Science Wednesday

Science Wednesday:Rising STARs

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

By Aaron Ferster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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

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

By Jonathan Herrmann, P.E., BCEE

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

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

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

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

Additional articles highlight:

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

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

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

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Science Wednesday: Fall Classics

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

By Aaron Ferster

The big yellow school buses have begun rolling into the neighborhood every morning again. The heat waves of the summer have relinquished. And I’ve noticed a leaf or two starting to fade. This can only mean one thing: it’s time for pennant races to get going!

As a former resident of the Bronx—and a life-long Yankee fan—I have spent more Septembers than I care to admit fixated on the epic struggle for baseball’s biggest prize: beating the Red Sox. (Okay, it’s pretty thrilling watching N.Y. win the World Series, too.)

But now that I’ve lived in the DC area as long as I’ve lived in New York, I have to admit that the baseball universe is larger than just two teams. I’ve even started to learn about my adopted hometown’s Washington Nationals.

Although I don’t think I’ll need to worry about choosing between N.Y. and D.C. in the Series anytime soon, I now know one area where the Nationals are already contending: the rain delay.

Earlier this season, a colleague invited me to tag along with a number of other EPA employees for a lunch-hour tour of Nationals Park. The team was eager to tout the numerous environmentally- sustainable, “green architecture” features of their new stadium.

According to their web site, “Nationals Park is the nation’s first major professional stadium to become LEED Silver Certified by the U.S. Green Building Council.” To start, the ballpark is easily accessible to public transportation, and offers bicycles valet parking. A green roof—much like one EPA scientists are studying—sits atop a concession and restroom area.

I was particularly impressed with steps the team has taken to filter ground and stormwater runoff, another area of great interest to EPA researchers. An intricate system separates water used to clean the stadium from rainwater runoff, filtering both before any is released into the sanitary or stormwater drains. The end result is that the entire stadium acts like a giant rain garden (another EPA research subject) that helps protect the nearby Anacostia River. They even take pains to keep discarded peanut shells from entering the wastewater flow!

While the Nationals might not have the line up of the big budget teams up North, they sure do impress with their investment to environmental sustainability. Even this Yankee fan is impressed.

About the author: Aaron Ferster is the managing 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.

Science Wednesday: Emerging Science

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

By Dimetrius Simon

Recently I attended “Emerging Science for Environment Health Decisions” conference as a student contractor to the EPA.  I had just started and this was a new opportunity for me to hear first-hand from scientific experts about the advances that are emerging for new tools and improved approaches in environmental health decisions. For me, it was an introduction to the world of science.

Coming from a job at the Washington Post, this science conference once again opened my eyes to the intricate and fascinating study of environmental science that I can recollect from my college days. Not only did I find it intense and exciting at the same time, I also felt a keen sense of comfort as I sat amongst a room full of scientists taking notes on presentations some of which I may have had little experience on, but great interest in learning more about.

As I listened to Lesa Aylward – principal at Summit Toxicology – talk about Biomonitoring and how this exposure tool is useful when particular chemicals are widespread and frequent in a selected population; then I heard EPA’s Dr. Thomas Knudsen’s talk about predictive models with liver tumors and rat fertility. It occurred to me that a mobile App would be a great tool to demonstrate some of these concepts.

As EPA evolves in the mobile world and attracts a bigger audience, I think that there’s no better way to allow EPA scientists to display cool graphs that depict their latest scientific findings than on an App. We live in a fast and mobile society and easy access to relevant and quick new information is a must. Having a mobile App to enable scientists, professionals and students to share their cool findings, photo galleries, data and graphs, would be very intriguing.

In fact, I think , after listening to this conference, and seeing the passion of these scientists, that it’s a wonderful feeling to see how working on the smallest things and using them to create something much bigger could potentially save a life, a community or even bring us a step closer to a cure or prevention. I feel like my awareness of this “science” in my everyday life will improve the decisions I make as I try to attend as many more EPA conferences to learn as much as possible about the world of environmental science.

About the Author: Dimetrius Simon is a student contractor working with EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Science Wednesday – Apps for the Environment: The New Way of Communicating Science and Information

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

Want to know the weather tomorrow, the next movie showing, or the latest Hollywood gossip? There’s an app for that! In the age of smart phones, answers are literally at your fingertips on your iPhone or Android device. There’s no need to scour the internet for solutions when you can simply download an app that will gather the relevant information for you in a user-friendly application on your phone.

