chemicals

CAMEO: A Starring Role in Chemical Emergencies

By Peter Gattuso

In 1983, an accidental chemical release in Bhopal, India, killed thousands of people. There quickly came a heightened awareness of chemicals in our communities for fear of the same accident happening here. At that time, few computer programs were on the market to support chemical emergency professionals. So in 1986, together with my colleagues at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), we developed free software to help local governments prevent, prepare, and respond to chemical emergencies. The software, Computer Aided Management of Emergency Operations (CAMEO), was developed as a hazardous chemicals search tool. It now tracks facilities that store chemicals, provides emergency planning contacts and resources, and contains a chemical reference library.

As fire and police departments, industries, universities, environmental organizations, state, local and federal agencies began to use CAMEO, they gave us feedback on the kinds of features they’d find useful. We developed ALOHA, a planning/predictive tool used to investigate the potential impact of a tank rupture, drum spill, truck rollover, or similar incidents. Its modeling capabilities are also used during post-incident investigations. For example, a chemical release air dispersion model can be created after an incident to help investigators determine whether there were contaminants or dangerous areas during the incident.

CAMEO users kept telling us, “We need maps!” Back in 1988, most mapping programs were on mainframe computers, and none were free. So we developed our own – MARPLOT. You might say it’s a Geographic Information System (GIS) for the common man: a PC-based tool that doesn’t require much training. It’s tightly integrated into the CAMEO suite, so you can see the location of chemical facilities, overlay a chemical plume from ALOHA, and even determine the population within the plume, using the latest Census data. An exciting re-write of MARPLOT is due summer 2013, which will integrate online basemaps (like Google, Bing, MapQuest, OpenStreetMaps). It will operate in any browser, on any platform, and will retain the ability to run without an Internet connection,

It’s been very fulfilling to continue CAMEO’s expansion over the years and to see it being used so often, by so many in the United States and in other countries in chemical emergency planning, preparedness, and response activities.

About the Author: Peter Gattuso has developed multiple information systems since joining EPA in 1975. Currently in the Office of Emergency Management, Peter concentrates on emergency planning and response computer systems and is the lead technical consultant on systems for Risk Management Planning.

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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Making Sure Chemicals Around Us are Safe

By Jim Jones, Acting Assistant Administrator, OCSPP

Chemicals are found in most everything we use and consume— from plastics, to medicine, to cleaning products, and flame retardants in our furniture and clothing. They can be essential for our health, our well being, our prosperity and our safety— it’s no understatement to say that the quality of life we enjoy today would be impossible without chemicals. However, our understanding of chemical safety is constantly evolving and there remain significant gaps in our scientific knowledge regarding many chemicals and their potentially negative impacts on our health, and the environment.

While you may be familiar with the Clean Air and the Clean Water Acts— you may not be as familiar with the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the environmental statute enacted in 1976 to regulate all chemicals manufactured and used in the U.S. When TSCA was enacted, it grandfathered in, without any evaluation, the 62,000 chemicals in commerce that existed in 1976.

Unlike the laws for drugs and pesticides, TSCA does not have a mandatory program where the EPA must conduct a review to determine the safety of existing chemicals. TSCA is the only major environmental law that has not been modernized. The process of requiring testing through rulemaking chemical-by-chemical has proven burdensome and time consuming.

Compared to 30 years ago, we have a better understanding of how we are exposed to chemicals and the distressing health effects some chemicals can have – especially on children. At the same time, significant gaps exist in our scientific knowledge of many chemicals, including those like flame retardants. Increasingly, studies are highlighting the health risks posed by certain chemicals and recent media coverage has heightened public awareness about the safety of flame retardants.

As part of EPA’s efforts to assess chemical risks, we will begin evaluating 20 flame retardants in 2013 in order to improve our understanding of the potential risks of this class of chemicals, taking action if warranted, and identifying safer substitutes when possible. Over the years, EPA has also taken a number of regulatory and voluntary efforts, including negotiating the voluntary phase-outs of several toxic flame retardants. EPA’s review of and action on flame retardants has spanned over two decades and while these are important steps forward, the long history of EPA’s action on flame retardants is tied in no small part to the shortcomings of TSCA and stands as a clear illustration of the need for TSCA reform.

We have the right to expect that the chemicals found in products that we use every day are safe and provide benefits without hidden harm. It is critical that we close the knowledge gaps and provide this assurance under a reformed, 21st century version of TSCA.

About the author: Jim Jones is the Acting Assistant Administrator of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. He is responsible for managing the office which implements the nation’s pesticide, toxic chemical, and pollution prevention laws. The office has an annual budget of approximately $260 million and more than 1,300 employees. Jim’s career with EPA spans more than 24 years. From April through November 2011, Jim served as the Deputy Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. He has an M.A. from the University of California at Santa Barbara and a B.A. from the University of Maryland, both in Economics.

