Toxics

EPA: “Aim High” – Working Toward a Sustainable Future

By Administrator Gina McCarthy

Last month, I asked EPA employees to share how their work at EPA is contributing to a sustainable future for our kids and grandkids. I wanted to hear about the many ways our staff are going above and beyond EPA’s foundational work to limit harmful pollution, and taking proactive steps to build healthy, economically vibrant communities.

Our teams responded in force, with 55 stories about the diverse, creative, and innovative ways they are building a sustainable future. Our best ideas are those that can be shared, replicated, and built upon. And we have so much to learn from each other’s successes. Here are some team highlights from across the agency:

Sustainable city planning: A team based in EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, in partnership with a number of EPA offices and regions, is looking at the connection between green infrastructure, energy consumption, and improved air quality. The team is providing technical assistance to Kansas City, MO-KS, to help better quantify the changes in pollution that result from “greening” of urban infrastructure in the area (i.e., green streets, green roofs, trees). This project will ultimately help promote green infrastructure projects that demonstrably improve water quality and advance sustainability – so that they can be incorporated into future city planning.

Green Remediation: EPA Region 1 is using strategies to make the cleanup of contaminated sites more sustainable, including by promoting, tracking, and considering green and sustainable remediation practices for Brownfield sites and Superfund sites. These efforts are helping to minimize the impacts of remediation and cleanup efforts, and ensure long-term, sustainable outcomes.

Community-Based Social Marketing: Region 5 provided funding and contractor assistance to the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, as they worked with their local tribal college to improve waste management. The project used community-based social marketing (CBSM) techniques to develop positive behavior strategies that are culturally appropriate. The project focused on increasing recycling behavior at the Band’s community college. Results from the pilot showed a 41% overall increase in the recycling rate at major locations throughout the campus. The Band worked with Region 5 and contractor support to put together a Tribal CBSM Training Guide, based on the lessons learned from the pilot to encourage other tribes to use CBSM to increase sustainable behaviors.

Coordinating Across EPA Programs: EPA Region 10 staff from Superfund, Clean Water Act, TSCA and Counsel have coordinated for several years to better align and sustain efforts in reducing toxics in waters. Staff recognized that in order to achieve more sustainable and long-lasting results, they needed to work together to more efficiently and effectively reduce toxics in the environment.  This includes addressing ongoing sources of and pathways for pollutants and aligning overlapping programmatic efforts to “clean up” waters and sediments. This small ad-hoc group ensured that language was added to EPA’s National Industrial Stormwater General Permit requiring those discharging into local Superfund Sites to work with the Regional office to minimize impacts and prevent caulking and paint sources of PCBs from getting into Superfund sediment sites. Region 10 staff also wrote language included in the Washington General Fish hatchery Permit to identify and remove sources of PCBs.

CWSRF: The Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF) program is a federal-state partnership that provides communities a permanent, independent source of low-cost financing for a wide range of water quality infrastructure projects. EPA, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ) and the Farmer’s Irrigation District (FID) collaborated and used the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF) to convert miles of open, earthen irrigation ditch system to a pressurized and piped system for Hood River’s Farmers Irrigation District. Most recently the Farmers Irrigation District also began using the CWSRF loans to purchase equipment for production of clean, renewable energy through micro-­‐hydroelectric generation.

I couldn’t be prouder of the work EPA employees are doing across the country. Here’s to more creativity, ingenuity, and innovation in the months and years ahead.

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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Protecting waterways, one lasagna pan at a time

by Jennie Saxe

Safer choiceHow can a mundane task, like washing dishes, protect local waterways like the Delaware River? It’s simple! When you roll up your sleeves to scrub that lasagna pan, reach for a dish soap with EPA’s Safer Choice label. The Safer Choice label indicates products that have safer chemical ingredients and meet quality and performance standards.

Products with the Safer Choice label have been reviewed to make sure they use chemicals from EPA’s Safer Chemicals Ingredients List that do their specific job (for example, as solvents – needed to dissolve substances – or surfactants that remove dirt) and are safer for aquatic life after they go down the drain. Safer Choice labeled products, like laundry detergent and dish soap, are reviewed to make sure that their ingredients and the break-down products (or “degradates” for the chemists out there) are not carcinogens, toxics, or persistent in the environment.

If the products are “greener” when they go down the drain, they’ll have less of an impact on aquatic life if they do happen to make their way through the wastewater treatment process. There is even a subset of Safer Choice products that are labeled for use in situations, such as cleaning your boat, where they could be directly released to the environment.

Check out the list of products that have received the Safer Choice label, and look for them at a store near you!

 

About the author: Dr. Jennie Saxe joined EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Region in 2003 and works in the Water Protection Division on sustainability programs.

 

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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45 Years of Fulfilling our Mission

By Gina McCarthy

Just two weeks after the EPA was established in 1970, our first-ever Administrator, Bill Ruckelshaus, issued a statement calling the birth of our agency the start of America’s “reclaiming the purity of its air, its water, and its living environment.”

