Clean Air

Wearing a Mask

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Greetings from New England!Each Monday we write about the New England environment and way of life seen through our local perspective. Previous postsBy Amy Miller

In some Asian towns an estimated one out of five people wears a face mask. Until you see it, though, that’s just a statistic from afar. In the last five years in Boston, New England’s largest city, I don’t recall ever seeing a face mask outside a doctor’s office.

But sitting recently in a Bangkok café, riding a “tuk tuk” in Luang Prabang, Laos, and touring the ancient temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, I saw the reality. We, residents of Planet Earth, have begun to build our bubbles – bubbles protecting us from the world we are polluting.

My journey to Southeast Asia began during Chinese New Year, when millions of Chinese tourists filled the streets. The month before had seen a national health emergency in Beijing – the second most populous city in China. As the city experienced 19 days above acceptable air pollution levels that month, many of them way above, companies gave masks to employees, residents were told to stay home, factories were closed and government cars were ordered off the road.

At the height of the smog, readings for PM2.5 – particles small enough to penetrate the lungs deeply – hit 993 micrograms per cubic meter, almost 40 times the World Health Organization’s safe limit. According to EPA, levels between 301 and 500 are “hazardous,” meaning people should avoid outdoor activity.

Many of the masked tourists were coming off the heels of this.

But the reasons to wear a mask can range from fear of getting sick to fear of infecting someone else to protection from air pollution. On dusty roads masks make breathing easier. Masks are even becoming fashion statements, I read.

The masked included police officers in Chiang Mai, Thailand; construction workers in Angkor Wat, Cambodia, and residents on motorbikes in Laos. And of course Chinese tourists everywhere. All protecting themselves from the world around them.

On the same trip, I visited a village in the mountains of northern Laos where the men still weave bamboo walls for houses, women head to the fields to reap grass for making brooms and night falls in a world devoid of electricity, letting the stars in the sky light the way to the loo.

I am not prone to sentimental musings on sunsets or dewdrops. But confronting so directly the human cost of pollution, set starkly against a backdrop of unspoiled beauty, I greatly appreciated stepping off the plane into Boston, where the AQI was, oh, about 35 on the day I landed.

http://airnow.gov/index.cfm?action=airnow.local_city&zipcode=02138

About the author:  Amy Miller is a writer who works in the public affairs office of EPA New England in Boston. She lives in Maine with her husband, two children, seven chickens, two parakeets, dog and a great community.

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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Black History Month: Generation Green

By Kuae Kelch Mattox
National President, Mocha Moms, Inc.

When I was growing up, I don’t remember being concerned much about the environment. We didn’t scrutinize labels, all our trash went into one can and we never considered buying “organic.” But now I’m mother to three children who remind me every day what I should be doing to be a kinder, gentler friend to this world in which we live.

My nine year-old daughter tells me I waste water when I let it run while brushing my teeth. My thirteen year old son regularly reminds me he can’t bring anything but a reusable water bottle onto the lacrosse field. He’s also the resident scholar on which plastic is recyclable, and which is not. My teenage environmentally conscious daughter chastises me for putting groceries in plastic bags and points out suspicious chemical key words on cosmetic labels. At our local elementary school, Waste Wednesday is a school tradition. Classes compete to see whose lunchroom trash weighs the least.

Our children are growing up in an era of unprecedented environmental consciousness. The environment is an important part of science and social studies curriculum, science fairs are hot ticket events and extracurricular programs remind our children how their actions impact the environment.

I have always seen myself as my children’s first teacher, but when it comes to the environment, I find that my children are often the ones teaching me. It is a source of great pride that they see taking care of the environment as a serious matter. I see it as my role, particularly as an African American mother, to guide them along the way, to serve as a reminder that it does feel good to treat the place that we call home with honor and respect. Each moment that they teach me is an opportunity for me to show them that I am listening and I, too, care. I also want them to understand the unique needs of the African American community, and that in many communities people of color suffer from disproportionate levels of environmental risk.

For my son, who has asthma, he needs to understand in particular the importance of breathing clean air. For all children, we must be ever vigilant, making sure that their natural curiosity and desire to do good for the earth continues as they grow into adulthood. Let’s talk about the issues – dirty water, polluted air, leaking pesticides, dangerous toxins, health disparities, and let’s explore solutions. Let’s teach our children to be environmental advocates and help this generation to “green” the next one. Let them know, it isn’t just about recycling plastic bottles and paper products. It’s about giving love to the planet – the grass, the trees, the birds and yes, the bees. It’s about planting vegetable gardens, beautifying the landscape outside your school and leaving that odd shaped stinkbug on your wall alone. It’s also about understanding the environmental justice battles of our African American forefathers, knowing how far we have come, and how far we still have to go.