Working in EPA’s Office of Research and Development, I constantly hear of the developments and data that Agency researchers and scientists have produced. These scientists work diligently year around on protecting the environment and human health as outlined in Administrator Lisa P. Jackson’s Seven Priorities. What better way is there for communicating the resources and discoveries of EPA researchers than in an easy-to-use app on your mobile device?

challengebanner_MThe EPA Apps for the Environment Challenge invites software developers to use EPA data to develop apps so the public can understand or protect the environment in their daily lives. Want to know the air quality where you live or which cars have the least amount of greenhouse gas emissions? There could be an app for that!

EPA has a lot of data that is publicly available. This data includes information from the Toxic Release Inventory which tells you facilities that dispose of or release toxic chemicals, real time air quality monitoring, green vehicle guide that gives environmental performance guides for vehicles, a Superfund website, and chemical toxicity information from the ToxCast database. Because these datasets are overwhelming for those with less technical and scientific knowledge like me, EPA held a series of webinars where data owners explained the information.

If you’re like me and don’t know the first thing about developing an app, you can still participate by submitting ideas for apps. These ideas are useful in providing developers and researchers a window of insight into the needs and wants of the public.

For more information and rules, visit the Apps for the Environment website. The deadline for submissions is September 16. In the meantime, you can find out the latest information on Twitter, just search #greenapps.

About the Author: Jing Zhang is a student services contractor working with the science communications team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Science Wednesday: Watching the Government Process

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

By Claire Payne

I find our government fascinating because at first glance, it seems a giant organization that makes the rules for all of us. However, upon closer inspection, one can see the intricate web of Federal agencies mixing with our elected politicians, advocacy groups, scientists and other professionals, press, and an untold number of general and wonkish enthusiasts engaging on every issue.

As a summer intern for EPA, I’ve experienced the pleasure and challenge of navigating these multiple layers. I’ve learned that with every step along the way new questions and obstacles arise that must be analyzed and answered before eventually arriving at a satisfactory conclusion.

I recently attended a congressional hearing where EPA Assistant Administrator Dr. Paul Anastas was called to testify regarding EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS). Mingling with the EPA senior staff as well as with the dozens of people who were visiting Congress that day as either tourists or professionals was indescribably uplifting. This was our country at its best and here I am, a 21-year-old from the west coast, experiencing the finest of democracy’s ideals, first-hand.

I took my seat towards the back of the hearing room and waited with anticipation. Before me I could see the committee chair and members seated across three rows of seats that spanned the room. At once I noticed on the wall behind them an engraving with the quote,

“For I dipped into the future, far as human eye could see, Saw the vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be” –Tennyson.

This quote resonated deeply with me throughout the hearing because it seemed extremely appropriate and fitting as IRIS program was discussed in such detail. Through IRIS, Agency researchers conduct chemical hazard assessments that provide scientific data to support EPA’s program offices as they make decisions on how to protect public health and the environment, now and for future generations.

It was a special privilege to observe these high caliber professionals engaging in this manner. I think that there’s no better way to learn about our future than to be thrust into the heat of such an important government process and experiencing it firsthand. I recommend to all you readers – if you haven’t yet attended a hearing, it is a must see event!

About the author: Claire Payne is a summer intern with EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Science Wednesday: It’s Easy To Be Green (at Scientific Meetings)

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

By Stephen S. Hale

How green are scientific societies? The Council of Scientific Society Presidents represents about 60 organizations with over 1.4 million members. If they all flew once a year to meet together for four days, that’s collectively 2.8 million flights and 11.2 million dirty coffee cups from breaks. Travel to and from meetings pours large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. 1 For many frequent-flying scientists, air travel produces our biggest personal greenhouse gas impact, often making the carbon footprint of ecologists and conservation biologists exceed the U.S. per capita carbon footprint.  2 Many scientific societies are striving to make their meetings greener.

