Human Health

Day In the Life: A Visit to Boston

I went home to Boston on Tuesday to engage with public health professionals and experts to discuss the important link between the health of our environment and the health of our children. We know climate change is fueling environmental public health problems such as asthma and other respiratory ailments, which is why the agency is taking action to reduce carbon pollution and greenhouse gas emissions through the Clean Power Plan and other initiatives.

Here’s a look at my day:

Excited to have GinaEPA in Boston today: mtg w/families & healthcare workers re impacts of clean air & President Obama’s #ClimateActionPlan

— EPA New England (@EPAnewengland) August 19, 2014

I started the day at the Boston Children’s Hospital.

Administrator McCarthy and the staff from Boston Children’s Hospital Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit (PEHSU) show they are united on improving the health of children suffering from asthma and respiratory problems aggravated by environmental factors.

Administrator McCarthy and the staff from Boston Children’s Hospital Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit (PEHSU).

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Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Keeping Your Cool on a Heat Island

Jessica on Heat Island

Jessica on Heat Island

It’s 9 a.m. and I’m on my way to my internship at EPA. I’m sweating through my clothes, my hair is plastered to my neck, and mascara is pooling under my eyes. The summertime heat and D.C.’s swampy humidity are bad enough, but an extra dose of suffering comes from the heat island effect.

Washington, D.C., like many developed areas, is a heat island: all of the pavement and buildings absorb and retain much more heat than less built up areas. This means they can be 1.8 to 5.4°F warmer on average, and up to 22°F warmer in the evening.

 

 

Temperatures climb more among buildings and roads than open land and vegetation.

Temperatures climb more among buildings and roads than open land and vegetation.

Heat islands aren’t only uncomfortable, they can be hazardous to people’s health. And, they can create a vicious cycle: higher city temperatures mean more electricity is needed to cool buildings, which in turn may increase air pollution. Also, when an extreme heat wave hits a city already stressed by the heat island effect, it can increase the risk of heat-related illness and death. This risk is worse for children, the elderly, and the ill, who are more vulnerable to extreme heat and polluted air.

EPA’s Heat Island Reduction Program suggests several strategies that cities can take to reduce summertime heat islands:

  • Planting trees near buildings: Trees and other plants help cool the environment.
  • Installing green roofs: Green roofs provide shade and remove heat from the air.
  • Installing cool roofs: Cool roofs have a high solar reflectance that helps reflect sunlight and heat away from the building.
  • Using cool pavements: Cool pavements reflect more solar energy, enhance water evaporation, or have been otherwise modified to remain cooler than conventional pavements (like those that allow water to permeate below the surface).

These tactics reduce demand for energy to cool buildings, which cuts carbon pollution and lowers bills. Using these cool technologies reduces the heat island effect, helping everyone stay cool.

Permeable pavement reduces runoff, mitigating heat buildup and improving drainage.

Permeable pavement reduces runoff, mitigating heat buildup and improving drainage.

 

The city heat can be a real nuisance (especially when trying to look professional for work!), but it can also be dangerous. Luckily, there are plenty of things that can be done to combat the heat island effect and keep safe in the heat. Listening in on heat island webinars and calls, I’m excited to hear about how communities are taking action to make life safer and more comfortable for residents. There’s a lot we can do as individuals and communities to reduce heat island, and those efforts can add up and have a big impact for us and the environment.

And there’s some good news for D.C. The District Department for the Environment recently created a Green Building Fund Grant Program, which has several goals, including assessing the health impacts of urban heat islands in this city. So, hopefully, future interns will benefit from this research and resulting policy changes. What is your city doing to reduce the heat island effect?

About the author: Jessica D’Itri is a Master of Public Policy student at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. Prior to attending the Ford School, she served as an environmental educator with Peace Corps Nicaragua. She is interested in learning how communities and local governments can implement policy to best benefit people and the environment.

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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Working with Communities to Combat Climate Change: A Peace Corps Volunteer’s Story

By Courtney Columbus

Three times a day, my neighbor in the Dominican Republic (DR) balances pieces of locally found firewood on top of three stones in her backyard. She cooks breakfast, lunch, and dinner for her family on this slow-cooking fire. Although her pots of fire-cooked rice and beans nourish her and her family, the smoke that spirals up from this fire and into her lungs poses serious health risks.

My neighbor’s cooking technique is common practice in the DR, and in other developing nations. However, this isn’t the only practice that is harmful to health and the environment. In my region, near the Haitian border, many families also make their own charcoal, which requires cutting down trees. This region is hot and arid, making it difficult for deforested areas to ever fully recover. Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) in the DR often dedicate part of their service to finding ways to improve this situation.

To help address the environmental and health problems caused by cooking on firewood and charcoal, a group of dedicated doñas (this is a respectful reference to older women) and I decided to build improved cookstoves in my community. These stoves have an enclosed cooking chamber that burns firewood more efficiently than cooking out in the open. The fire inside the stove heats up two hot plates, so Dominican women can still cook their daily pots of rice and beans, but unlike an open fire, these stoves have chimneys that take smoke away from the cook. Also, the improved cookstoves reduce the use of charcoal by rural families, because the stoves work best when dry firewood is used. Less charcoal use means that more trees in my community can remain standing!

