star grants

Collaborating with Local Communities to Measure Air Pollution

By Michaela Burns

I am no stranger to air pollution. Since I grew up in New York City, my walk to school every morning put me in constant contact with car exhaust and smoke rising from the vendor stations that lined the sidewalks. None of these experiences ever struck me as odd. They were just a part of the city’s charm! We had the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, and we had air pollution. On particularly smoggy days, when I could barely see the city from my window, I always comforted myself with the fact that it was a problem far out of my league. After all, I was just an ordinary kid, not a scientist — what could I do to help? Nothing of course.

Once I started working at EPA, I found out that I had been completely wrong. Managing air pollution is a big job, but it can be made easier when the whole community gets involved. We call it “citizen science” — where people without a background in research can use scientific tools to address problems in their environment. To support this fast-growing field, EPA’s Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program is funding six grants to evaluate how effective low-cost, portable air sensors are when used in communities.

APM4C Blog Picture

EPA researcher Eben Thoma adjusts an SPod monitor.

EPA grant winners at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will use community-based air sensors to measure air quality and volcanic smog (“vog”) exposure on the Island of Hawai‘i (“the Big Island”). Up the coast at the University of Washington, researchers plan to deploy air sensors in student-directed studies examining heavy wood smoke impacts in their rural community. The team will work in partnership with Heritage University, whose students represent the local population of predominantly Yakama Nation and Latino immigrant families, to identify effective ways to communicate pollutant results to a broader audience. And this is just a sample of the diverse group of projects being done to help make air sensors more available to the public across the U.S. Other efforts include:

Carnegie Mellon University. Researchers will investigate the accuracy and reliability of existing air sensors, as well as their efficacy when put to use in Pittsburgh communities.

Kansas State University. Researchers will investigate if communities in South Chicago become more engaged in learning about their environment if they are provided with low-cost air sensors and the information generated by them.

Research Triangle Institute This research team will investigate how low-cost sensors can be used to help the Globeville, Elyria, Swansea (GES) community north of Denver, Colorado measure and understand data indicating the air quality in their neighborhood. The team will also evaluate the effectiveness of how information is presented to enable residents to understand their exposure to indoor and outdoor air pollutants and potentially empower them to take action to protect their health.

South Coast Air Quality Management District. This research team will provide local California communities with the knowledge necessary to select, use, and maintain low-cost, commercially available air monitoring sensors and to correctly interpret sensor data. The group will communicate the lessons learned to the public through a series of outreach activities.

By supporting the development and deployment of air monitoring technology, EPA is empowering ordinary citizens to take action against air pollution. Looking out for your community can be as easy as using our air sensor toolbox for citizen scientists to find out how to monitor the air quality in your neighborhood. With tools in reach, there’s no reason not to become a citizen scientist today!

About the author: Michaela Burns is an Oak Ridge Associated Universities contractor and writer for the science communication team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Air Pollution and Your Brain

By Michelle Becker

Graphic depiction of the brainNext week is Air Quality Awareness week, which is a time to reflect on how far we have come in our understanding of the health effects of air pollution. We know air quality can affect the lungs and heart and cause serious health problems, as documented in a large body of scientific literature. However, we don’t know very much about the potential effects on the brain.

That is why EPA supports research through its Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grant program to further examine potential health effects of air pollution. The Clean Air Research Center (CLARC) at Harvard University receives funds from EPA to explore the health effects of air pollution mixtures across organ systems and during various stages of human life.

Recently, the center published a study in the journal Stroke that looked at what may happen to the brain of older adults after long-term exposure to fine particle pollution (PM2.5), which is emitted from tail pipe emissions as well as other sources. The study included 943 individuals over the age of 60 with no history of dementia or stroke. They also lived within 1,000 meters (0.62 miles) of a major roadway where levels of air pollutants are generally higher.

Researchers looked at pictures of the brain using a technique called Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to identify the differences in certain brain structures. Then they considered the pictures in connection with the distance participants lived from a major road.

After considering all the data and a number of other factors that might affect the brain, the researchers found that exposure to outdoor PM2.5 was associated with a decrease in total cerebral brain volume and an increase in covert brain infarcts (known as “silent” strokes because there are no outward symptoms). The impact of being close to roadways was less clear.

So what are the potential implications? A decrease in cerebral brain volume is an indicator of degeneration of the brain, which can lead to dementia and other cognitive impairments. Also, an increase in covert brain infarcts increases a person’s risk for a major stroke.

To give you a better idea about PM2.5 (particulate matter of 2.5 microns in diameter) the average human hair has a diameter of 100 microns. So these air pollutant mixtures are roughly one quarter the diameter of a single hair on your head. That is to say, very small. Yet these small particles pack a big punch when it comes to our health. The study demonstrates an increase of just 2 micrograms per cubic meter can cause brain deterioration.