Recently, I helped prepare a green meeting policy for the Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation (CERF), an international scientific organization that “advances understanding and wise stewardship of estuarine and coastal ecosystems worldwide.” The United Nations Environment Program says a green meeting is one where emissions of greenhouse gases are minimized and unavoidable emissions are compensated for, natural resource consumption is minimized, waste generation is avoided where possible and remaining waste is reused or recycled, and the local community benefits economically, socially, and environmentally.

Among other things, the policy calls for meeting attendees to make voluntary donations to a carbon offset fund. Offsets are not meant to replace reducing your emissions; offsets are to be used for emissions you cannot avoid. To be credible, it is important to buy certifiable carbon offsets that result in a real reduction of carbon dioxide emissions that would otherwise not have happened. The Nature Conservancy website lists what to look for in carbon offset programs: permanence, additionality (would it have happened anyway), no leakage (the old practice just displaced to a new area), and standards of verification by third parties. Alternatively, CERF conferences can provide environmental footprint offsets for impacts other than carbon dioxide emissions (e.g., water use, paper consumption, waste products). Donations to local projects that, while not a certifiable carbon offset, would enhance other environmental values (e.g., local oyster reef restoration, small coastal vegetated buffer), serve to engage the community and provide local benefits.

The CERF Board hopes the policy will reduce the environmental footprint of CERF meetings and encourage other scientific organizations to follow down the same green path.

About the author: Stephen S. Hale joined EPA’s Office of Research and Development as a Research Ecologist in 1995. He is currently serving on the Governing Board of the Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation.

  1. H.E. Fox. 2009. Front Ecol Environ 7(6): 294-296.
  2. T.M. Hamill. 2007. Bull Am Meteorol Soc, Nov 2007. pp. 1816–1819; B. Lester. 2007. Science 318:36–38.

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 post.

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 – Modeling Matters: It Was Supposed To Rain!

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

By Tanya Otte

By early June, my yard was already parched. The drought-tolerant annuals planted to brighten things up were suffering, but relief was on the way. Yielding to the forecast and my shortage of time, I skipped watering the plants. When I got home, the rain gage was bone dry. Eyeing the wilted flowers, I muttered: “But it was supposed to rain today!”

Supposed to rain?!? As if the forecast was a guarantee.

Why are weather forecasts for rain so often wrong?

Forecasts for rain are seeded by weather models. While the science and computing power behind those models have advanced in recent years, rain prediction remains one of the most difficult tasks…even just a few hours ahead of time, and particularly in the summertime.

Precipitation is the result of extremely complex atmospheric processes, many of which are at time and space scales that are not well represented in the operational weather models. The models that provide insight into daily weather forecasts cover the forecast area (either the whole U.S. or some region) as tiles that are often about 7.5 miles on each side. Depending on the terrain elevation, land-water boundaries, and urban-rural distinctions, the weather conditions can be different even within each tile.

Predicting thunderstorm activity is challenging, even for the most experienced meteorologists. Models can tell us if the large-scale and the regional-scale weather conditions (e.g., low-pressure system, cold front, jet stream, sea breeze) would be conducive for thunderstorms to form in a certain area, but not exactly where and when. It’s like putting a pot of water on the stove with the heat on high. You’ve created conditions that will result in boiling (convective activity), but you won’t be able to predict where or when the first bubbles will form.

Rain is also sensitive to subtle changes in wind, moisture, temperature, and pressure in columns of air that extend from the ground upward. This can affect the rising and sinking of air and thus determine whether rainfall occurs. Slight errors in the predictions of any of these atmospheric characteristics will affect the accuracy of the precipitation forecast. Modeling precipitation is tricky business, and it can affect your air quality forecast, too!

Next time you think it’s supposed to rain, give your meteorologist a break!

About the author: Tanya Otte, a research physical scientist, has worked at EPA in atmospheric modeling and analysis since 1998.

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:Lake Guardian Shipboard and Shoreline Science Workshop Day 7!

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

By Dr. Joel Hoffman

Workshop Day#7, Teachers teaching teachers

Tuesday afternoon the US EPA’s Research Vessel Lake Guardian returned to port in Duluth, MN, where we were joined by five teachers who were participating in a shore-based Great Lakes science workshop with the Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve . The teachers from theshore-based workshop had been sampling in the National Estuarine Research Reserve located in the St. Louis River, during the past two days to measure its environmental quality.