There are inconveniences being a PCV: a broken-down bus never shows up to take me to a meeting; a grant application gets delayed; I lose the finer meaning of a project partner’s speech in Spanish at a community meeting. But, on the opposite side are moments that make it all worth it. Those mornings when I stop by my neighbors’ wood-slat-and-rusty-tin-roof homes and see them contentedly boiling a pot of coffee on their improved cookstove gives me the motivation to keep working.

Although the 70 stoves that we built in my site are a microscopic drop in the bucket of global efforts to combat climate change, many PCVs throughout the DR have also been building stoves. Several PCVs in northern DR have built over 100 stoves each with their community members. We hope to see the project continue in the future. Improved cookstoves have changed the way that women in our sites cook, changed the air that they breathe, and changed the way they treat their environment.

About the author: Courtney Columbus is from Lower Burrell, Pennsylvania has been serving as a Community Economic Development Volunteer in the Dominican Republic since 2012. A graduate of Allegheny College, she is currently serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader.

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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Under President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, a Year of Progress at EPA

Climate change supercharges risks to our health, our economy, and our way of life. On behalf of our kids and future generations—we have a moral obligation to act. That’s why in June, 2013, President Obama unveiled his Climate Action Plan to cut the harmful carbon pollution fueling climate change, build a more resilient nation to face climate impacts today, and lead the world in our global climate fight.

As part of the President’s plan—he called on EPA to act. And over this past year, we’ve been answering that call.

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Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Synthetic female hormones in sewage are toxic to male fish over generations

By Kristen Keteles

I’m a toxicologist at EPA in Denver, Colorado, and I study how pollutants can affect ecological and human health. I work with a team of scientists from academia (Colorado State University, University of Colorado Denver) and U.S. Geological Society to understand the potential effects of hormones and medications that are discharged into the environment. Did you know a very potent synthetic female hormone used in prescription drugs can be found in water and could be harming fish? We’re finding in our study that it can wipe out fish populations over several generations, and it’s the male fish that are most affected. Some studies have found that male fish below waste water treatment plants, and exposed to female hormones, can lose their masculine characteristics and become indistinguishable from females. Our new study found that a potent form of the female hormone estrogen used in prescription drugs not only causes the males to look female, it also appears to be toxic to male fish and these effects may impact future generations of fish.

Where do these hormones and medications come from? All of us. Humans excrete hormones and medications, which often end up in our rivers and streams from sewage. Disposing of medications by flushing can also contribute to pharmaceuticals in the environment. A growing human population, combined with effects of climate change like decreasing precipitation, has resulted in many streams containing higher concentrations of waste water. In fact, some streams in the west are 90% waste water. Not a nice thought if you like to kayak and fish, like I do. The water IS treated, but many hormones and pharmaceuticals are not completely removed by the waste water treatment plants. So, more people and less water equals more hormones and drugs in the water. My team is trying to determine what this means for fish, and ultimately for people, too. Although, currently, EPA does not have water quality standards for these types of chemicals, our study may help determine if such water quality standards are needed.

We looked at effects of exposure to a synthetic estrogen used in prescription drugs to fathead minnows over multiple generations by conducting experiments, both in the laboratory and in outdoor water tanks that mimic natural conditions.

Chemical exposure to female hormones in prescription drugs was found to increase the chances of death in male fish, but not females. And, fish exposed when they were young, but not as adults, were not able to reproduce later on in life. In addition, fish that weren’t even exposed to the prescription drugs, but were born to parents who were exposed, were less likely to reproduce. It could be that synthetic estrogen in prescription drugs, combined with other natural and synthetic hormones in the water, are reducing male fish fertility and could affect fish populations.

This is why it’s important to do what we can to protect fish breeding habitats in unpolluted areas. What are some things that your community can do to protect fish habitat? Read our information on how to dispose of unused medications to reduce the amount of pharmaceuticals that end up in water.

About the author: Kristen Keteles is a toxicologist in the Support Program of the Office of Ecosystems Protection and Remediation in EPA Region 8 in Denver. She has been with EPA for six years.

Fish A is a normal male fathead minnow. Fish C is a normal female fathead minnow. Fish B is a male that was exposed to female hormones in prescription drugs and looks more like a female than a male.

Fish A is a normal male fathead minnow. Fish C is a normal female fathead minnow. Fish B is a male that was exposed to female hormones in prescription drugs and looks more like a female than a male.

 

EPA Fish Team scientists: Al Garcia, Kristen Keteles, Elaine Lai, and Adrian Krawczeniuk.

EPA Fish Team scientists: Al Garcia, Kristen Keteles, Elaine Lai, and Adrian Krawczeniuk.

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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Expectant Moms, Parents, and Everyone Else Should Read This!

By Jessica Orquina

I never thought much about mercury in fish. I like seafood, and have heard there may be some health concerns, but I didn’t really give it much thought. Then, I became pregnant and started reading all the information I could find about health and nutrition for expectant mothers, including about mercury in fish.