The baby steps we take with our young environmental stewards today will help the next generation to take even bigger steps in the future.

About the author: Kuae Kelch Mattox is the National President of Mocha Moms, Inc., a non-profit organization that supports stay at home mothers of color with 100 chapters in 29 states.

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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Green Heart: Will you be mine?

By Aaron Ferster

As a husband and the father of two girls, I am a big fan of Valentine’s Day. The cards. Heart-shaped boxes of chocolate. Flowers. Maybe even an evening glass of bubbly (or two) once the kids are in bed.  Looking around the crowded metro car on my way to work this morning, it was obvious I’m not the only one. More than a few folks were carrying bouquets, or boxes filled with velvet-icing-topped cupcakes. And everyone was wearing red.

It’s no wonder that public health organizations across the country have picked February—the month marked by Valentine’s Day—to make wearing red a reminder of the importance of heart health. American Heart Month is a call to action to raise awareness about what we all can do to prevent heart disease, the country’s number one cause of death for men and women.

There is a growing awareness of several simple, important steps we can take in that regard: don’t smoke, get regular exercise, and watch our diets.

EPA researchers and their partners have illuminated links between environmental factors, specifically air pollution, and heart disease. Theirs’ and others’ studies show that exposure to air pollution can trigger heart attacks and strokes, especially for those people with cardiovascular disease.

To help spread the word about these findings and actions people can take to lower their health risks, EPA recently launched the Green Heart initiative.  For example, one important action is to regularly check the Air Quality Index (AQI) forecast for your community. AQI is EPA’s color-coded tool for showing air quality, illustrating how clean or polluted your local air is. It also provides recommendations for steps to reduce your exposure, such as:

  • If you  have heart disease, are an older adult, or have other risk factors for heart disease, take steps to reduce your exposure when the AQI forecast is at code orange or above. These can include reducing your activity level (for example, walk instead of jog), exercising indoors, or postponing your workout or other activity for when the air quality is better.
  • Avoid exercising near busy roads if possible. (This is always a good idea.)
  • And most critical, if you feel symptoms of a heart attack or stroke, stop and seek medical help immediately!

While the Agency, states and tribes are taking actions to reduce air pollution by moving ahead with stronger emission controls on vehicles and industry and more protective air quality standards, there are steps people can take to reduce their own risks from air pollution.

Helping spread the word about what we can do to promote a healthier environment for our own hearts and those of our loved ones is a perfect way to celebrate Valentine’s Day. While I won’t skip picking up a box of chocolate on the way home, next year I think I’ll wear green!

About the Author: Aaron Ferster is the science writer for EPA’s Office of Research and Development, and the editor of “It All Starts with Science.”

Learn more!

Green Heart Initiative at http://www.epa.gov/greenheart/.
Follow us on Twitter at @EPAresearch

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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A Breath of Fresh Air: EPA Air Research in the Latest Issue of Science Matters

By Katherine Portilla

It’s only the first month for me as a summer intern at the EPA, and I’ve already learned so much by working on the latest issue of Science Matters. The research that EPA dedicates to the study of the air we breathe is quite simply impressive, not to mention fascinating!

Over the past two decades, the US has seen significant growth in many areas. Between 1990 and 2010, the population grew 24%, energy consumption rose 15%, and gross domestic production increased by some 65%.  Additionally, the US has seen a lively 40% increase in motor vehicle use.

You’d think that with so much growth, especially in motor vehicle use, that there would be an increase in air pollution. So I was surprised to learn that levels of air pollutant emissions have actually dropped by more than 50%! Indeed, the country’s air has gotten a lot cleaner. This fact is even reflected in an estimated five month increase in life expectancy, based on an EPA-supported study.

To what do we owe this success, you may ask? Well, there’s science, for one, and a number of science-based air pollution regulations passed under the Clean Air Act in 1970.

EPA continues to make the air cleaner and healthier for communities across the nation by conducting research to address today’s complex air quality issues, including the interrelationship between air pollution and climate change. The latest issue of EPA Science Matters focuses on these ongoing efforts, with stories including:

Keep reading to learn about the nation’s first zero-emission, all electric school bus, which hit the streets of California’s San Joaquin to improve both air quality and the economy. And if you live near a major road, you can learn how EPA’s research is helping to protect you from traffic emissions.

All this, and more, is in the latest issue of EPA Science Matters, so don’t miss out!

