Pollutants/Toxics

Green Infrastructure in Onondaga County

By Nancy Stoner

Last month, I traveled to Syracuse, New York. Syracuse is located in Onondaga County, which is one of EPA’s “model communities” for green infrastructure because of the county’s “Save the Rain” campaign, which is a unique partnership between the City of Syracuse, Onondaga County and others to build nearly 100 green infrastructure projects over three years. The goal of these projects is to prevent polluted water from entering Onondaga Lake, which historically suffered from high levels of industrial and stormwater toxins.

With assistance from EPA, NY Department of Environmental Conservation, Environmental Finance Center at Syracuse University, Syracuse Center of Excellence and its partners, and many others, green infrastructure is being used to slow the flow of stormwater, allowing it to make its way back into the ground where it can be filtered as part of the water cycle.

During my visit to Syracuse, I was in awe of efforts to quickly introduce widespread green infrastructure. What makes Syracuse and Onondaga County unique is the sheer number of projects that they are simultaneously undertaking. I saw construction everywhere as workers were laying greener sidewalks, planting trees and repaving roads with porous asphalt.

Onondaga County is also taking green infrastructure to the top of local buildings. The roof of the War Memorial Arena now houses rain-capturing cisterns that supply the water for the arena’s minor league hockey rink. I learned that treated rain freezes harder than tap water, so the hockey team prefers to skate on the more durable, rainwater-harvested ice. Also, the roof of the County’s convention center is now green. The building’s 66,000 square-foot roof is covered in plants – making it one of the largest green roofs in the northeast. These two projects alone will prevent over one million gallons of polluted water from entering Onondaga Lake each year.

Efforts to improve water quality go well beyond the city’s infrastructure and infiltrate the community. To complete many of their green infrastructure projects, officials support neighborhood businesses by hiring local contractors and manufacturers. Projects also span into the suburbs where households can receive free rain barrels and water-harvesting training. Officials are also working to connect students with their surroundings. Through the Onondaga Earth Corps, students participate in environmental service projects that teach them about their relationship with the environment. This program prepares local youth to become the next generation of innovative thinkers who develop the latest technologies and trends in green infrastructure.

About the author: Nancy Stoner is the Acting Assistant Administrator for the EPA’s Office of  Water

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.

Never Too Old to Play

By Kathy Sykes

The older I get, the more I like to play. Did you know that May is Older Americans Month and that this year’s theme is “Never Too Old to Play.” The theme encourages Older Americans to stay engaged, active and involved in their communities.

This year also marks the 50th anniversary of a book, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, that changed the lives for many people who love nature and the out-of-doors.

I hadn’t read Silent Spring until I was an adult. As a child, I remember running down nearby railroad tracks where trains passed by daily around noon transporting large logs heading to the paper mills and lumber yards. My little sister and I used to pick bouquets of flowers that bloomed in abundance near the tracks, white and purple violets, daisies, lilies- of- the-valley for my mother to place on the dining room table.

But those tracks were also sprayed with DDT. We were just kids and had no idea how dangerous it was as we ran down the tracks through the cloud of chemicals. We assumed if the cloud of chemicals was bad for mosquitoes it must be good for us. But I have learned now that the metabolites of DDT are one of those persistent toxicants that are forever a part of me.

Fifty years later we are still thinking about Rachel Carson’s message about the dangers of chemicals and pesticides in our world. The train tracks have been converted into a bike path and trails that weave through the back yards of my childhood neighborhood. DDT is no longer sprayed and the wild flowers are still there. My mom has been active in caring for community gardens and volunteering at the local botanical gardens. She has encouraged all my nieces and nephews to garden and appreciate the out of doors. Mother’s day is around the corner and I am planning to play in a garden and maybe submit an entry with my mom for the Rachel Carson contest.

About the author: Kathy Sykes is a Senior Advisor for Aging and Sustainability in the Office or Research and Development at the U.S. EPA.

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: Reduce + Reuse + Recycle = Results!

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

By Nisha S. Sipes

Who knew that we could help make our environment healthier by using new and recycled data!