I learned that eating fish with high levels of mercury may harm an unborn baby or young child’s developing nervous system. I also learned what types of fish have higher and lower levels of mercury so I could focus my diet on those fish that were safer to eat.

Last fall, my son was born, and now I’m back at work. I was interested to learn EPA has been working with FDA to recommend new draft advice for fish consumption. In the past, our advice was based solely on the health concerns caused by eating fish with high levels of mercury. The new recommendations still consider that issue, but they also look at the health benefits of eating seafood.

I strongly urge you to read the new draft advice (Fish: What Pregnant Women and Parents Should Know), share your thoughts with us, and adjust your family’s diet accordingly. While mercury consumption is a big concern for expectant mothers and young children, it can affect everyone’s health.

So, take a minute and read this document. I did.

About the author: Jessica Orquina works in the Office of External Affairs and Environmental Education as the social media lead for the agency. Prior to joining EPA, she served as a military and commercial airline pilot. She lives, works, and writes in Washington, DC.

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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Improved Cookstoves in Peru: A Peace Corps Volunteer's Story

By Greg “Goyo” Plimpton, PCVC WASH, Peru 18

For the more than 3 billion people around the world, who still cook and heat with open fires inside the home, the improved cookstove is a development technology that reduces the health hazards associated with breathing smoke. In rural Peru, I used funding from the USAID/Peace Corps Small Project Assistance Agreement to introduce my community to this brilliant technology by building 15 stoves and training other Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs), NGOs, and local masons in the stove construction, use, and maintenance techniques.

A successful and sustainable project requires good cooperation between the PCV and the community partners. My first challenge was finding a household that was willing to test a stove, with only my explanation and a diagram. Felicia, who became a tireless advocate and “salesperson” in the community, took that leap of faith and patiently worked with me as we sorted out the details on the construction and use together.

One of the truly unique and powerful aspects of the Peace Corps service is that we Volunteers live for two years in close proximity to those we serve. This gives us the advantage of trust, familiarity and, most of all, time. This gave me the opportunity to revisit all of the families, multiple times. The feedback from my community was instrumental in showing me that the improved cookstoves required the user to make many behavioral changes. I also observed many benefits and challenges with the clean cookstoves.

The improved cookstoves not only required more work to start a fire, but they needed smaller sized wood. The stoves only allowed for a limited amount of pots, of a specific size, to fit the stove, and even then, some stoves only allowed 2-3 pots to cook at a time. And in small homes, the larger, improved cookstoves required more floor space, which was a challenge.

However, the health and safety benefits were profound. The open flame and smoke that traditional cookstoves produced was no longer causing issues like damage to lungs or eyes, or causing burns. Cooking fuel was reduced by 50% and the stove resulted in faster cooking times.

Since completion of my project, over one hundred stoves have been installed– a very gratifying and sustainable result. Moreover, it was a real joy to see mothers no longer having to wipe tears from their eyes due to smoke irritation, toddlers no longer getting close to an open flame, and walls and ceilings no longer covered with nasty soot. Folks spent less time or money acquiring firewood, and to my benefit, I was invited to stay for many meals. This face-to-face contact with those we serve is one of the many rewards of Peace Corps service.

About the author: Greg Plimpton of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., is currently serving in Peru as a Water and Sanitation volunteer. Plimpton began his service in 2011, and is currently the Peace Corps Volunteer Coordinator (PCVC) in charge ofEnergy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA) , renewable energy and climate change projects.

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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At the Intersection of Human Health and Environmental Protection

A community’s health, safety, and productiveness is dependent on the protection of its environment. This intersection, between environmental stewardship and community growth, is one of the most important aspects of the work we do every day at EPA. That’s why one of Administrator McCarthy’s key themes is making a visible difference in communities across the country. However, it’s not just cities and towns here in the U.S. that benefit from environmental protection. Worldwide, our homes are safer, our children are healthier, and our economies are stronger when we invest in environmental stewardship.

During my time at EPA, I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing the impact of environmental protection in communities worldwide. When I traveled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I saw firsthand the environmental challenges that communities were facing in Africa and other parts of the world. More

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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EPA: Making a Visible Difference in Communities Across the Country

Marian Wright Edelman, President and Founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, once said “We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make which, over time, add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee.”

Making a visible difference in communities is at the heart of EPA’s mission of protecting human health and the environment. It is what drives our workforce to go above and beyond to find that “difference” that improves the lives of individuals, families, and communities across the country. Last month, I invited EPA employees to share stories of the creative and innovative approaches that they have used to educate, engage and empower American families and communities in environmental protection. I’d like to share some of their stories with you with the hope that you too will be inspired to make a difference in your community. More

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Service to America

By Bob Perciasepe

The mission of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—to safeguard the natural environment and protect human health—is one that I find easy to embrace. And as you might expect in a workplace like EPA, I’m not alone.

Everyday (and sometimes late into the evenings), I’m surrounded by colleagues who have devoted themselves to public service in pursuit of clean air, safe and sustainable water, vibrant ecosystems, and healthy communities.

And even in that atmosphere, there are still a handful of individuals who manage to inspire us all: true leaders who blaze career paths marked by sustained achievement and tireless advocacy on behalf of the American people.

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Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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