About the author: Katherine Portilla is an intern with EPA’s 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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Asthma, Air Pollution, and the Importance of Epithelial Cells

By Jan Dye

Lung anatomyBecause epithelial cells ─ the surface cells of the lung ─ are some of the first cells in the body to encounter air pollutants, they function as an important protective barrier against the numerous noxious or injurious agents found in the inspired air, including microorganisms, pollutants, and allergens.

In my laboratory, we use a relatively simple cell culture approach to investigate how gases and particles from different pollutant sources can induce differing degrees of damage to airway and lung epithelial cells.  Our findings help to link air pollutant exposure to specific adverse effects on these important protective cells of the lung.

  • For example, we have shown that when lung cells are exposed to certain metal mixtures (similar to that found on particles derived from steel mill emissions); cells were more damaged than if they were exposed to just one metal at a time, even at relatively high concentrations.
  • We demonstrated that real-world diesel exhaust particles (which have a layer of organic carbon-rich material and road dust associated metals) are more injurious to airway epithelial cells than simple carbon particles (like that found in cartridge toner). Taken together, results show that both the particle dose and its composition are important in determining its epithelial toxicity.
  • We have also shown that if lung cell cultures undergo physical injury or “wounding” prior to exposure to diesel particles, cultures are not able to “heal” the injured areas as readily or as completely as the unexposed cultures.  It appears that air pollutant exposure may interfere with cell migration. Directed epithelial cell migration is critical for healing of the airways after insult (e.g., viral infection or asthma flare up) and for lung development during periods of rapid lung growth (e.g., early childhood and adolescence).
  • Finally, we have shown that when epithelial cells “grow up” within an inflammatory microenvironment (not unlike that present in the airways of people with asthma), exposure to diesel particles induced significantly greater lung cell damage, resulting in a “leaky” epithelial barrier.  If this were to happen within the airways of an asthmatic individual, inhaled irritants may penetrate deeper into lung tissues, potentially worsening allergen exposure and responses.

These are just a few of the ways in which exposure to air pollutants can negatively impact the health of epithelial cells lining the airways and deep lung spaces.  Epithelial cells also play critical roles in controlling inflammatory and immune responses after lung insult. If damaged by air pollution, these cells are not able to do their job as effectively.

About the author:  Dr. Jan Dye is a health effects researcher in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.  She is a Project Lead for the Air, Climate, and Energy program’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards and Multipollutant Project on susceptibility to air pollutants.

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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Spring Cleaning? What About Air Ducts?

By Kelly Hunt

It’s spring. How can I tell? Mailings about air duct cleaning. It makes sense that they come now, while us home dwellers prep for the warmer months by cleaning and doing home repairs. But do I need to get the air ducts in my home cleaned? Can this affect the air I breathe indoors? Does that impact my health?

Lucky for me, I work with experts who happily helped me navigate this question. Don’t you fret, though — all of their words of wisdom are on EPA’s Web page on air ducts for you to view anytime, so you’ll be able to make the best decision for you.

Things I learned:

  • First, be familiar with general indoor air quality tips to reduce risk: control pollution sources in the home, change filters regularly and adjust humidity.
  • Air duct cleaning has never been shown to actually prevent health problems. Scientific studies are inconclusive on whether dust levels in homes increase because of dirty air ducts.
  • Indoor pollutants that enter from outdoors or come from indoor activities — like cooking, cleaning or smoking — may cause greater exposure to contaminants than dirty air ducts.
  • You need to inspect your air ducts to determine whether or not they need to be cleaned.

You should consider air duct cleaning if:

  • There’s substantial, visible mold growth inside the ducts or on parts of your HVAC system. (If there’s mold, there’s likely a moisture problem. A professional should find the cause of the water problem and fix it.) If you consult a professional, make sure they SHOW you the mold before moving forward.
  • The ducts are infested with rodents or insects. Not okay.
  • The ducts are clogged with excessive amounts of dust and debris that are actually released into the home from vents.

If you find any of those problems, identify the underlying cause before cleaning, retrofitting or replacing your ducts. If you don’t, the problem will likely happen again.

There’s little evidence that cleaning your air ducts will improve health or, alone, will increase efficiency. To learn about HVAC maintenance and efficiency, see our Heating and Cooling Efficiently page.

Decision, decisions. If I decide to get my air ducts cleaned, I’ll make sure to follow the advice of EPA experts. I’ll also carefully check the service provider’s track record before doing anything. And I’ll remember to SEE, with my own eyes, mold growth or other problems before making a final decision.