This month, I have the honor of being presented the Best Postdoctoral Publication Award by the Society of Toxicology (SOT) for my paper “Predictive models of prenatal developmental toxicology from ToxCast high-throughput screening data.” In other words, I studied how new technologies using both new and old data can determine which chemicals are potentially toxic to development.

Along with many other EPA scientists, I have been researching if it’s possible to predict a chemical’s potential toxicity using efficient new technologies in EPA’s ToxCast program. The ToxCast program is running thousands of chemicals through hundreds of different tests in a “high-throughput screening” (HTS) process. If we’re successful, we will be able to better understand how a chemical is toxic to the body and reduce the need for animal testing—all while saving lots of time and money on testing.

My paper focuses on building computer models to predict the toxic effects of chemicals on prenatal development using two sets of data: traditional toxicity data (gathered from 30 years worth of laboratory studies) and ToxCast data (gathered from HTS methods). I compared the two groups of data, and after crunching the numbers we could show that these new HTS methods could predict results from old-school animal testing for developmental toxicity.

It turns out that the ToxCast data can provide new information about which chemicals are toxic to development. We can also use these new technologies to pick out which chemicals are toxic specifically to rat development or rabbit development without animal testing. That level of specificity was wishful thinking just a few years ago!
Hopefully these models, built from reused and recycled traditional toxicity data, will help pave the way for quickly prioritizing which chemicals need a thorough evaluation and will eventually reduce the need for costly and time-consuming animal toxicity testing.

As we get further along in our HTS research, we can use what we’ve learned from this study to better identify target chemicals that may be toxic to humans.

About the author: Nisha Sipes is a post-doctoral fellow for EPA’s National Center for Computational Toxicology. She joined EPA in 2009 and specializes in using computational approaches to understand chemicals’ developmental toxicology.

Editor’s Note: Attending the SOT meeting in San Francisco? Be sure to catch Nisha next week as she presents her paper and the predictive model: March 13, 2012 at 9:37 AM (Pacific time).

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.

The EPA Toxics Release Inventory National Analysis: Celebrating 25 Years of Community-Right-to-Know

By Kara Koehrn

In 1984, when a deadly cloud of chemical gas killed thousands of people in Bhopal India, a power movement was set in motion. Back then, Americans had little access to information about chemicals in their neighborhood. The spill in Bhopal along with another accident at a sister plant in West Virginia, awakened public interest in knowing more about potential hazards. Communities demanded information about toxic chemicals being released outside facilities, and it was in this environment that the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) was created by the Emergency Planning and Community-Right-to-Know Act in 1986.

25 years later, my coworkers and I are proud to continue the community-right-to-know tradition with the publication of this year’s TRI data and analysis. The report is called the TRI National Analysis and it can tell you whether toxic chemical releases have increased or decreased nationwide, what chemicals are being released in the Denver area, which industries are releasing the highest amounts in the Los Angeles area, or whether toxic chemical releases have increased in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Take a look!

I am especially excited for this year’s analysis because it includes new features designed to make TRI data more informative and relevant. We have worked with economists to incorporate information on how the economy may be affecting TRI releases, included risks associated with TRI chemicals, more information on what facilities have done to help reduce their chemical releases, and translated even more materials than ever before into Spanish.

We publish the National Analysis every year, but EPA employees aren’t the only ones who can conduct analyses on TRI data. Any member of the public can analyze or look up what chemicals are being released in an area. My favorite tool to use for quick information about chemical releases in my zip code is myRTK (myRight-to-Know,) which I can access on my smart phone. But if I am at home and want to see long-term trends of TRI releases I use TRI Explorer or TRI.NET. Want to try? Follow this link to TRI’s tools.

We have come a long way since 1984, and I hope you take a look at the National Analysis and maybe even try a few of our analysis tools to see what chemicals are being released into your neighborhood. After all, it’s your right to know.

About the author: Kara Koehrn joined EPA’s Office of Environment Information in Washington, D.C. in 2009 and is the project leader for the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) National Analysis. She recently started a potted vegetable garden at her row house apartment in the city to grow fresh food locally without pesticides.