Just last week, 45 years later – nearly to the day – President Obama honored Ruckelshaus with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his tireless work to get our agency up and running, protect public health, and combat global challenges like climate change.

In bestowing the award, President Obama said, “Bill set a powerful precedent that protecting our environment is something we must come together and do as a country.”

Each day, when I come to work and walk the halls at EPA, I feel proud that our agency is continuing to build on Bill’s legacy.

Later this week, I will join the US delegation to the UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris, where our agency will play a central role in negotiations that could mark a historic turning point to protect our planet for generations to come. I’m confident that the US can get the job done.

Ruckelshaus’ well-deserved honor is a reminder of the amazing progress we’ve made as an agency in just four and a half decades. We have evolved into a world-class model of environmental protection under the law.

We’ve come so far together. Fifty years ago, we pumped toxic leaded-gas into our cars; people smoked on airplanes; and residents of cities like Los Angeles could barely see each other across the street.

Today, EPA’s work has changed all of that – and more. We’ve cut air pollution by 70 percent; we’ve phased out leaded-gasoline; we’ve removed the acid from rain, we’ve helped clear the air of second-hand smoke; and we’ve cleaned up beaches and waterways, all while our economy has tripled.

Throughout it all, EPA has embodied the concept of participatory government. We’ve engaged states, communities, industry partners, and the public. We’ve listened to the needs of people on the ground, and we’ve worked transparently, hand in hand with citizens and families to protect their health, their communities, and their ability to earn a decent living. That’s something to be proud of.

At every step of the way, we’ve followed the science and the law to tackle immensely difficult challenges. And that work is continuing every day.

I thank and congratulate everyone who has played a part in building EPA’s legacy.

Here’s to working together to fulfill our mission for another 45 years!

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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Working for Clean Water is a Dream Come True

By Joel Beauvais

I grew up in rural Connecticut in the Housatonic River watershed. My childhood revolved around water, whether it was swimming and fishing in the lakes and streams near my home or hiking in the forested foothills of the Berkshires. It’s a remarkably beautiful part of the country and its waters are a big part of that. But I also learned that problems can lurk beneath the surface, as we were taught early on not to eat the fish we caught because of legacy contamination.

My first job out of college was in Central America, where I worked for several years with indigenous communities to protect the BOSAWAS Biosphere Reserve, the second largest tropical forest in the Western Hemisphere. I spent much of my time traveling by river, living a couple days travel by dugout canoe from the nearest road, electricity or running water. For the communities with whom I worked, water is everything – not just drinking water, but their primary mode of transportation, source of food, and the key to understanding their whole landscape. That experience really brought home to me how critical water is – and how vulnerable poorer communities can be to environmental degradation.

These days, I work in an office instead of the jungle, but I find myself returning to the water again and again. My family loves to canoe and we get out to hike trails by the water every chance we get. Like many families, we visit the ocean every summer – in our case, the Maine coast. When I look at our family photos, it seems every other one is on the water – those experiences are a touchstone for us, as for so many others across the country and the world.

While I’ve worked most of my career on energy and climate issues, my real passion is environmental conservation. Water, to me, is at the heart of that. It’s central to our health, our communities, and our economy.

So I am absolutely thrilled at the opportunity to lead EPA’s Office of Water. I have immense respect for the office and those who work here, as well as for our regional water offices and all of our partners across state and local government and the private sector. I’m really looking forward to listening to, learning from, and partnering with all of you.

During the past two years leading EPA’s Office of Policy, I’ve had the opportunity to play a key role in finalizing some of our key water rules, including the Clean Water Rule to better protect our nation’s streams and wetlands, the Steam Electric rule that keeps 1.4 billion pounds of toxic pollutants out of waterways each year, and the Cooling Water Intake rule that protects fish and shellfish in rivers.

I’ve also played a leadership role on the Agency’s efforts to help communities grow sustainably and to adapt to the impacts of climate change, which has given me a lot of exposure to the Office of Water’s work on green infrastructure, stormwater management and sustainable water infrastructure.

As we look to the year ahead, this is an exciting time for the Office of Water and there’s no question that there’s a tremendous amount to get done. We must continue to help communities build resilience to climate change, finance improvements to infrastructure, provide safe drinking water, and reduce pollution in waterways where people fish and swim. EPA’s continued support for the work of our state, local, and tribal partners and for innovation and technology in the water sector will be critical.

I’m looking forward to working with all of you on all these fronts.

Joel Beauvais serves as the acting Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Office of Water at EPA. Prior to his appointment in the Office of Water, Joel served as Associate Administrator for EPA’s Office of Policy, the agency’s primary arm for cross-cutting regulatory policy and economics. He also served as Associate Assistant Administrator in EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, where he oversaw a broad portfolio of domestic and international air quality and climate policy issues, and as Special Counsel to the Office of the Administrator in EPA’s Office of General Counsel. He previously served as counsel to the Committee on Energy and Commerce in the U.S. House of Representatives, worked in private practice, and clerked for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court of the United States.

