science notebook

Talking Asthma for the Science Notebook

When I sat down at the microphone I took a deep breath and was immediately thankful I don’t suffer from asthma: that I could take a deep breath. Sometimes being a science communicator means lending your vocal talents to the cause, even when you don’t think your vocal chords sound all that pleasing to the ear.

But this is for science and getting the word out. Okay, I’m in.

I was hosting the “EPA’s Coordinated Approach” podcast for the Science Notebook: Asthma. So there I was, sitting in the EPA studio’s recording booth next to Alisa Smith of the Office of Air and Radiation. Joining us via the phone from EPA’s campus in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, were Susan Stone, also from the Office of Air and Radiation, and Dan Costa, EPA’s National Program Director for Clean Air Research.

After a quick sound check from each of us we went straight into the discussion: what asthma is, how EPA research is offering promising insights into the disease, the connection between air pollution and tools such as the Air Quality Index (AQI) and how they can help you understand what local air quality means to your health and asthma management. We jammed a lot of info into 11 minutes!

Explore the additional podcasts on the Science Notebook including those with:

  • Martha Sue Carraway, an EPA medical officer and scientist discusses her investigations into the respiratory and cardiovascular effects of air pollution exposure in older adults with asthma.
  • EPA health scientist Lucas Neas talks about his work on the Inner City Asthma Study, which evaluated the health benefits of feasible changes in the home environment of inner city children with moderate to severe asthma.
  • Marsha Ward, an EPA scientist, talks about the role of mold in asthma incidence alongside a slide show.

Check out the wealth of science information in the Notebook, scientific posters on EPA asthma research, videos and PSAs – information that can help you or someone you care about ward off an asthma attack. Be sure to take the quizzes “What Triggers Asthma Attacks?” and “Who’s Got Asthma?” and “It Takes A Village” — use the comments section below to let us know how you did and what you learned!

About the Author: Melissa-Anley Mills is the news director for EPA’s Office of Research and Development. She joined the Agency in 1998 as a National Urban Fellow.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Science Wednesday 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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When Indoor Air Becomes Personal: One Scientist's Personal Journey, Struggles With Indoor Air Quality

Improving the quality of life for people, especially those disproportionately impacted by disease, the environment, poverty or other life circumstances is one of the basic goals I always work to accomplish with my social, academic and professional pursuits. Along with this goal, I have tried to choose activities that are in line with the principles that my parents taught. These include the importance of faith, importance of family, hard work, honesty, manners, sharing, respecting all people, remembering where you come from and that you are standing on someone’s shoulders with each upward step. In addition, they instilled in me the rule to first do no harm, never taking anything or anyone for granted, and take time to enjoy life and all you do with it. All of these ideals and goals have led me down many interesting paths including my current path in EPA’s Indoor Environments Division, better known as IED. My work here not only has the potential to help improve the quality of life for people, including those disproportionately impacted, but also depends on many of the principles I was taught as a child.

IED is a non-regulatory part of EPA with the mission to improve indoor environmental quality and its impact on health and well-being of indoor occupants. Many times, the people we serve are not aware that their problems might stem from things in the indoors or they don’t know how to address or mitigate issues or how to help themselves live healthier lives indoors. Others need help in building or modifying buildings to protect from potential indoor air quality problems in the future. Since we do not regulate and cannot force by legal statutes people to change, it is important that we not only have strong credible science behind our messages, but that we use all of the basic principles I was taught by my parents to motivate change.

Combining my academic training in chemistry, mathematics, and public health with my interest in theater and the arts, as part of the science team in IED, I get a chance to not only review and analyze the science but identify where there are gaps in what we know. I also get to work on projects that impact everyday consumers just like me and my family. I get to be on stage when I provide outreach through public speaking and with the help of some very talented artists and public relation specialist create public documents to spread our messages. One of my primary areas of focus is pollutants and sources with a special emphasis on consumer products and building materials. I really enjoy this work because I am getting to research and address issues (all the techie stuff I love) but also input into the awareness and understanding of the everyday person like myself and my family. I often get to talk to teachers like the ones who work in my son’s school or elderly people like my mother, or homeowners like my husband and I who just want to understand and know how to make good choices for our family’s air quality and health.