In July 2011, scientists and educators from around the Great Lakes will be aboard EPA’s Lake Guardian research vessel to research environmental conditions in Lake Superior, and share their stories.
NERR (shore-side) teaching our teachers (ship-side)

NERR (shore-side) teaching our teachers (ship-side)

Our sampling plan was to sample in the St. Louis River, close to the reserve, and then sample out in the lake so that the teachers could compare the environmental quality. But as we arrived at the station and began to start our sampling, something different happened – something that had not happened while we were sampling on Lake Superior. The teachers stepped up. The scientists stood back. Those teachers who have been with us the past week described the scientific instruments to the shore-based educators. Then they explained what the data were used for and how the data should be interpreted. The shore-based educators, in turn, looked at the results and told the boat-based educators how the values we got near the reserve or out in the lake compared to the results they had obtained in the river. I was greatly impressed. The teachers were now teaching the teachers.

LG (ship-side) teachers showing NERR teacher how to diploy zooplankton net

LG (ship-side) teachers showing NERR teacher how to diploy zooplankton net

A week ago, I stood alongside our rosette, a sampling device that is lowered into the lake to measure its physical and chemical properties, and carefully explained the way it worked, why it took the data it did, and why that was useful to scientists. A week later, the workshop teachers can explain with confidence the same device and provide personal stories about how it was important to the science in which they participated during the past week. Scientific terms that were foreign are now familiar. Concepts that were difficult are now comfortable. This is all evidence for the value of this immersive experience. When we have teachers working shoulder-to-shoulder with scientists, the teachers truly internalize the information and so they have the confidence to share it with others. And now they can share it with their students – the next generation of stewards of our Great Lakes.

This blog is the last in our Workshop series, thanks for joining us on the journey! Check out the Workshop website for much more information, including blogs by the teachersand podcasts.

About the author: Dr. Joel Hoffman is a research biologist in EPA’s Mid-Continent Ecology division, and. the head scientist for the 2011 Lake Guardian Shipboard and Shoreline workshop on Lake Superior.

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.

Lake Guardian Shipboard and Shoreline Science Workshop: Things I’ve Learned This Summer

By Maggie Sauerhage

Things I’ve learned this summer: Lake Superior is ENORMOUS, spanning 31,700 square miles; the Lake hosts a variety of unique habitats and biodiversity; and finally, cell phone reception on the Lake can be lousy.

As an EPA intern in the nation’s capital, I’ve been remotely assisting in communicating a science education workshop on Lake Superior.  I’ve  been lucky enough to have scientists, education experts and Lake Guardian crew members fill my brain with knowledge about lake science, science education and what life is like on a 180-foot-long research vessel.

In July 2011, scientists and educators from around the Great Lakes will be aboard EPA’s Lake Guardian research vessel to research environmental conditions in Lake Superior, and share their stories.

EPA’s Joel Hoffman, head scientist for the workshop, explained the variety of unique habitats surrounding the Great Lakes. From urban areas to places that are extremely remote, coastal zones are reflective of water quality in the Lake. Joel and other scientists are working with educators to measure water quality around the Lake.

EPA is measuring water quality and health indicators in the Great Lakes as part of new scientific standards established to assess ecosystem health of all five lakes. This data will create a record that scientists can use to determine how the lakes are doing and where they might need help. Listen to my podcast with Joel to learn more.

Minnesota Sea Grant’s Cindy Hagley is helping educators in the Workshop transform the science they are learning into teaching materials. Teachers can share videos, photos, and data from the Workshop with their students. Read about the educators’ daily experiences here.

Lake Guardian crew member Amy Jo Strange spends a large part of the year floating on the Great Lakes on the vessel. While one of her most important jobs during the workshop is to keep the educators safely on deck, she enjoys sharing her passion for the Great Lakes.

I’ve really enjoyed learning about Lake Superior and the Great Lakes through the Workshop, and speaking with the many people involved has sparked my interest in Lake Superior science! If you have questions for the scientists and others onboard, please submit them here and check back to see the answer!

I’m excited to follow the scientists, educators and all those onboard during this week and next, and I hope you’ll come along!

About the author: Maggie Sauerhage is a summer intern in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. Maggie is a senior at Indiana University majoring in Spanish.
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.