indoor air

Topping Off Asthma Awareness Month with Health Advice for Those You Care About

By Becky Weber

Imagine that you’re spending a quiet day at the beach. You get warm and the crystal clear, blue water looks so inviting, you decide to go for a swim. You venture out into the calm water, but before you know it, waves start rolling over your head. You push up from the sandy ocean bottom and take a big gulp of air before another wave knocks you back over. You finally make it to shore and now you’re exhausted, but your heart is racing like you just ran the Boston Marathon and you can’t make it slow down no matter how many deep breaths you take…

Becky Weber

Becky Weber

This is eerily similar to an asthma attack that adults can experience. An attack can come out of the blue and before it’s over, they might spend time in an emergency room with doctors getting the attack and the resulting rapid pulse under control with asthma medication.

May is Asthma Awareness Month, and I’d like to cap off the month by reminding everyone that adults have asthma, too. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are just under one million adults in the Heartland living with asthma, or seven percent of the population. These asthma sufferers are moms, dads, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, employees, etc. When they have an attack, it takes time away from their families, jobs, and activities. In EPA Region 7’s Air Program, we work closely with our state and local partners to educate the public about asthma and the common triggers for asthma attacks.

The most common triggers for asthma in both adults and children are:

  • Secondhand smoke
  • Dust mites
  • Molds
  • Cockroaches and pests
  • Pets
  • Nitrogen dioxide
  • Chemical irritants
  • Outdoor air pollution
  • Wood smoke

Having healthy indoor and outdoor air is important for every citizen, but it can mean life or death for people with asthma. Our Air Program is doing its part to protect air quality in the Heartland via the regional indoor and outdoor air programs, closely working with our Public Affairs and Environmental Justice experts on education campaigns and with our state and local partners. We hope our efforts result in fewer missed school and work days, less missed time with families, fewer hospital visits – and most of all, a better quality of life for our citizens living with asthma every day.

You may be thinking to yourself, “Is there anything I can do?” Yes, there are several things you can do to help those with asthma around you. Carpool more or take public transportation to reduce air pollution. Use green products when cleaning your home or office space. Buy Energy Star or energy-efficient products. And educate yourself on asthma trigger prevention. We can all do our part to help prevent asthma attacks!

For more information on asthma, triggers, and prevention, please visit EPA’s Asthma page.

About the Author: Becky Weber serves as the Director of EPA Region 7’s Air and Waste Management Division, and has worked over 20 years at EPA managing a variety of programs. She has a Bachelor of Science in meteorology from Texas A&M University. Becky enjoys cooking, reading, walking, and spending time with her family and friends.

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.

EPA: Launching a New Era of State, Tribal, Local and International Partnerships

Our work with state, tribal, local and international partners forms an “environmental enterprise” that is critical to advancing environmental and human health protection across the country and the globe.  As captured in our FY14-FY18 Strategic Plan, our New Era of State, Tribal, Local and International Partnerships is a vital pillar among our Cross-Agency Strategies. I thank everyone at EPA for working in collaboration with our partners – governors, tribal leaders, environmental and agricultural commissioners, city and county leaders, and so many others. This spring, I asked EPA employees to share their best practices, innovative solutions and successes in building partnerships. There are so many successes I learned about, ranging from the routine to multi-faceted and complicated matters.  Here are a handful of successes that I’d like to highlight.

State, Local and Other Partners Protecting School Indoor Air Quality group#– Nearly 56 million people spend their days inside elementary and secondary schools in the US. Since the mid-1990s, EPA’s Indoor Environments Division (IED) has supported states, schools and school districts in their work to improve indoor air quality in schools and protect the health of their students and staff.

In 2012, the IED schools team launched the School Health and Indoor Environments Leadership Development (SHIELD) Network, a dynamic collaboration of more than 80 leaders from school districts, state and local governments and other partners committed to improving IAQ in schools. SHIELD events have resulted in thousands of school district decision makers trained to make their school indoor environments healthier, cleaner and safer places.

More

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

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.

When it Rains, it Molds

Part 1 of 2

By Marcia Anderson

Mold spores up close

Mold spores up close

When I went back home recently to visit my family, I noticed a number of mold spots on the ceiling in multiple rooms. A result of roof water damage from the winter ice and snow the northeast experienced this year. This prompted me to have an interview with Mark Berry, EPA’s Indoor Air Quality Coordinator for Region 6 (serving Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and 66 Tribes). Here are his responses to some common questions about mold and moisture.

