Environmental Careers Program

Science Wednesday: EPA Risk Assessments, the Best Possible Science

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

By Paul T. Anastas, Ph.D.

A dedicated team of scientists in EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) program works to assess the hazards that chemicals pose to human health. The assessments they produce, known as IRIS assessments, are not regulations. However, the information they contain is an important basis for regulatory decisions that impact the health of all Americans.

The importance of this hazard information—such as whether or not a chemical is likely carcinogenic—cannot be overstated.
Because some assessments focus on chemicals that are widely used in industry, members of the regulated community, environmental groups, the media, and the public have shown keen interest in the IRIS program. Their interest is legitimate. All Americans should be armed with the best possible scientific information on chemical hazards and feel confident that EPA is striving for continuous improvement.

EPA also solicits feedback on draft IRIS assessments from independent scientific experts. While their feedback has been largely positive, when issues are identified, we act to address them. This is precisely the reason EPA submits draft assessments for independent review. This means the scientific process is working.

This summer, EPA announced a set of improvements to the IRIS program in direct response to recommendations from the National Academies of Science and other independent experts. These changes make IRIS assessments clearer, more concise, and make our methods and scientific assumptions more transparent to readers. We have already begun to phase-in these changes to assessments in the IRIS pipeline.

Of the 50 chemicals currently in the IRIS pipeline, several are exceedingly complex. For example, the IRIS assessment of trichloroethylene (TCE), a widely used industrial solvent, has been under development for more than a decade. The assessment is of high interest because of its potential implications for industry and public health. After extensive independent review, it has been determined that any issues have been adequately addressed.

The TCE IRIS assessment is being released today. It concludes that TCE is carcinogenic to people and poses a human health hazard to the central nervous system, kidney, liver, immune system, male reproductive system, and the developing fetus. This information will be useful to communities, businesses, and government leaders across the country as they make important decisions that impact human health and the environment.

While we know that the goal of perfection is impossible, we will continue to strive for it. We will continue to release IRIS assessments that are scientifically strong. We will continue to pursue the best science with integrity and a mission to protect the health of the American people.

About the author: Paul T. Anastas, Ph.D. is the assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Research and Development and the science advisor to the Agency.

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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Science Wednesday: Working With the Best of the Best

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

By Katie Lubinsky

Two of our very own EPA scientists, Dr. Gayle Hagler and Dr. David Reif, received the 2010 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). The award is the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on outstanding science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers … and I am working with one of them on various communications projects!

Dr. Gayle Hagler—the award-winning scientist I’m working with—was nominated for leading research in the development and use of new technologies (electric vehicles and GPS) to measure and map air pollutant emissions near roadside locations. Such research also looks at how barriers, like sound walls and vegetation, reduce the distance air pollutants travel from highways to nearby communities.

My work with Dr. Hagler involves developing a video about her near-roadway mobile emission research, interviewing her and her colleagues. As part of that work, I will get to take a ride in the mobile measuring vehicle—a converted, electric-powered PT Cruiser with the air measuring instruments conveniently placed in the back. Along with the video project, Dr. Haglar has worked with me on a writing assignment involving EPA black carbon research.

I can easily say how excited I am about working with such a gifted and well-known scientist. To be around and work with a recipient of such a prestigious award makes me realize the unique experience I am having at the EPA where such innovative and intelligent people work. I believe this is a story I will share with others both now and in the future, and one that will open my eyes to her research and how I’m contributing through public outreach.

Dr. Hagler’s co-honoree is EPA’s Dr. David Reif, who was nominated for his work developing tools for organizing and profiling chemicals for potential toxicity to human health and the environment, as well as studying childhood asthma in order to develop more personalized diagnoses, management and treatments. He is also an active member in the community, teaching at a local university and speaking publically to others about science. Dr. Reif has even blogged here on Science Wednesday!

About the Author: Katie Lubinsky is a student contractor in communications at the Office of Research and Development in Research Triangle Park.