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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Proper Cleaning Prevents Poisonings

Several links below exit EPA Exit EPA Disclaimer

By Lina Younes

Among the fondest memories of my childhood was the time that I spent at my grandmother’s home in Old San Juan. I loved walking through the city with such a rich history and unique architecture. Every time I visit the Island, I take a stroll through the old city and memory lane.

I remember one day, I must have been around 9 or 10. I attempted to help my grandmother in cleaning around the house. I wanted to make her proud of my efforts. So I started mixing some of the cleaning products under the misguided notion that “more is better.”  To this date, I still have a very vivid image of my cleaning experiment. I remember one of the liquid cleaners was a dark amber color that when you diluted it in water it would become white. The other was some sort of clear liquid. However, when I made my cleaning concoction, it turned into a bright red! I quickly flushed the cleaning potion down the toilet. It was a good thing that it didn’t explode, but who knows what chemical reaction occurred! I guess I will never find out, but that leads me to the real subject of this blog entry: how to prevent accidental poisonings and exposures to chemicals. The issue is very timely given that we are celebrating National Poison Prevention Week.

Here are some tips to prevent accidental poisonings:

  • At EPA we stress the fact that “the label is the law.” Read labels carefully and follow instructions when using household cleaning products and pesticides.
  • As I learned from my experience decades ago, mixing products will not make your house cleaner. In fact, mixing cleaning household cleaners and pesticides can be dangerous.
  • Always keep cleaning products away from children’s reach. If you are in the process of cleaning and you get a phone call or someone knocks on the door, don’t keep the cleaning products unattended. That can be an accidental poisoning waiting to happen.
  • Since most poisonings occur in the home, make sure that you household cleaners and pesticides are properly stored. We even have a checklist to help you in a room-by-room inspection to ensure safety.

So, if in spite of your best efforts, someone in your home becomes accidentally exposed to a toxic chemical, please call the National Poison Control Centers at 1-800-222-1222. There are English and Spanish-speaking operators available round the clock anywhere in the United States, including Puerto Rico.

About the author: Lina Younes has been working for EPA since 2002 and currently serves the Multilingual Outreach and Communications Liaison for EPA. She manages EPA’s social media efforts in Spanish. Prior to joining EPA, she was the Washington bureau chief for two Puerto Rican newspapers and she has worked for several government agencies.

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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The EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory National Analysis: Facilities Preventing Pollution

By Kara Koehrn

Our economy produces goods that we depend on in our daily lives, like pharmaceuticals, clothing and cars. Sometimes during the production of those goods, toxic chemicals are released into the environment. But what can be done? Are these inevitable or is there something businesses can do to reduce or even eliminate their releases?

As Americans, we are empowered with information to help answer these questions through EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory (TRI). I work for TRI, and my coworkers and I are proud to continue a community-right-to-know tradition at EPA in which TRI provides information to the public about toxic chemical releases to air, water and land right on our website. But now we are going further, highlighting examples of how industry is preventing pollution. Here is just a sample:

  • In 2011, many electric utilities installed scrubbers on their stacks which reduced air releases of hazardous air pollutants, including hydrochloric acid and mercury.
  • In the chemical manufacturing industry, some facilities improved their maintenance and production schedules to reduce toxic chemical releases in 2011. One reported reducing ammonia releases to water (a contributor to eutrophication) after instituting better process control and operator training.
  • A facility in the computer and electronics sector reported that in response to a customer’s demand for lead-free services, it used a lead-free product surface finishing line in 2011, and expects to expand this service to other customers.

Facilities report real-world success stories like these to TRI each year, and we are highlighting them in our annual analysis of TRI data, the TRI National Analysis. We publish this report every year, but EPA employees aren’t the only ones who can analyze TRI data. You can use TRI’s new pollution prevention search tool to see which industrial facilities reported the largest reductions and what measures were most effective in achieving these results. Take a look!

I hope you check out the National Analysis and try the new pollution prevention tool to see what toxic chemicals are being released nationwide and what is being done to help clean up your air, water, and land. After all, it’s your right to know.

About the author: Kara Koehrn joined EPA’s Office of Environment Information in Washington, D.C. in 2009 and is the project leader for the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) National Analysis. She has recently sold her car to take full advantage of public transportation in D.C.

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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Scientist at Work: Mark Strynar, Ph.D.

Dr. Mark Strynar is a Physical Scientist in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. His research interests include developing methods to measure and analyze the movement and fate of perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) and other xenobiotic compounds (chemicals found in organisms that are not normally expected to be present) in biological and environmental media.

When not at work, he enjoys spending time with his family and volunteering at his local church and various community programs. He is also an avid hunter, woodworker and welder who spends countless hours in his workshop creating furniture, contraptions, sawdust, and metal filings.