This study is one of the first to look at the relationship between air pollution and the brain so the evidence is suggestive. The study contributes to a growing body of scientific research that is exploring the cognitive connections to air pollution. So this week while we think about air quality, let’s remember that small things can make a big impact and that science can help us to learn more about air quality and our health.

About the Author: Michelle Becker, M.S, is currently working with the Air, Climate, and Energy research program in EPA’s Office of Research and Development through a Skills Marketplace opportunity. The project has allowed her to increase her scientific communication skills and to learn more about EPA funded research to protect human health.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Clean Cookstoves Research: An Opportunity to Benefit Billions

By Bryan Bloomer, Ph.D.

I have long appreciated the ability to cook and heat my home with minimum risk of exposure to toxic indoor air pollution. But I am also painfully aware that more than 3 billion people around the world rely on inefficient, unsustainable and dangerous cookstove technologies for their everyday cooking, heating and lighting needs.

Display of clean cookstoves.

EPA’s Bryan Bloomer examines clean-burning prototypes at the Cookstoves Future Summit in New York City.

That is why I am so pleased to join EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and other prominent leaders this week at the first ever ministerial- and CEO-level Cookstoves Future Summit, “Fueling Markets, Catalyzing Action, Changing Lives,” in New York City.

Traditional cookstoves typically burn biomass fuels such as wood, dung, crop residues, charcoal or the fossil fuel, coal. This causes a wide range of negative health effects to the people, primarily women and children, exposed to the smoke they emit. And there’s more. The use of traditional cookstove technologies also depletes natural resources, contributes to deforestation, and releases harmful pollutants into the atmosphere that contribute to climate change at regional and global scales.

This is why clean cookstoves research is a top EPA priority. Our goal is to transform the sustainability and health impacts of the energy infrastructure in ways that will not only improve the health of billions, most of them disadvantaged women and children, but improve the global environment as well.

We conduct and support cooperative research to identify gaps and deliver practical solutions from a wide array of stakeholders. The Agency is leading an international clean cookstove research effort, helping to support the development of international cookstove standards, conducting trusted independent research on the energy efficiency and emissions of cookstoves, and improving our understanding of the negative health impacts from exposure to cookstove smoke.

In March 2012, EPA announced the funding of six universities to address residential burning and its effects on human health worldwide. This group of researchers is developing innovative technologies to quantify the impacts of cookstove emissions on climate and air quality.

Moving forward, we and our many partners in this global effort will focus on translating these results into the field, primarily bringing innovative, consumer-driven and life-saving technologies to individuals worldwide.

Turning research results into welcomed solutions is the topic of this week’s Cookstoves Future Summit. The summit presents a unique opportunity to further develop a thriving and sustainable clean cookstove market. Such a market will mean substantial progress toward preventing the more than 4 million estimated indoor air pollution related deaths due to traditional cookstoves and fuels.

The clean cookstoves challenge encompasses a number of health, social and environmental issues. Such a pressing and compelling problem presents us with a significant opportunity to improve livelihoods, empower women and protect the environment for generations to come.

About the Author: Dr. Bryan Bloomer is the director of the Applied Science Division at EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research. He works with grant managers that support scientists and engineers through the Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grants program, to improve EPA’s scientific basis for decision on air, climate, water and energy issues.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Braving the Weather to Promote Green Infrastructure in Philadelphia

CEQ Chair Nancy Sutley and EPA Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe in snow storm in Philadelphia following STAR grant announcement

CEQ Chair Nancy Sutley and EPA Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe in snow storm in Philadelphia following STAR grant announcement


Yesterday, I was up in Philadelphia joined by CEQ Chair Nancy Sutley and Mayor Nutter to announce nearly $5 million in EPA grants made possible through the Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program. These investments are going to five universities, and aim to fill gaps in research evaluating the costs and benefits of certain green infrastructure practices.

The projects to be invested in, led by Temple University, Villanova University, Swarthmore College, University of Pennsylvania and University of New Hampshire, will explore the financial and social costs and benefits associated with green infrastructure as a stormwater and wet weather pollution management tool.


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

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Research Partnership Advancing the Science of Organic Aerosols

By Sherri Hunt

Air monitoring research site with sensors and towers

Air monitoring research site with sensors and towers

Why is there so much interest in weather forecasts, maps, smoke, planes, balloons, towers, filters, instruments, cities, and trees in Alabama this summer? At this very moment, more than 100 scientists are making measurements at multiple locations in the Southeastern U.S. to investigate a number of challenging research questions related to organic aerosols—small particles suspended in the atmosphere. These particles contribute to concentrations of particulate matter (PM), which can influence both climate and people’s health.