People spend as much as 90 percent of their time indoors where some contaminant levels may be much higher than they are outdoors. All of us can be impacted by what we breathe inside of our homes, cars and workspaces. It can be very simple in most cases to control our exposure through source control and ventilation with fresh outdoor air, but most of us do not know enough about the potential problems or how to mitigate effectively. I encourage you to discover more about your indoor environment, what you might be breathing, and how you can limit any potential harm from indoor air quality concerns by visiting EPA’s Indoor Environments Web site.

About the author: Laureen Burton works as a chemist and toxicologist in EPA’s Office of Radiation and Indoor Air, Indoor Environments Division. Since 1997, she has worked not only to advance the science behind indoor air quality, but also to increase the public’s understanding of the indoor environment and how it can impact the health and comfort of people.

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 Notebook: Childhood Dreams Really Do Come True

About the author: Jeanne Voorhees is an environmental scientist at EPA in Boston, Massachusetts. She began working at EPA (1997) helping to protect and restore water quality in rivers and streams, and continues this with her focus now on doing her Dream Job in wetlands.

image of author with white dog squatting in woodsI was raised on Long Island (New York) and enjoyed hours playing in woods behind our home, never realizing the muck I tromped through or the hummocks of tussock sedge I hopped upon were considered part of a wetland. I just knew I loved watching waterbugs, catching turtles, frogs, and salamanders, and getting muddy. I even enjoyed peering through a microscope looking at smaller forms of life found in muddy ponds and remember the first Paramicieum I saw. It was that moment, 38 years ago, I dreamed of becoming a “scientist.” Now I’m at EPA doing my Dream Job helping to protect and understand the biology, ecology and health of our wetlands in New England. What better job could I possibly ask for?

As a child I didn’t know the wetlands behind my parent’s house were acting like a sponge to absorb water that would have otherwise flooded our basement. I didn’t know wetlands help clean the ponds and rivers we swam and fished in. Although I didn’t know these and other wetland functions, I did know they were home to unique and beautiful plants and animals worth protecting. I encourage you to discover more about wetlands and the benefits they serve at EPA’s wetlands website.

I am privileged to work with wetland scientists across New England exploring such questions as, “How do we know a wetland is healthy?” We may monitor it using computer models with maps, algae (one celled organisms), soils, water chemistry, and other measures to help answer our questions. We might find a wetland is missing bugs and plants that belong in a healthy wetland, and then begin identifying the potential source(s) of the problem so it can be restored to a healthier system. The source could be a failing septic system, or polluted runoff from a parking lot. This is only one issue that monitoring wetlands can help identify.

I encourage you to visit a wetland this week, maybe it’s in your own backyard, to discover its unique qualities and report your findings here. Ask yourself, “What do I see, hear and smell? Is this wetland healthy and how do I know?”

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 Notebook: On the Mind of a Modern Day Health Physicist

About the Author: Mike Boyd joined EPA in 1988 as a health physicist in what is now the Office of Radiation and Indoor Air. Health physics is the profession of radiation protection. Mike’s work at EPA focuses on radiation risk assessment.  He helps develop federal guidance, the rules and regulations that protect the American public from the harmful effects of radiation.

image of author sittingHealth physics is a term most people don’t understand. People often guess that my job has something to do with physical therapy. Actually, the term was coined during the Manhattan Project – a national effort to develop the first atomic weapon during World War II.

There are several stories about how the term originated. I like the one that says that “health physics” was chosen over “radiation protection” because it “conveyed nothing.” The Manhattan Project was very secretive, so a name that disguised any association with radiation would be appropriate. I imagine someone in charge saying, “Some of you physicists need to design the protective shielding for this project and some of you need to monitor worker exposure. Raise your hand if you want to be our health physicists.” Maybe it didn’t happen just that way, but it could have!