How does your science matter?

For the past eight years or so, I’ve focused on perfluorinated compounds (PFCs). PFCs are chemical compounds used to make products resistant to stains, water, or heat. Most people would recognize them as the compounds that keep food from sticking to pans or stains from ruining carpet.

Unfortunately, the same properties that make PFCs useful in kitchenware and fabric also make them highly resistant to degradation, which means they stay in our environment for a long time after we are done using them. We have found that PFCs are also widely dispersed in human beings.

My job is trying to figure out the different ways that PFCs get into your body. Each avenue of exposure: water, fish, air, food, house dust, etc., requires a different way (“analytical method”) for us to measure for PFCs and other chemicals of interest.

My research supports human risk assessment studies. It matters because if PFC exposure levels are too high we can help people take action. For example, in Decatur, Alabama, we found that levels of PFCs were too high in water and we were able to put people on alternate sources of drinking water. I can see an immediate impact from the work I’m doing to protect people’s health.

If you could have dinner with any scientist, past or present, who would it be and what would you like to ask them about?

I would say Louis Pasteur Exit EPA Disclaimer, who was one of the first to do a lot of microbial work and discover that the root causes of many diseases are biologically based in microrganisms. I would like to ask him what made him begin to suspect that microbes are the root cause of diseases.

To keep reading Mark’s interview, click here.

To read more Scientist at Work profiles, click here.

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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P2 Really Does Pay: Pollution Prevention in the Real World

By David Sarokin

In the course of our careers, we all collect stories. Here’s one of my P2 favorites.

Years ago, I asked a number of chemical companies to open their facilities to me so I could learn where P2 was occurring. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of companies who invited me in.

One facility, a urea-formaldehyde resin manufacturer, discovered P2 during a crisis. The company had discharged its wastewater to the local sewage plant. But a permit renewal suddenly restricted discharges to just a few parts per million of formaldehyde. The plant was stuck! There was no room for an on-site treatment facility, and it was too expensive to truck the wastes off-site. The company considered shuttering the aging facility.

The plant manager found a novel solution: a plant walk-through!

“For the first time,” he told me, “I went through our processes, step by step, to see where wastes were coming from.” His workers to did the same, and found dozens of instances of avoidable wastes. A disconnected hose, for example, was left to leak into a floor drain. “Not a lot in terms of lost material,” he noted, “but enough to contaminate a few million gallons of wastewater.”

The largest single source of waste was the backwash used to clean a product filter, a step that produced a wastestream with high concentrations of chemicals. The product caught in the filter was just a bit “lumpy” according to the plant manager. They had been rinsing the filter this way for a generation, without ever considering alternatives.

The workers devised a simple procedure to break up the lumps and reroute the backwash into the process, avoiding the generation of a huge quantity of formaldehyde-contaminated wastewater. The procedure also improved the overall economics of the resin production.

With a few more clever tweaks, the plant achieved its new discharge limits.

There were a few valuable take-aways from this story:

  • Waste that is out of sight, is out of mind
  • Challenge workers to eliminate waste, and they’ll probably find a way.
  • Pollution prevention pays
  • Regulations can be your friend

About the author: David Sarokin is a P2 specialist at EPA and the author of Cutting Chemical Wastes, one of the first major studies to focus on pollution prevention in the chemical industry.

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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A Better Approach to a Clogged Drain?

By Laura Janson

It happens every so often. One of the drains in my house gets clogged. It is usually the drain in my shower stall or the drain in my bathroom sink. They tend to collect hair.

Being a health-conscious environmentalist, I try not to use harsh chemicals — you know — the ones that contain an irritant that can burn your skin or the inside of your nose? I’ve tried a drain snake, but that requires some elbow grease and sometimes I can’t seem to reach the clog. Why don’t I just use a drain sieve or filter on top of the drains? The bathroom sink is angled so that one will not lay flat. I did find one for the shower that’s easy to clean—stainless steel—and is fine enough to catch hair, but it doesn’t fit in the kids’ tub. What about an environmentally friendly drain cleaner? Good approach, but let’s think outside of the box.

An idea hit me when my brother showed me the filter in my dishwasher that catches large food particles and “foreign objects” like fancy plastic toothpicks. Who knew? Not me, but then I never read the entire manual.

Why not have the same gizmos, those traps they have in many dishwashers, in bathroom drains? Then I could just unscrew the cover on the drain, pull out the trap, remove the hair, put back the cover, and voila, an unclogged drain! It would just take a minute and it would be environmentally friendly.

Calling all faucet manufacturers or entrepreneurs. Find a way to incorporate a filter into every faucet’s design. Then everyone can clean their own drain filters. . . they just have to read the manual to know it’s there.