About the author: Kelly Hunt, is a communications specialist with EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. Her career in public affairs began in 2001 and she now focuses on emergency response, outreach and engagement for radiation and indoor air issues.

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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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Science Wednesday: Lessons from Wildfires and Air Pollution

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Martha Sue Carraway

I grew up in the eastern part of North Carolina, near the coastal area and the Great Dismal Swamp. This is home to wide open spaces, long views, and clean air. During a visit Down East this past weekend, I was sitting indoors watching an icy rain fall. But just the day before, spring was everywhere, with new buds and green sprouts widely present. Spring does come a bit earlier down here than in my adopted home in the Triangle. It’s a good place to start my piece on the Green Hearts Campaign.

I began working at the EPA Human Studies Facility in 2007, and was happy to have a job that would allow me to use my background in medicine (I am a lung doctor) and science to study how air pollution harms people by affecting the cardiovascular system. Near the end of my first year, in June 2008, a very large wildfire broke out in the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. This was the first of a number of significant fires in eastern North Carolina over the past years, and they seem to be increasing. Smoke from this low burning, smoldering fire cast a haze over the clean skies of eastern North Carolina.

PamlicoSoundsunriseImagine my excitement when scientists at the Clinical Research Branch came together with investigators across EPA to study the health impacts this fire was having on the residents who lived nearby. Because I was away for a few days for my parents 50th wedding anniversary during the planning, I narrowly missed the chance to have an air pollution monitor sited in my home town of Windsor! I enjoyed participating in this project and gathering data about the frequency of emergency department visits during the time of the fire. We found that in areas heavily affected by the wildfire smoke, people were more likely to go to hospital Emergency Departments to seek treatment for symptoms of heart failure and respiratory problems. We hope that some of the lessons learned from this fire will help keep people safer during future fire events. It is rewarding to know that the work we do at EPA impacts people near my home. I am happy that my parents and friends have learned about the air quality index that can help inform them when the air is not healthy anywhere in the USA.

About the author: Martha Sue Carraway is a Pulmonologist and works as a Medical Officer and Principal Investigator at the U.S .EPA Clinical Research Branch, Environmental and Public Health Division, in Chapel Hill, NC.

Find out more about our study of the Pocosin Refuge wildfire

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations 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.

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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Black History Month:The Power of a Mother’s Voice

By Kuae Kelch Mattox
National President, Mocha Moms, Inc.

It’s been said that there is no one more protective than a mother over her children, and when it comes to our children’s health, our passion knows no bounds. Yet many women, like me, grew up taking the environment and the air we breathe for granted. We left the work of fighting for clean air to the die-hard environmentalists and dared speak up unless an issue hit too close to home.

But now across this country, many mothers, and mothers organizations in particular are realizing the incredible power of their collective voice. Mothers are the new face of environmentalism. You see us now on the frontlines, writing letters to the editor of our local paper, organizing grassroots efforts to educate our peers, promoting online environmental campaigns, going door to door with petitions and demanding accountability at town hall meetings. We now know that clean air is not only important, it is vital to the health and well being of future generations.

As an African American wife of an asthma sufferer and mother of three children, one of whom also suffers from asthma, I am horrified by the statistics that are devastating our community. African Americans visit the emergency room for asthma at 350 percent the average rate that whites do, and die from it twice as often. Mortality rates for cancer are higher for African Americans than for any other group, and heart disease is the most fatal illness in the black community.

We need to expand the conversation to include the environmental causes of illnesses that affect communities of color, the pollution that makes its way into our schools and the environmental challenges in our neighborhoods that hold back economic growth.

When the EPA asked Mocha Moms to join them in the fight for cleaner air, we jumped at the chance to further educate our mothers and their families.
Our hope is that our partnership with the EPA is only the beginning of an ongoing national dialog to empower mothers of color to be greater advocates for healthier environments. We are thrilled to have a seat at the discussion table. After all, it is our children who will ultimately reap the greatest benefit.

About the author: Kuae Kelch Mattox is the National President for Mocha Moms, Inc.  Mocha Moms, Inc. is a national, non-profit organization that supports stay at home mothers of color with 100 chapters in 29 states.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations 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.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Cutting Mercury and Protecting America's Children

by Administrator Lisa P. Jackson

From historic efforts to cut pollution from American automobiles to strong measures to prevent power plant pollution from crossing state lines, 2011 was already a banner year for clean air and the health of the American people. And the EPA is closing out the year with our biggest clean air protection yet.