  1. What is it that many people misunderstand about mold? It is important to view mold, not as a mold issue, but as a moisture issue. People think that mold is a hazardous material. Most people do not realize that mold and mold spores are all around us. Molds live in the soil, on plants, and on dead or decaying matter. Outdoors, molds play a key role in the breakdown of leaves, wood, and other plant debris. Molds produce tiny spores to reproduce, just as some plants produce seeds. These mold spores can be found in both indoor and outdoor air, and settled on indoor and outdoor surfaces. When mold spores land on a damp spot, they may begin growing. It is important not to provide the moist environment mold needs to grow.The solution to the problem is to find and eliminate the moisture source first, and not focus only on the mold. Removing the mold alone does not solve the problem. If the water remains, new mold will grow in the same area.
  1. Mold spreads in the damp area behind a sink

    Mold spreads in the damp area behind a sink

    Should I use bleach to clean up my mold? In most cases using bleach isn’t necessary. Soap and water will often do the trick. Using bleach or some other harsh chemical cleaners can create a breathing hazard for you. If you choose to use disinfectants or biocides, always follow manufacturer’s directions, ventilate the area and exhaust the air to the outdoors. Never mix chlorine bleach solution with other cleaning solutions or detergents that contain ammonia because toxic fumes could be produced.

  1. Can I just paint over the mold? Many people see mold, spray some chemical then paint over it, thinking that will solve the problem. Mold can grow between the paint and the wall in all directions. The paint merely acts as a temporary cover-up. The issue with the paint is that it traps moisture between the paint and the wall, further aiding and abetting the growth of mold. Fix the source of the moisture first, and then take the appropriate steps to clean the affected area or remove it altogether.
  1. What are your most compelling mold calls? Landlord /tenant disputes over mold are our most frequent calls. We attempt to educate and make suggestions for remediation that may be used or not used by the caller’s choice. Callers need to consider the problem as both a building water issue as opposed to a mold issue. This strategy addresses the cause of the mold infestation and not the symptom. We try to get to the root cause of the problem and ease the caller’s concerns. Mold is essentially the result of water damage.
  1. Is there more mold in different parts of the country? Yes, and No. We have more mold inquiries in humid areas because the mold continually gets fed more moisture which allows it to flourish. However, mold can grow everywhere and can exist in a broad range of temperatures and humidity levels. Although moisture is necessary for growth there are molds which prefer drier environments and would need much less than other types to survive.
  1. Mold can be a variety of colors

    Mold can be a variety of colors

    What are your most frequent calls? “I’ve got mold problems can you do something to help me?” EPA Region 6’s Indoor Air Quality program (IAQ) is a voluntary program primarily responsible for conducting outreach and educating the public about indoor environmental issues, including health risks and the means by which human exposures can be reduced. IAQ educates the public about indoor environmental pollutants and sources of pollution, including mold. However, EPA does not have any regulatory authority to control mold in private residences nor do we have the resources to inspect individual homes.

    The EPA does not conduct mold cleanups, but we do provide the education necessary to give people the strategy and empowerment needed to solve the problem. We recognize the health danger to schools, homes and places of work. The EPA is the technical lead in mold research from which many states and local agencies borrow.

  1. Is testing for mold necessary?
    In most cases, if visible mold is present, sampling is not necessary. Since no EPA or other federal limits have been set for mold or mold spores, sampling cannot be used to check a building’s compliance with federal mold standards. Remember that mold and mold spores are natural in the environment so any sampling will result in finding mold.

For more information on controlling mold and moisture, visit www.epa.gov/mold

About the Author: Marcia is with EPA’s Center of Expertise for School IPM in Dallas, Texas. She holds a PhD in Environmental Management from Montclair State University along with degrees in Biology, Environmental Design, Landscape Architecture, and Instruction and Curriculum. Marcia was formerly with the EPA Region 2 Pesticides Program and has been a professor of Earth and Environmental Studies, Geology, and Oceanography at several universities.

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.

Want Less Cancer from Environmental Causes? Let’s Get Building Codes to Reduce Radon

By Jani Palmer

As part of our Indoor Environments Division, my colleagues and I work to reduce people’s exposure to radon, the leading environmental cause of cancer deaths in the U.S.