The Southeastern U.S. is an ideal location to study the formation and physical properties of organic aerosol since it is hot, sunny, forested, and impacted by pollution from cities. In a coordinated research effort, scientists have converged at the primary surface site in Brent, AL. They are working there throughout June and July 2013 as part of the Southern Oxidant and Aerosol Study (SOAS) and other related field campaigns, all coordinated under the Southern Atmosphere Study (SAS). Additional measurements are being made on the ground at sites in Research Triangle Park, NC, the Duke Forest, NC, and Look Rock, TN.

By using research towers, balloons, and several aircraft flying above the ground sites, scientists are taking measurements at multiple heights, making this the most detailed characterization of the southeastern atmosphere since the 1990s.

The planning for this campaign began more than two years ago as the scientific community identified the need for a rich data set in order to address pressing research questions related to how organic aerosol is formed and its impact on regional climate.  Improving the understanding of these physical and chemical properties will enable the development of more accurate models of air pollution and climate, which in turn will make more effective plans to improve air quality possible. Such scientific discoveries may enable us to better understand the atmosphere across the country and ultimately determine ways to enable more people to breathe cleaner air. They will also allow scientists to understand, anticipate, and prepare for potential future climate changes.

In order to accomplish a study of this magnitude, EPA is working together with the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and others.

EPA is also funding 13 research institutions to participate through the Agency’s Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grant program. The STAR funded researchers will leverage the measurements and equipment provided by the other partners and conduct analyses of the rich data sets collected. Funded projects include work investigating each part of the organic aerosol system, from measuring emissions and formation products, to cloud-aerosol interactions, to climate impacts of aerosols.

In addition to field measurements, laboratory experiments and modeling studies are also planned that include EPA researchers. As part of EPA’s involvement, Agency scientists are using a novel tracer method that will allow them to differentiate between man-made and natural sources of organic aerosols. The data and results will help improve our understanding of organic aerosol formation and will also be shared with other researchers.

Public open houses at the Alabama and Tennessee sites on June 19 and 21, 2013 will allow the surrounding communities an opportunity to see the state-of-the-art measurement instruments and meet researchers. Interested?  If you are in the area, please consider coming by to see what all the interest is about.

About the Author

EPA researcher Dr. Sherri Hunt

EPA researcher Dr. Sherri Hunt

Sherri Hunt, Ph.D. is the Assistant Center Director for EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy research program. Read more about Sherri and her work on her “EPA Science Matters” interview: Meet EPA Scientist Sherri Hunt, Ph.D.


Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Science Wednesday: Explaining Children’s Health Research

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

With the new school year, I’ve gotten to meet a bunch of my kids’ new classmates. And now that my kids are a bit older, I am getting better at answering when their new friends ask me what I do.

The first time a kid asked me that I blew it—big time. I had gotten off work early and decided to swing by nursery school to surprise my daughter. It was a warm, fall afternoon, and her class of four-year-olds was the outside at playground. “Daddy!” my daughter squealed and sprinted over to meet me at the fence, followed closely by a posse of half a dozen or so little people.

“My daddy works at the zoo,” she announced. It was true. Before coming to EPA I worked as an exhibit writer at the National Zoo. “Wow, that’s cool!” a little girl yelled. “What am-inals do you feed,” demanded a boy, a full head taller than the other kids. I felt a flash of pride. “I’m not a zookeeper; I write the words for the exhibits,” I exclaimed.

Wrong answer. The kids stared up at me. Blinking. Expressionless. My daughter looked down and made a circle in the dirt with her the tip of her shoe. Then, the tall boy declared: “He doesn’t work at the zoo!” And just like that, the gaggle of kids turned and sprinted back to the playground.

“You should have just told them you feed the pandas,” the teacher said, snickering.

image of the author standing next to a panda in a cageWhile a class of four-year-olds would be even less impressed with my current job (EPA science writer), I am happy to work for a place where children’s health has always been a major priority. That focus has resulted in some important findings. Last year, for example, the Agency published A Decade of Children’s Health Research, a research summary report highlighting findings from ten years, and some $127 million worth of investments in STAR grants on children’s environmental health.

The report is just one of the many EPA science initiatives on developing a better understanding of children’s environmental health. All that focused research gives me plenty to write about, and lots to talk about as we celebrate Children’s Health Month here at EPA. But just the same, next time a group of four-year-old nursery school kids asks me about my job, I think I’ll just tell them I feed the pandas.

About the Author: Before joing EPA’s Office of Research and Development as a science writer, Aaron Ferster spent ten years as an exhibit writer and developer at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. He is the editor for Science Wednesday.

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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