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.

Una palabra con cinco letras para un gas radioactivo inerte

El otro día trabajaba en un crucigrama del periódico bastante difícil cuando me tropecé con esta clave – palabra con cinco letras para un gas radioactivo inerte. Bien, me dije a mí mismo, creo que sé ésta. Tiene que ser radón. Me hubiera gustado que el resto del crucigrama fuera igual de fácil!

Enero es el Mes Nacional de Acción de Radón y estoy escribiendo este blog para crear conciencia acerca de los peligros del radón. Afortunadamente, aquí puedo ofrecer más información que la clave de un crucigrama.

El radón es un gas que se produce en la naturaleza del uranio radioactivo en el suelo y en las rocas que se encuentra alrededor del mundo entero. Ya que los materiales radioactivos se descomponen y cambian con el tiempo, usted podría pensar que el uranio se desintegra. Sí, de hecho, se desintegra, primero y se convierte en radio, y después de un tiempo, el radio se desintegra en radón. Ya que el radón es un gas, este se mueve fácilmente a través del suelo y fluye desde el suelo hacia la atmosfera y los edificios. ¿Ahora comprende por qué me preocupan los niveles de radón en los hogares?

De hecho, aunque parece una idea descabellada, el radón puede adentrarse fácilmente en su hogar. Tome como ejemplo donde yo vivo, en nuestro frío clima del medio oeste, necesitamos calentar nuestros hogares. Al calentar el aire, el aire tibio sube y crea una mayor presión arriba y una baja presión abajo, que básicamente trabaja como una aspiradora que succiona el suelo debajo de la casa. Es por esta razón que vemos niveles elevados de radón en los sótanos y en los pisos bajos de algunos edificios.

Peor aún es el hecho de que aunque usted no puede ver ni oler el radón, éste si le hace daño. ¿Pensaba que el proceso de desintegración eliminaba el radón? Pues, claro que no lo elimina. El radón es radioactivo, así que también se descompone, y cuando lo hace libera partículas alfa. En sus pulmones, las partículas alfa causan daño al golpear los tejidos. El respirar muchas partículas alfa puede causar serios problemas de salud, incluyendo cáncer. El radón es la segunda causa principal de cáncer pulmonar, y la primera causa de cáncer pulmonar entre las personas que no fuman.

Por su salud y por la salud de su familia, haga la prueba de radón en su hogar. Hacer la prueba es la única manera de saber si los niveles de radón en su hogar están elevados. Si encuentra niveles de radón altos – 4 picocuríes o más – haga los arreglos en su hogar- lo cual también es fácil de hacer. Simplemente mire la página web de radón de la EPA. Me gustaría que el resto del crucigrama hubiera sido tan fácil como es hacer la prueba de radón.

Jack Barnette es un científico ambiental que trabaja para la División de Aire y Radiación en la oficina regional de la EPA en Chicago. El señor Barnette ha trabajado con la EPA desde el 1984, Antes de unirse a la EPA, trabajó para la Agencia Medioambiental del Sstado de Illinois. El señor Barnette trabaja en un número de asuntos del medio ambiente y salud publica incluyendo la calidad del aire interior, protección de radiación, educación en asma y monitoreo del aire.

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.

Terminating Our Used Electronics

By Joshua Singer

Anyone who has seen “The Terminator” can appreciate the importance of recycling electronics.

In the original film, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a cyborg sent back in time to kill the mother of the leader of humanity in the war against robots. The sequel also features the ex-governator, but as a robot reprogrammed to save the teenaged savior-to-be. In both films, Arnold plays a lethal, flesh-covered machine uncannily well.

The movies provide an action-packed demonstration of why the phrase “end of life” is appropriately associated with safe electronics disposal (I won’t elaborate to avoid spoiling the plot). Rather than throwing away discarded computers, TVs or cell phones, valuable materials can be recycled from them and used to make new products, which helps to protect people and the environment.