While you’re thinking about eco-friendly bathroom fixtures, check out all the water efficient appliances from the Water Sense program. Will you be giving your bathroom an eco-makeover?

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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A Lifelong Journey from the Towns of Guatemala

By Ana Corado

I would like to tell you the story that leads to my leaving the Sava Center in Belgrade, Serbia, on a late foggy Friday evening, after a long week of discussions on international chemicals management.

My story begins many years ago, as a child in Guatemala, where I was born and raised. My parents worked with grassroots and international organizations devoted to rural education in a country that has over 20 different ethnic indigenous groups. As early as I can remember, my school vacation consisted of living in remote villages where other children wore non-western clothing and spoke indigenous languages. To this day I recall the mountain air, clean water springs, pine forests and starry nights. The villages lacked electricity and most didn’t have running water. Our days were filled with basic chores: collecting water, washing clothes by hand, helping set the fire, cooking, or walking through corn fields discussing agricultural practices. Despite their scant material comforts, peasants in the communities welcomed us into their lives.

These childhood experiences taught me an invaluable lesson in appreciating other cultures. These lessons would again be applied when I came to the United States to pursue advanced studies in environmental engineering and became a U.S. citizen. I started my professional career in Los Angeles working on water resources issues, later moved to work for EPA’s regional office in San Francisco, and then to EPA headquarters in Washington, where I was introduced to the Office of International and Tribal Affairs.

My interest in technical issues led me to the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics at
EPA where I work on international chemicals management issues. On a day-to-day basis, I provide technical support to U.S. efforts with international partners. I attend international meetings where countries discuss how to work together to ensure that chemicals are used and produced in ways that minimize potential adverse effects on human health and the environment. Again, my childhood experience with different cultures helps me to better understand the need for diplomatic engagement with partners around the world. This work took me to that cold night in Belgrade, where despite feeling tired after a long-week of discussions, I had the satisfaction that 150 delegates at the meeting agreed to continue efforts to reduce the use of lead in paint globally and promote the use of alternatives to perfluorinated chemicals.

About the Author: Dr. Ana Corado is an Environmental Engineer with the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics and member of the international team. She has worked on environmental issues for 20 years in the U.S. where she resides with her husband and daughter. She still continues to support educational initiatives in Guatemala.

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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Dust Bunny – Friend Or Foe?

They seem pretty harmless….those dust bunnies.  They sit under your bed, watching you watch them. 

The thing is those balls of dust living under my bed aren’t just gross but they can be toxic.  It doesn’t stop here.  My basset hound Murphy’s dander can be harmful too. Chemicals from around your home and from the outdoors can wind up indoors causing harm without you knowing it.  Even in low doses, these chemicals can make it indoors and be toxic, compromising your health.   Dust is made up of all sorts of gross stuff like this, including human hair and skin, fungal spores, and tiny particles and fibers.

All of these things can trigger asthma attacks in you, older adults, or young kids just like it does to my little sister, Olive.    Asthma can make it harder to breathe and get air into your lungs.  A lot of the times, Olive has to sit out playing volleyball or soccer.  It’s not fair.

What can I do as Olive’s big brother?  Try preventing the asthma triggers.

First, I make sure there aren’t any armies of dust bunnies building in my room by vacuuming it regularly.   Murphy, the basset hound, probably needs to have a bath and be groomed outdoors weekly, especially during the spring.  If I see a film of dust on my electronic equipment, it’s time to wipe it down and get rid of the dust on it. 

Yea, Olive can be a pest sometimes but she’s my little sister and as her big brother, I have to watch out for her.

Learn more about asthma and its environmental triggers at: www.epa.gov/asthma

Joseph is a 9th grader who likes hanging out with his friends and playing the violin.

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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Adventures in Babysitting

Babysitting. Sometimes it’s the easiest way to make some extra money after you’ve used your allowance on the latest music, book, or outing with your friends. Other times, it’s a must. You HAVE to watch and take care of your little brother.  They can make it easy on you, or manage to run you around and do unpredictable things.  This could get dangerous.

Babies like to crawl on the floor and put things in their mouth.  Toddlers or smaller children that are walking, love opening cabinets to find all sorts of shiny, dangerous things.  If any of them get a hold of chemicals or pesticides, any exposure could be dangerous.   They’re curious and you need to know what is safe to have around them.

So before you use any chemicals around children, read the label. If you’re feeding them, make sure to wash their hands and yours beforehand.  Keep them safe and get more information at: http://www.epa.gov/safepestcontrol/

It’ll make you a better babysitter and knowledge makes you more valuable.

Yvonne Gonzalez is a SCEP intern with the Air and Radiation Division in Region 5. She is currently pursuing a dual graduate degree at DePaul University.

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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