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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Hispanic Heritage Month:Raul Soto

By Raul Soto

Looking back at the last eighteen months since my appointment at EPA, I am struck by the incredible passion I have been exposed to during my interactions with both region and program offices alike. During this Hispanic Heritage month, I can honestly say that I have been privileged to work alongside individuals that wear the agency on their sleeves and open their hearts to the needs of the American public. Interfacing with dedicated professionals throughout the agency has solidified my appreciation for the deep resolve I see manifested when I gaze upon individuals seeking to assist communities in need.

When I consider the theme of Jobs & the Economy, I consider a personal hero – my dad. Here is a man that I can honestly say never groused about getting up and going to work. He loved his job and it showed. It might never have paid much, but it was enough to raise a family of six and allow for some discretionary spending like a bike or a football to while the time away on hot Saturday afternoons growing up in South Texas. His oft-quoted phrase to us was: “Your work ethic is a reflection of your personal character”. “Mijo”, he would tell me, “Con ganas, todo es possible”. With effort, anything is possible.
In the 1990’s, Hispanics were heavily reliant on employment as a main component to personal income. Close to 70% of adult Hispanics were in the labor force by necessity. In recent years, with the great recession in full swing, many Hispanics/Latinos struggle to maintain and preserve their households. Still, they remain resilient.

Education continues to be a major contributor to economic fortunes for Latinos. Its positive effects were in evidence during a summer EPA-sponsored interns networking event. During the course of the morning I came across a young man and woman from Texas A&M- Kingsville. The young man declared he was going to take his younger brother under his wing and educate him about the mission he had been a part of. The young lady was so thoroughly committed to the role of Latinos in environmental justice, she is considering the possibility of a graduate degree. Their unbridled enthusiasm and appreciative demeanor so motivated me, that I feel rejuvenated and resolved to keep mentoring those who strive to be good role models and stewards of our environment. Con ganas, si se puede!

About the author: Raul Soto is the Associated Assistant Administrator for Office of Diversity, Outreach and Collaboration

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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Digging the Earth

By Kathy Sykes

When I think about my Grandpa Lars, I always remember him digging in his garden, harvesting new red potatoes, and dill, as a good Swede, as well as lettuce, tomatoes, raspberries, and many other fruits and vegetables. His green thumb was inherited by my mother, Marguerite, who mastered the art of gardening vegetables, herbs and flowers. She not only inspired our family to love gardening, but also neighbors, who soon were planting their gardens too.

People on foot, bike or in cars often stopped, smiled and thanked us for our garden. Occasionally we received anonymous notes addressed to the “Residents of 2100 Rowley” thanking us for the beautifully cared for plants. We took pride in our mom’s treasure and in our small family contributions of weeding and watering the garden. Getting my hands dirty from digging in the ground was almost as much fun as using the hose to water seedlings and my siblings.

I also remember stepping outside to cut fresh flowers for the dinner table or sprigs of parsley, or basil that added the final touch and fragrance to her delicious dishes. I especially recall the crabapple tree that mom’s co-workers bought for her when my Grandfather died. Now the tree stands tall and provides much appreciated shade on hot and humid summer days.

The demands and distractions of modern society deter too many of us from digging in the ground. Time constraints and other dangers keep us indoors. Nowadays, children spend less time outside in unstructured play, while adults spend more time commuting in our sprawling cities.

This weekend we have the opportunity to share our knowledge of gardening and love of trees with youth and reminisce about the changes that have occurred during our lifetime. Getting off the couch, away from our blackberries and TVs and outside to appreciate our parks, local woods and green space is a worthy endeavor. Saturday, September 24th is National Public Lands Day. This event is celebrated annually and was conceived of by the National Environmental Education Foundation. EPA is one many sponsoring agencies. Volunteer to plant a tree and bring along your camera to capture the fun of digging in the dirt.

You can enter the Volunteers in Action Photo Contest.

Plant a tree. Dig the Earth! She will thank you.

About the author: Kathy Sykes began working for the U.S. EPA in 1998. Since 2002, she has served as the Senior Advisor for the Aging Initiative.

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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Science Wednesday:Rising STARs

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

By Aaron Ferster

This week, I had the pleasure of joining a few colleagues to talk about science communication at the 2011 EPA STAR Graduate Fellowship Conference here in Washington, DC. “STAR” stands for Science To Achieve Results, a competitive grant program EPA administers to advance human health and environmental science in support of its mission.