As fascinated as I am by the challenges facing these first health physicists, their work has little resemblance to what I do today with EPA. Radioactive elements are commonly found in nature. Since there is no such thing as “zero radiation,” how do we determine how safe is “safe” and how clean is “clean?” These are the questions I deal with.

This raises an interesting question. After a radiological emergency, should “clean” be a constant, or should it depend on a larger context? Is “clean” the same for a major nuclear incident in a large city as for a small scale event in a rural area? What if it means abandoning a city? Will people accept an increased lifetime cancer risk to be able to get back to their homes and livelihood? There is no easy answer.

Chernobyl teaches us that some people will try to go back home no matter what the radiation levels and risks. Others will stay away, no matter how low the levels eventually reach. My personal opinion is that it is best to approach such situations on a case-by-case basis, hoping, of course, that there is never even one such case. We have benchmarks to begin the process of determining clean-up levels, including the history of what was achieved at radiation-contaminated sites around the country.

We cannot know in advance what emergency managers may face in the future, but we know that no decision regarding cleanup will mean anything without serious public involvement. These are just some thoughts of one EPA health physicist. I’d like to hear what you think!

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 Notebook: I’m Not in Kansas Anymore – Confessions of a Radiation Communicator

About the Author: Jessica Wieder is a communications specialist with EPA’s Radiation Protection Program and member of EPA’s Radiological Emergency Response Team. When not doing emergency response work, she helps develop radiation education products like EPA’s RadTown USA.

image of authorIt is 2004 and I am a proud University of Maryland Terrapin senior, majoring in communications and minoring in British and American literature. I am jumping up and down in my dorm room because I just got an offer to work for EPA’s Radiation Protection Division.

Did I ever think I would work for EPA? No.
Do I know anything about radiation? No.
Do I care at this moment? No. I GOT A JOB!

My very first assignment is to “play” in an emergency response exercise called Ruby Slippers. The exercise scenario involves a satellite crashing in Kansas (hence Ruby Slippers) and scattering pieces of its radioactive power source across the state. The power source is called a radioisotope thermoelectric generator. (Try saying that five times fast)

image of person from the back in an orange vest with information officer labelMy role in this exercise is Assistant Public Information Officer. My job is to help communicate EPA’s role during a radiological emergency, potential health effects from radiation exposure, and protective action decisions.

NOW do I care that I don’t know anything about radiation? You better believe it!

With two weeks to prepare, I turn to my new coworkers for help. This is what I learned: 1) Many radiation health physicists communicate well with each other – not so well with non-techies, 2) My coworkers have amazing patience for, what I assume are, some pretty stupid questions, like “What is a gamma spectrometer and do I really need to know this?” 3) Radiation is a difficult topic to understand and even harder to explain, and 4) This job isn’t going to be easy.

You will be happy to know that I survived the exercise and have been with EPA for almost five years. Communicating radiation information to the public continues to be rewarding and challenging. Just last week I learned that “to frisk” in radiation terms means to use radiation detection instruments to scan a person for contamination, as opposed to an intrusive pat down. (I would hate to be the nuclear power plant worker to make that mistake.)

Looking back, it was my first assignment that made this job a career. I learned that the question isn’t “Do I care?” but “WHY do I care?” The answer is why I love my job: Because it is the knowledge of the experts, the science behind decisions and the technology we use that protects the people. It is communicating that information that empowers people to protect themselves.

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 Notebook: Innovation and Improving Emergency Response Capabilities

About the author: Jed Harrison’s research background dates back to 1974, starting in agriculture, then indoor air quality. Since 1992, Jed has been Director of EPA’s Radiation & Indoor Environments National Laboratory (R&IE) in Las Vegas. Jed oversees several programs including the western contingent of the EPA’s Radiological Emergency Response Team (RERT).

image of authorOne of the things that makes us special as a Radiation Laboratory and Response Team is that we’re radiation measurement specialists. In the event of a radiation incident, our lab has an important role in determining the extent of the contamination, characterizing that area, and ensuring a successful decontamination and cleanup. We do this by using our specialized field and lab-based measurement capabilities.