You don’t need to see “The Terminator” to understand reasons for recycling electronics. Recycling reduces the amount of raw materials extracted from the earth, saves the energy needed to make new products and reduces landfill waste and greenhouse gas emissions. Discarded electronics contain toxins that can leach into the environment if improperly managed. Illegal dumping, for example, can release lead and mercury.

As we grow more dependent on machines, this issue will grow in importance. Americans discarded approximately 2.4 million tons of TVs, computers, cell phones and other electronics in 2010, roughly 25 percent of which was recycled.

More “end-of-life” electronics should be recycled. And some products that people can’t or don’t want to use anymore are in good enough shape to be refurbished or resold. Electronics recycling is also required in some cases. For example, Illinois will ban additional electronics, such as TVs and computers, from landfill disposal beginning Jan. 1, 2012.

You may be able to unload old electronics at a thrift store (if they still work), a retailer or manufacturer that accepts them, local government drop-off site or a recycling facility. R2 and e-Stewards® third-party certification programs can help ensure recycling companies handle materials properly.

While not quite as dramatic as a war against robots, we need to combat problems resulting from greater use of electronics. Recycling more electronics is a battle we can win, with or without the Terminator.

About the author: Joshua Singer is a press officer in EPA’s Chicago Office.  He works on Superfund, land and chemical issues.

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.

Greener Holidays

By Lina Younes

Doesn’t it seem that stores are trying to get consumers in the holiday spending spirit earlier than ever? It’s not just the fact that holiday decorations are go up months before Thanksgiving, but now we’re seeing the big store chains promoting super deals even before Black Friday, the unofficial beginning of the holiday season.

Even my youngest daughter is jumping on the bandwagon and she’s trying to convince me to take her to the mall on this maddening day. She claims that she wants to buy gifts for the family and her friends, but I know she’s really lobbying for a few gifts for herself in the electronics department and clothes, of course. At least at this age, I still can influence some of her purchasing decisions. I’m glad that I’ve made her more environmentally conscious about green shopping and avoiding those trinkets that might contain lead and other toxic chemicals.  I’m also happy to see that she still prefers a good book over a meaningless toy.

Nonetheless, before we embark on a shopping spree, let’s try to think of the real significance of what we are supposed to be celebrating. As the holiday season begins, let’s give thanks for our family and friends, our health and our environment. We can all do our part to make a difference to make this world a happier and better place. Hope you had a great Thanksgiving.

About the author: Lina Younes has been working for EPA since 2002 and currently serves as acting associate director for environmental education. 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 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.

Dangers of Being a Couch Potato

By Sarah Bae

Back in High School, after a long day of grueling study, I would come home to flop on the couch in front of my computer and spend hours doing nothing. Sometimes my whole family would spend large parts of our vacations and weekends relaxing in front of the TV. Besides the calories accumulated from constant snacking during these times, we never thought there were possible health risks associated with our practice. But, there is one danger that enjoying the comfort of your couch can cause – the danger of indoor air pollution. Indoor air pollution can be especially detrimental to older adults because studies show that they spend up to 90% of their time indoors. Indoor air is made up of a mix of contaminants such as secondhand smoke, fumes from household cleaning products, and more. Indoor contaminants can be dangerously toxic, especially to those already at risk of heart disease and stroke.

Wood burning stoves and fireplaces can create smoke that contains fine carbon particles which can trigger chest pain, palpitations, fatigue, and more while household products like the vapors from cleaning products, paint solvents, and pesticides can stress the lungs and heart. If your home was built before 1978, you should also make sure that there are no more traces of lead-based paint, as traces of lead can cause serious health hazards like high blood pressure. Furthermore, victims of pesticide poisonings show symptoms such as arrhythmia, a very slow pulse, or in severe cases even heart attacks. To decrease your chances of exposure to these risks, tell smokers to take it outdoors, and limit the use of wood burning stoves and fireplaces. Also use caution when working around the house by improving your ventilation when indoor painting is taking place – open the windows and take frequent fresh air breaks. Leave the house for a few days after the painting has been completed as well. Also, be careful when using pesticides and always take protective measures such as wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants. Change clothes and wash hands after exposure to pesticides and wash the exposed clothes separately.