Last week, we finalized the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, or MATS, a rule that will protect millions of families and, especially, children from air pollution. Before this rule, there were no national standards that limited the amount of mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel and acid gases power plants across the country could release into the air we breathe. Mercury is a neurotoxin that is particularly harmful to children, and emissions of mercury and other air toxics have been linked to damage to developing nervous systems, respiratory illnesses and other diseases. MATS will require power plants to install emissions controls that will also reduce particle pollution, which has been linked to premature death and cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

As a result, MATS will provide between $37 billion and $90 billion in health benefits for the American people. Once the rule is fully implemented in 2016, it will prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks, and 130,000 cases of aggravated asthma among children between six and 18 years old.

That last point is especially significant to me as a mother. I understand the importance of MATS in very profound ways, because both of my sons have struggled with asthma. Fifteen years ago, my youngest son spent his first Christmas in the hospital fighting to breathe. Like any parent of a child with asthma, I can tell you that the benefits of clean air protections like MATS are not just statistics and abstract concepts.

What we’re really talking about with all those numbers above are pregnant mothers who can rest a little easier knowing their children won’t be exposed to harmful levels of mercury in critical development stages. We are talking about reducing the levels of mercury in the fish that we and our kids eat every day. We are talking about future generations growing up healthier because there is less toxic pollution in the air they breathe.

Find out how MATS will protect health in your state.

What we’re also talking about with MATS are thousands of new opportunities for American workers. Not only will MATS provide health benefits that far outweigh the costs of compliance, it will also support jobs and innovation for our economy.

To meet the MATS standards over the next several years, many power plants will have to upgrade their operations with modern and widely available pollution control technology. There are about 1,100 coal-fired units that are covered by MATS, and about 40 percent do not use advanced pollution controls to limit emissions. Increased demand for scrubbers and other advanced pollution controls will mean increased business for American companies that lead the way in producing pollution control technology.

But that’s just the start. Power plants making upgrades will need workers to build, install, operate and maintain the pollution controls. As the CEO of one of the largest coal-burning utilities in the country recently said about cutting emissions by installing pollution control technology, “Jobs are created in the process – no question about that.” The EPA estimates that the demands for workers will support 46,000 short-term construction jobs and 8,000 long-term jobs.

The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards will protect millions of families and children from harmful and costly air pollution, provide the American people with health benefits that far outweigh the costs of compliance, and support job creation and innovation that are good for our economy. Families across the country – including my own – will benefit from the simple fact of being able to breathe cleaner air. That is what environmental protection and the work of the EPA is all about.

In this holiday season as we gather with our friends and families, Americans can take pride in the gift of clean air. Our children and future generations will have healthier air to breathe because of MATS and this historic year for clean air protection.

About the author: Lisa P. Jackson is the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency

Find out more about how MATS works:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sx0vvn_Wn8o&feature=youtu.be[/youtube]

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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Science Wednesday: Don’t wait for Wednesday—Get Science Matters!

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection.Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Aaron Ferster

While “TGISW” (thank goodness it’s Science Wednesday) may never catch on like that more famous exclamation about everybody’s favorite workday, I’ve come to really enjoy my weekly task of getting EPA’s weekly science post ready for Greenversations. Even though we still have another one left before the calendar flips over to 2012, we’ve already shared more “Science Wednesdays” this year than there are actual Wednesdays.

Posts were “tagged” for a diversity of EPA science activities, including sustainability (six posts this year), green chemistry (four posts), clean air research (four posts), women in science (part of the Agency’s month-long activities Celebrating Women in Science during March, 2011), risk assessment (two posts), and a host of other subjects too numerous to fit into a single blog post. We even managed to work in something about bed bugs and a hedgehog!

EPA scientists eager to share insights on their work advancing environmental models launched a series called “Modeling Matters.”

A special thanks to all our readers and commenters, who joined the science “Greenversations” to the tune of some 191 comments.

By now you’ve noticed that we have a lot of science to share, way more that can fit into weekly “Science Wednesday” posts. That’s why I’d like to invite everyone again to sign up for our newsletter, Science Matters.

The December issue includes stories on: EPA efforts to measure sustainability, an environmental model for tracking mercury levels in fish and loons in lakes across New England, news about the latest release of the Community Multiscale Air Quality Model, a link to a podcast interview about EPA’s hydraulic fracturing study—and more. To have the newsletter delivered right to your inbox, click on the link below and add your e-mail address to the box on the web site: Subscribe to Science Matters.

Until next time—TGISW!

About the Author: Aaron Ferster is the lead science writer in EPA’s Office of Research and Development and the editor or Science Wednesday.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations 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.


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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.