Radon comes from the natural breakdown of uranium in soil, rock and water – where it naturally occurs. Radon gets into the air we breathe, and it can be found all over the country. It can get into any type of building — homes, offices and schools. You are most likely to get the greatest exposure at home, where you spend most of your time.

The good news is that radon is easy to detect and fix. Some radon reduction systems can reduce radon levels in your home by up to 99%. And, part of my job at EPA is to introduce radon safety features into state and local building codes, like adding a pipe to collect radon from under the home before it has a chance to get inside. If jurisdictions and states adopt codes that require radon-reducing features to be built into new homes and buildings, far fewer Americans would be at risk of getting lung cancer. After all, building a home with radon-reducing features is much cheaper and easier than fixing elevated radon levels in a home that has already been built.

Recently, I participated in the International Code Council’s International Green Construction Code hearing. At the hearing, my task was to ask the room full of committee members to not remove radon reduction features from the code. I only had two minutes to plead my case, and I think I delivered a powerful message.

Spoiler alert: The vote on my issue was not successful. One committee member believed that radon didn’t harm people; another believed that adding radon reducing features was too expensive. Neither of these are true. This means that we need to invest more time in educating codes professionals on radon. So, while I was there, I met stakeholders that just might help us succeed in the future.

Momentum is on our side. More and more state and local jurisdictions are adopting radon building codes, and many voluntary green labeling programs require radon testing and mitigation. Builders are also including radon-resistant construction techniques in new homes.

We’ll continue to work with states, local groups and industry to spread the word about the protection that radon codes offer, and we’ll continue trying to get radon covered by the International Code Council.

About the author: Jani Palmer is a scientist in the Office of Air and Radiation at EPA. She has provided indoor air quality and industrial hygiene services for public and private alike, and is currently serving as Radon Team 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.

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.

Radon Risk? You Don’t Know Until You Test

By Henry Slack

My neighbors Pete and Beth (not their real names) met while in their twenties, and got married. A great couple. Had two beautiful girls, who grew up in no time at all – field trips and soccer, high school sports, college, adventures abroad. A strong couple, who helped lead the PTA, the band parents, you name it. Never smoked, good folks, the kind you like to have as neighbors.

Then Pete got lung cancer. They had some optimism over treatment, but the optimism faded as the disease strengthened, and he passed pretty quickly. Lung cancer, unfortunately, has a survival rate lower than many other types of cancer.

I don’t know for sure that Pete’s lung cancer was caused by radon. But, radon is the #1 cause of lung cancer for non-smokers. Elevated radon is found in one out of 15 homes nationally, and the only way to know if a home has high levels is to test it.

As EPA’s indoor air guy for the southeast, I get calls every day. Most people are worried about mold. A few are worried about odors, or chemicals they may have been exposed to, or some health issue that they think might be related to indoor air quality. Very few people call with concerns about radon – and yet, radioactive radon gas kills more people than any of those other things that people call about. Radon kills over 21,000 people a year in the U.S.

Twenty-one thousand. That’s around 400 a week, every week, every year. Some of them are parents, spouses, partners, best friends, and neighbors who leave behind a world of grief for family, like Beth.

Test your home. It’s easy and inexpensive. You can get low-cost test kits online through the National Radon Program Services or other vendors. And if you have a high level – 4 picocuries and above – get your home fixed.

About the Author: Henry Slack has been the Indoor Air coordinator in Region 4 since 1991 and still enjoys it. A mechanical engineer by training, he’s on the Radon Team, but has had assignments to CDC and Barbados. In 2014, he became a Distinguished Lecturer for American Society of Heating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), speaking about mold, indoor air, and ventilation.

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.

EPA Releases New Indoor Air Quality and Energy Efficiency Guidance for Schools

Colorado Springs School District 11 is set to save more than $928,000 on its energy bill every year, thanks to an effort to increase energy efficiency and protect indoor air quality.

This month we released our Energy Savings Plus Health: Indoor Air Quality Guidelines for School Building Upgrades, a guidance document designed to help schools reduce their environmental impact and ensure clean air for their students. Just like School District 11 in Colorado Springs, schools will likely be able to save some money, too.

Our new guidelines highlight best practices for addressing 23 critical indoor air quality topics, including moisture and mold control; hazardous materials such as asbestos and lead; building products and materials; and heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. They also examine how schools can think about improving indoor air quality while doing renovations to improve energy efficiency, and how renovations can achieve both goals.