The conference brought together STAR grantees and STAR graduate fellows from colleges and universities across the country to talk shop about their research and learn about how their particular work fits into EPA’s commitment to science and engineering.

“The competitive STAR Fellowship prides itself for attracting, supporting and bolstering the next generation of environmental scientists, engineers and policy makers. In doing so, the program enhances the environmental research and development enterprise, advances green principles and bridges diverse communities that help EPA better meet its mission,” wrote EPA’s William Sanders III, Dr. P.H. in the Awardees Research Portfolio. Dr. Sanders is the Director of EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research, which administers STAR and other EPA grant and awards programs.

Conference attendees included STAR fellow graduate students conducting work in one of eight broad research categories important to EPA: global change, clean air, water quality, human health, ecosystem services, pesticides and toxic substances, science and technology for sustainability, and emerging environmental approaches.

As the editor—and chief cheerleader—for Science Wednesday, I am always thrilled to have the opportunity to meet EPA and partner scientists who are eager to share their work. The conference did not disappoint! While all the students’ topics have intimidating-sounding titles, (here’s one picked entirely at random: Novel Molecular Methods for Probing Ancient Climate Impacts on Plant Communities and Ecosystem Functioning: Implications for the Future), as a group, the STARs were eager to learn about opportunities for sharing their work. Please stayed tuned for updates here on Science Wednesday.

It’s great to see that EPA is supporting the next generation of scientists and engineers while it meets its own mission to protect human health and the environment. Cleary, the STARs are rising.

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

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P2 and Sustainability

By David Sarokin

The theme of this year’s Pollution Prevention Week is P2: The Cornerstone of Sustainability.

Is it? Can P2 really take us to a future we can honestly say is more sustainable?

Becoming sustainable is about much more than just environmental improvement. When I was working on Agenda 21 – the sustainable development action plan that grew out of the 1992 U.N. Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro – we had the habit of talking about sustainability as a three-legged stool: environmental, economic and social progress, simultaneously, without improvements in one area interfering with progress in the others. I find that old image still aptly sums up what sustainability is about.

P2’s contribution to environmental progress is pretty straightforward. Use fewer material and energy resources and substitute safer chemicals and processes, and there’s less pollution, less toxic exposure, less mess across the board.

But P2 is also about — and has always been about — greater efficiency too, which is a boon to economic sustainability. Another phrase I’ve used innumerable times over the years (well…decades!) is pollution prevention pays, a message still worth repeating. Less waste means more material goes into finished products instead of into the air, water and landfills, resulting in lower costs for production, waste management and environmental compliance. Energy efficiency not only reduces greenhouse gases, but saves oodles of money during manufacture as well during the useful life of our cars, computers and other energy-consuming products. Energy Star led to $18 billion in savings last year (and I suspect that’s a conservative estimate). Commercial estimates have pegged the market in green chemistry at close to $100 billion!

Lastly, P2 builds more sustainable communities in ways both obvious and subtle. This, too, was part of our Agenda 21 focus, as we worked to add tools for community engagement into the sustainability toolbox. There are very few P2 programs that operate with a you-have-to-do-this-or-else mentality. Most of the accomplishments of P2 are built from a cooperative framework with government bureaucrats (and I use that word proudly) working with industry managers, workers on the plant floor, community representatives and environmental organizations to identify concerns, set goals, find at-the-source P2 solutions and monitor progress. The results improve local environmental and economic circumstances, to be sure. But pollution prevention also builds community relations (PDF) that didn’t exist previously, in an air of trust that, over time, becomes self-evidently effective.

This is sustainability at its best. Pollution prevention is at its foundation. The cornerstone, if you will.

About the author: David Sarokin is a proud EPA bureaucrat with a l-o-o-o-n-g history of working in pollution prevention and sustainability, beginning with his 1986 book, Cutting Chemical Wastes.

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.

Science Wednesday: Post 9/11: EPA’s Homeland Security Research Program

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

By Jonathan Herrmann, P.E., BCEE

I have spent almost my entire career in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. During that time, I’ve been involved in many areas of research related to environmental protection and human health. I have also managed various parts of the Agency’s science enterprise from Superfund remediation to mercury risk management. Without a doubt, the most rewarding part of my career has been the last ten years dealing with scientific and technical issues for the Agency’s Homeland Security Research Program (HSRP).

