science projects involving Next Generation Air Monitoring (NGAM) technology and to educate interested groups and individuals about best practices for successful air monitoring projects.

The videos are part of the Air Sensor Toolbox for Citizen Scientists and are intended to serve as resources for anyone interested in learning more about monitoring air quality. They provide short overviews (between 15-18 minutes in length) on topics that can help citizens plan and implement a successful air monitoring project. The topics and presenters are:

 

I was delighted to see the enthusiasm of the workshop attendees for the training and their desire to apply it to their local situation. It was contagious. Many who attended indicated they would go home and share key aspects of the training with their community groups to develop their own citizen science research plans.

With the availability of the training videos, more people will have access to the information provided on emerging technologies and community air monitoring. I see a bright future for citizen scientists as they become more aware of their local environment.

 

About the Author: Amanda Kaufman is an ORISE participant hosted by EPA’s National Exposure Research Laboratory.

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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