One in five people across the U.S. are in a school building during school hours. Schools are often used as recreation centers, meeting places, and emergency shelters, too. They are one of the most visited buildings in many communities, so many people are affected when schools know how to operate efficiently while maintaining healthy indoor environments.

School districts across the country will reap the benefits of improved student and staff health, and they will also save precious dollars through reduced operational costs. We know that indoor air quality plays a critical role in health, attendance, and academic performance. Improving energy efficiency can also have significant environmental and economic benefits.

In addition to all the benefits school districts will see right away, focusing in on energy efficiency and indoor air quality together can help schools to shrink their carbon footprints and energy use, and prepare for potential impacts of climate change, including people choosing to spend more time indoors.

Be sure to check out our other publications and resources on good indoor air quality in the design, construction, renovation, maintenance, and operations of school buildings.

 

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

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.

Indoors, Radon Stands Out

By Henry Slack

For the past twenty years, I’ve helped EPA fix indoor air pollution problems. Mold, odors, air cleaners, sick buildings, you name it – I’ve helped people learn how to manage these problems in their homes. The key thing I’ve learned: the most insidious indoor air pollutant is radon.

Radon is hidden and dangerous. We can’t see or smell it. The only way to know it’s around is to test for it. Did you know that radon in homes first drew concern as a public health threat after a worker at a nuclear power plant started setting off the plant’s radiation alarms? His home’s radon level was so high, he was carrying radiation into the plant. Yet he had no clue his home was radioactive before the testing started. The old proverb “out of sight, out of mind” holds true.

Radon causes lung cancer, second only to smoking as the leading cause. It leads to an estimated 21,000 lung cancer deaths a year. Some of my relatives have had cancer; it’s serious. The good news, however, is that radon-induced lung cancer (like smoking) can be prevented. Testing your home and taking corrective actions to reduce high levels is easy, cheap, and local resources are available to help.

EPA has been talking about the dangers of radon for decades. Lately, the group Cancer Survivors Against Radon (CanSAR) has joined the effort to raise awareness and help people take action to reduce their risk. Members share their personal stories about how high the radon levels were in their home, how they or a loved one battled against the disease, and how they want others to test for radon. Their goal: no one else having to watch someone they care about get sick and die of lung cancer.
 
Radon deaths are completely preventable. Please test your home, and fix it if you have a problem. Thank you.

About the author: Henry Slack from EPA’s Atlanta regional office has taught and helped people in the southeast with indoor air problems for more than 20 years.  His study of chemistry (B.S.) and mechanical engineering (M.S.) give him a strong background in the field, and he is active with the U.S. Green Building Council and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE).     

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.

For A Safe And Healthy Home

By Lina Younes

Are you handy around the house? Are you skilled at using tools and fixing things? Would you consider yourself a do-it-yourselfer? Well, certain home repairs and remodeling activities can harm your health and that of your family if not done properly.

Here are some tips to make those needed repairs while protecting your home environment:

Lead– Do you live in a home built before 1978? It may have lead-based paint. Lead is a toxic metal that adversely affects people’s nervous system and causes behavioral, learning and hearing problems. If you are going to paint your home, you should work safely. Use protective clothing and the right equipment to prevent old lead-based paint chips or lead dust from contaminating the air during the renovation process.

Mold – Do you have leaky faucets or water damage inside your home? Moisture or water accumulation may lead to a problem with mold. In turn, mold spores indoors can cause allergic reactions and other health problems. It’s important to fix any plumbing or water problems as soon as possible. Dry all items completely.

Indoor air quality – Poor ventilation is one of the main culprits of poor indoor air quality. Clean your air filters regularly to ensure good air quality and improve the energy efficiency of your air conditioning and heating system. Not only does that improve your health and the efficiency of your system, but in the long run it saves you money, too.

Pesticides – When it comes to pest control, prevention is key. However, if in spite of your best efforts towards integrated pest management, those unwanted creatures infest your home, what should you do? Use pesticides properly and start by reading the label first.

As you can see, with some simple steps, you can make sure that your home is a healthy place for you and your family. Here is some additional information to help you save energy, save money and make your home greener and healthier.

Do you have any do-it-yourself tips that you would like to share with us? We would love to hear from you.

About the author:  Lina Younes has been working for EPA since 2002 and currently serves the Multilingual 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.

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.