When a number of us started the Program, we primarily learned by doing. Sometimes we had false starts. What really helped was the tremendous support from our EPA leaders. There was a clear mission and vision for our efforts and adequate resources were available to do the job. Most importantly, all of us were dedicated to the idea that we could make a difference in protecting the nation and the public with our work.

As Director of EPA’s National Homeland Security Research Center, I am proud to announce we have produced a special edition of EPA’s Science Matters newsletter highlighting our accomplishments in homeland security research over the past eight years. The newsletter commemorates the 10th anniversary of 9/11 by reporting on what we’ve learned and accomplished since then.

It starts with a lead article by Debbie Dietrich, the Associate Administrator for Homeland Security providing an overview of how the HSRP fits with EPA’s homeland security roles and responsibilities, health and environmental protection programs and regional response capabilities. In my Executive Message, I offer an overview of the history of our National Homeland Security Research Center’s accomplishments and future direction. Members of our Senior Leadership Team add their views on the importance of our collaborations with other EPA programs, federal departments and agencies.

Additional articles highlight:

  • our advances in developing Provisional Advisory Levels that guide response and recovery actions following a chemical accident or incident,
  • the sampling and analytical methods we’ve developed for laboratories involved in responding to homeland security incidents,
  • several of our innovative water security detection systems and models
  • advances in decontamination science and engineering
  • and, our I-WASTE decision tools that help clean-up teams safely dispose of contaminated debris.

To read the newsletter and learn more about how EPA is science is advancing homeland security, visit.

About the Author: Jonathan Herrmann, P.E., BCEE, is the director of EPA’s National Homeland Security Research Center.

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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Breaking into EPA

By Sophia Kelley

When I tell people I work for EPA, the first question they usually ask is how I got the job. How did a graduate of an MFA program in writing come to work for the federal government? One doesn’t usually associate creative, literary types living in Brooklyn with goliaths of bureaucracy. Yet here I am, and a little secret that will probably only serve to further distance me from my hip, freelancing neighbors – I love my job.

As fascinating as it is, my personal story isn’t often what people are really asking about; they’d rather get practical advice on landing a position like mine. For readers who know they want to work in public service and for people who appreciate the mission, but haven’t thought about a government gig, per se – there are several programs at EPA that help newbies break into the agency. The Student Career Experience Program (SCEP) is how I got my foot in the door of the public affairs division in New York. The SCEP program is competitive, but it is ideal for students because you can usually arrange the work hours around your classes and, unlike most other internships, it actually pays.

Once I graduated, I was lucky to be eligible for the Environmental Careers Program (ECP). ECP is a career development program that allows recent graduates the opportunity to learn about the agency through full-time employment. It involves a two-year assignment in a home office and several rotations to other offices that provide participants with a wider view of the agency while developing skills for their future careers.

In addition to these two programs, EPA offers several other career opportunities including research fellowships and scholarships. For more information, visit. For a comprehensive list of government positions, check out.  And, if you’re one of the rare ones interested in my personal story…stay tuned. In upcoming posts, I’ll be blogging on New York City environmental issues from the perspective of a bookish Brooklyn resident.

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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My EPA Experience

By Denise Owens

When I decided to apply for a job at EPA in 1984, I had no idea what I was in store for. It was the first agency to call me back for an interview. So I decided to take the interview. After being hired, I started working in the Public Affairs / Press Office. I actually started with the agency because it was a job.

I was unaware of how enthusiastic people were to learn about the environment. At this moment in my life the environment was not my top priority. But after speaking to several reporters and private citizens, calling into the office speaking about the environment this actually grabbed my attention. It was amazing to hear the different perspectives that were being said about the environment.

I experienced working with the Press Office when Chernobyl was going on; however this is when the environment became my environment. It completely got my attention and that’s when I decided I needed to get more involved with the environment.

As of today, I’m still working with the agency and it has become a significant part of my life. Earth Day and EPA@40 gives me a great feeling to know that EPA is doing an excellent job and I’m proud to be a part of EPA.

About the author: Denise Owens has worked with the Environmental Protection Agency for over 25 years.

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.