About the author: Sarah Bae is a summer intern for the EPA’s Office of Public Engagement. She is a rising senior at UC Berkeley majoring in Society and Environment.

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: The Future is Now

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

By Aaron Ferster

When I was a kid one of my favorite shows was a cartoon about a space-age family that tooled around in a flying, spaceship-like car. Cool. “I hope we have that when I’m a dad,” I thought.

While my mode of transportation is earthbound, some of the show’s futuristic gadgets have actually come to pass: I call home with a pocket-sized phone, video conferencing is here, and many of us spend our workdays surrounded by banks of computer screens—even if we don’t make sprockets.

I recently got another glimpse of our emerging high-tech future when EPA joined its research partners from the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) National Toxicology Program, the National Institute of Health (NIH) Chemical Genomics Center, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and others to unveil a high-speed robot screening system. The robots are set up to test chemicals for their potential to trigger health problems.

The system consists of robot arms that continually move rectangle “plates” through the toxicity testing process. Each plate contains 1536 small wells that can hold a dab of chemical solution and cells (human and non-human animal), and the arm precisely moves each plate though exposure testing and computer analysis. Take a look at this video to see it in action.

The robot system, housed at the National Institutes of Health Chemical Genomics Center (NCGC) in Rockville, Maryland, was purchased as part of the Tox21 collaboration between the EPA, NIEH’s National Toxicology Program, NCGC, and FDA. Tox21 merges existing resources—research, funding and testing tools—to develop ways to more effectively predict how chemicals will affect human health and the environment.

Tox21 partners have already screened more than 2,500 chemicals for potential toxicity using robots and other innovative chemical screening technologies, such as ToxCast. EPA tapped such technologies to test oil dispersants for potential endocrine disrupting activity following the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year.

The 10,000 chemicals the robot system will screen include those found in industrial and consumer products, food additives, and drugs. Testing results will provide information useful for evaluating if these chemicals have the potential to disrupt human body processes enough to lead to adverse health effects.

While I’m still looking forward to my first flying car, knowing the future should contain fewer potentially harmful chemicals is pretty exciting, too. Especially now that I’m a dad.

About the author: Aaron Ferster is the editor of Science Wednesday and a frequent contributor.

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.

Green Cleaning

As I was grocery shopping this past weekend, I noticed that many companies that produce cleaning products are joining the green bandwagon. Many of these companies are extolling the green virtues of their products as a means to increase revenues. The question is how truly green these products are? It is safe to say that there are products in the market place which have been screened to include the safest possible ingredients to help protect the environment and families. Which products you may ask? Well, the products that carry the Design for the Environment label. The DfE is an EPA Partnership Program in which product manufacturers earn the right to display the DfE logo after investing heavily in the research, development and reformulation to ensure that their ingredients and the finish product are really environmentally friendly.

Dfeb&g1While there is a list of Design for the Environment Partners covering a wide variety of consumer and industrial cleaning products, there are still individuals that prefer greener practices for their household chores. Here are some suggested alternative methods or products that allow you to clean without hazardous ingredients:

Glass Cleaner: Mix 1 tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice in 1 quart of water.
Toilet Bowl Cleaner: Use a toilet brush and baking soda or vinegar. Note: these clean but do not disinfect.
Furniture Polish: Mix 1 teaspoon of lemon juice in 1 pint of vegetable oil.
Rug Deodorizer: Sprinkle liberally with baking soda and vacuum after 15 minutes.
Plant Spray: Wipe leaves with mild soap and water and rinse.
Mothballs: Use cedar chips, lavender flowers, rosemary, mint, or white peppercorns.
Household Cleaning Solution: 1 cup of warm water, 3 drops of vegetable-based liquid soap, 1 teaspoon of baking soda, and 1 tablespoon of white vinegar

So, use and dispose of these products safely at home for the benefit of your family and the environment. Do you have any green cleaning habits you would like to share? We would love to hear from you.

About the author:  Lina Younes has been working for EPA since 2002 and chairs EPA’s Multilingual Communications Task Force.  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.