Responding to a radiation disaster, we may be working on a scale that exceeds anything that EPA has ever experienced. We will be under great pressure to work quickly and effectively so that people’s lives can get back to normal as fast as possible. Our goals will be to get people back in their homes with access to safe food and water and to see local businesses reopen so that people can return to work and school. The ability of local economies to recover will depend upon the success of small businesses to get back on their feet, and time will become an enemy.

image of two women adjusting a portable radiation monitorSo, a large focus of the R&IE laboratory has been on developing methods, tools, and capabilities that can increase our speed and efficiency, without sacrificing the measurement quality needed to make good decisions. I believe that EPA will have the greatest success by shifting the proportion of our measurement efforts toward field-based analysis using real time instruments, and rapid methods using field lab capabilities.

Decades of field experience – at contaminated sites and emergency responses – has helped us evolve. This yields capabilities like R&IE’s scanning systems that integrate real-time radiation monitoring systems, G.P.S., and wireless data communication. Mounted in trucks, all-wheel drive tractors and portable “buggies,” these systems allow us to cover large areas quickly, collecting a great “density of data” which can be viewed in a map format and superimposed over aerial images. This greatly simplifies data interpretation, allowing us to make better decisions faster.

image of all wheel tractor & portable buggie

As a Lab Director, it’s my job to keep our laboratory capable and relevant. We’re always looking for better ways to do our work, and opportunities to partner with others. We may never have all the resources that we would like to have; we realize we have to “work smarter.” By partnering with our colleagues on the RERT, EPA’s On Scene Coordinators, and EPA’s Environmental Response Team and National Decontamination Team, good ideas are created. These ideas are based on real world experience and foresight which become seeds of continual improvement and innovation.

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 Notebook: Radiation Emergency Response – From the Field

About the author: Gregg Dempsey is an EPA Radiological Emergency Response Team commander and has been with EPA more than 21 years. His job involves being an internal consultant to EPA on radiation issues and being a field response person for radiation emergencies.

image of author pointing to flowchartIf you’ve ever worried about some of the strange new terms that have been in the media since September 11, 2001, like ‘dirty bomb’, ‘radiation dispersal device’ and ‘improvised nuclear device’, you’re not alone. I worry about them too. But my worry is probably a little different than yours; I am part of a group of people who might have to monitor and cleanup the radiation from these types of events.

EPA deals with small radiation problems across the country all the time. They range from transportation accidents to cleanup at abandoned facilities. We work well with our state and local counterparts, and other Federal agencies to get the job done and remove dangerous radiation from our environment.

The smaller problems turn out to be mostly local issues, but they provide valuable lessons for larger accidents and incidents. You learn just how complicated measuring radiation can be, and how complicated it is to determine when you must act and when you might not need to act. Everyone agrees that high levels of radiation exposure are dangerous. It’s the lower levels that spark a huge debate. The debate ranges from questions such as ‘is my health at risk?’, ‘do we leave it here or must we clean it up?’ or ‘are these low levels still a danger?’ Depending on who you talk to, the answers are quite different. In my job, I try to help answer these questions.

I am unfortunately fortunate; I’ve been to and worked at a vast number of radiation cleanup sites across the United States, and I’ve participated in so many emergency response exercises that I’ve lost count. I’ve also been up close and personal at the Chernobyl accident site in Ukraine several times, and I have seen the devastation of wide spread contamination in the environment and how that accident affected its citizens. I try to bring that experience back to EPA.

The Radiological Emergency Response Team (RERT), of which I am a member, is one of many specialized technical teams in EPA. I’m often asked to provide help and advice on radiation issues in the field. That is, how to prevent, measure, clean up and protect people from needless radiation exposure. We train a lot, we maintain a good response capability, and we help where we can.

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.