Career Advice from Mary Pat

marypat

At school, we are constantly given assignments to work in groups.  Often it is not the subject matter that makes the projects hard, but it is the coordinating of all the group members.  I wanted to get the perspective of an EPA employee who is tasked with coordinating a variety of people, so I sat down with Mary Pat Tyson. 

 

What is your position at the EPA?

I am the Branch Chief of the Air Toxics and Assessment Branch.  I manage three different sections: Toxics and Global Atmosphere, Indoor and Voluntary Programs, and Air Monitoring and Analysis Sections.  

Do you have prior work experiences that led you to the EPA?

During college I worked in a laboratory analyzing water samples for a drinking water project.  During that time I became aware of the EPA and different programs.  I started at the EPA in the Superfund Division working on hazardous waste site cleanup.  I moved on to a Branch Chief position in the Water Division where I worked on planning and grants along with the tribal programs.

What is a typical day like for you?

On a typical day I come in, check my email, and then meetings start.  Around 8, I have people in and out of my office for the rest of the day.  I have meetings with my boss, the section chiefs, and different state agencies.  I am also the President of the Federal Managers Association for EPA and work on issues that are of interest to federal managers.

What is the best part of your job?

Getting work done!  Getting to know the people and the work that excites them.  I love hearing about their work and helping out where I can.  In my role, I get to help people achieve their highest potential.  I enjoy communicating with section chiefs to make sure we have a strong team. 

Did you always have an interest in the environment?

I grew up in the city.  I enjoyed playing at parks, but never really was a nature person.  In high school a teacher suggested I study engineering because I was good at math and science.  This eventually led to me focusing in on studying environmental engineering.

What classes did you take in school that you use on the job today?

I took some practical classes about project management with teams.  Those have been very useful on the job.  In addition, math, science, and chemistry classes are always important.

Do you have any advice for kids today who have an interest in protecting our environment?

There are so many clubs and organizations to get involved with and learn about the environment.  Every neighborhood has opportunities to do your part.  In addition, the web is an info explosion!  You can learn how to start a compost pile in your backyard from a website.  It is important to stay close to the earth.  Take science and math classes.  The opportunities are endless!

 

Kelly Siegel is a student volunteer in the EPA’s Air and Radiation Division in Region 5, and is currently obtaining her Master’s degree in Urban Planning and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  She has a passion for sustainable development, running, and traveling with friends.

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.

Making a Healthy Home for a Healthier Life

By Lina Younes

There are many expressions regarding the concept of the home. My favorites are “home is where the heart is” and in Spanish, the welcoming expression, “mi casa es su casa” (my home is your home).  But have you stopped to think if your home is truly a warm, inviting and HEALTHY environment?

Did you know that our homes may have hidden environmental risks that may affect our health? What are some of these environmental risks?

  • Indoor air quality – Poor ventilation systems may lead to indoor air pollution that in turn can adversely affect people with asthma or heart and respiratory problems.
  • Mold – Do you have a leaky faucet or roof? Excess moisture may lead to the growth of mold which is a known trigger of asthma attacks.
  • Lead – Was your house built before 1978? It may have lead-based paint. Lead is a toxic metal that adversely affects people’s nervous system and causes behavioral, learning and hearing problems.
  • Radon – Did you know that radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers? Radon is an invisible and odorless gas produced during the natural process of the decomposition of uranium. The gas may accumulate inside your home leading to radon exposure. Have your home tested!
  • Pests – Household pests can carry diseases and trigger asthma attacks. Use integrated pest management techniques. Don’t give pests any food, water or shelter in your home.
  • Pesticides:  Read the label before using pesticides to get rid of pests. Used improperly, pesticides may harm a developing child by blocking the absorption of food nutrients necessary for normal growth.  Also, during “critical periods” of human development (including infancy and childhood), exposure to toxins can permanently alter the way a person’s biological systems operate.

Given these potential environmental hazards in our home that may lead to serious public health problems, federal agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), are working to improve the safety of your home.  Just this week, EPA and its sister agencies launched a new initiative Advancing Healthy Housing – A Strategy for Action” to establish a comprehensive agenda for addressing environmental health and safety hazards in our nation’s housing.

Advancing Healthy Housing – A Strategy for Action shows how federal agencies and our partners, at all levels, can collaborate to prevent health threats associated with the home environment. You can do your part to make sure your home is safe for you and your family.  Simple steps for identifying and addressing hazards in the home can be found in EPA’s Healthy Homes  brochure, “Make Your House a Healthy Home.”

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.

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.