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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Moving Forward on the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards

By Janet McCabe

Today, we are proposing a notice that supplements the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS). Specifically, we are proposing to find that including a consideration of cost does not change the agency’s determination that it is appropriate to regulate air toxics, including mercury, from power plants.

Power plants are the largest source of mercury in the United States. Mercury is a neurotoxin that can damage children’s developing nervous systems, reducing their ability to think and learn.  Three years ago, we issued MATS, which requires power plants to reduce their emissions of mercury and other toxic air pollutants as well, protecting Americans from a host of avoidable illnesses and premature death. All told, for every dollar spent to make these cuts, the public is receiving up to $9 in health benefits. The vast majority of power plants began making the pollution reductions needed to meet their MATS requirements in April of this year and the rest will begin doing so in April of 2016.

After MATS was issued, the federal Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and the Supreme Court both upheld the standards in the face of a host of challenges – but in a narrow ruling the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA should have considered costs when determining whether to regulate toxic air emissions from the power sector.

With today’s proposal, we are addressing the Supreme Court’s decision: we have evaluated several relevant cost metrics, and we are proposing to find that taking consideration of cost into account does not alter our determination that is appropriate to set standards for toxic air emissions from power plants.

In the proposed supplemental finding, we considered the power industry’s ability to comply with MATS and maintain its ability to perform its primary and unique function – the generation, transmission and distribution of electricity—at reasonable costs to consumers. These analyses demonstrate that the costs and impacts of MATS are reasonable and that the power sector can cut mercury and other toxics while continuing to provide all Americans with affordable, reliable electricity. And with MATS still in place today, the steps that many plants across the country have already taken to reduce toxic air emissions and comply with the final standards show that the standards really are achievable.

For 45 years the Clean Air Act has been working to clean up the air that we breathe while our economy has grown. MATS is an important step in our progress towards cleaner air and healthier children, as today’s proposal confirms. We will be accepting comments for 45 days after the proposed supplemental notice is published in the Federal Register. A copy of the proposed notice and a fact sheet are available on our website. We look forward to hearing from you.

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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In Perspective: the Supreme Court’s Mercury and Air Toxics Rule Decision

The Supreme Court’s decision on EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) was disappointing to everyone working to protect public health by reducing emissions of mercury and other toxic air pollutants from coal- and oil-fired power plants.  But as we take stock of what this decision means, there are some important factors that make me confident we are still on track to reduce this dangerous pollution and better protect America’s children, families and communities.

Most notably – the Administration remains committed to finalizing the Clean Power Plan this summer and yesterday’s ruling will have no bearing on the effort to reduce carbon pollution from the largest sources of emissions.

Second – this decision is very narrow.  It did not invalidate the rule, which remains in effect today.  In fact, the majority of power plants are already in compliance or well on their way to compliance.  The Court found that EPA should have considered costs at an earlier step in the rulemaking process than it did.  The court did not question EPA’s authority to control toxic air pollution from power plants provided it considers cost in that step.  It also did not question our conclusions on human health that supported the agency’s finding that regulation is needed.  And its narrow ruling does not disturb the remainder of the D.C. Circuit decision which unanimously upheld all other aspects of the MATS rule and rejected numerous challenges to the standards themselves.

Third – this decision does not affect other Clean Air Act programs that address other sources and types of air pollution. It hinged on a very specific section of the Act that applies exclusively to the regulation of air toxics from power plants.  This is important to understand because it means that rules and programs that reduce other types of pollutants under other sections of the Clean Air Act—like ozone and fine particles (smog and soot) can continue without interruption or delay.

The decision does not affect the Clean Power Plan, which EPA will be finalizing later this summer and which will chart the course for this country to reduce harmful carbon from its fleet of existing power plants.   That’s worth repeating: The Court’s conclusion that EPA must consider cost when determining whether it is “appropriate” to regulate toxic air emissions from utilities under section 112 of the Act will not impact the development of the Clean Power Plan under section 111.  Cost is among the factors the Agency has long explicitly considered in setting standards under section 111 of the Act.

Fourth – America’s power sector is getting cleaner year after year by investing in more modern technologies.   Since President Obama took office, wind energy has tripled and solar has grown ten-fold. The Clean Power Plan will build on these current positive trends.  That means cleaner air in communities across the country, as well as a boost to our economy as we build the clean energy system of the future.

Finally – What’s next for MATS?   From the moment we learned of this decision, we were committed to ensuring that standards remain in place to protect the public from toxic emissions from coal and oil-fired electric utilities.  We will continue to work to make that happen.  There are questions that will need to be answered over the next several weeks and months as we review the decision and determine the appropriate next steps once that review is complete.  But as I’ve already noted, MATS is still in place and many plants have already installed controls and technologies to reduce their mercury emissions.

After nearly 45 years of implementing the Clean Air Act, there have been many more victories than defeats as we’ve worked together to clean the air and raise healthier children and families.  Despite the Supreme Court’s MATS decision, the agency remains confident that the progress we’ve made so far in improving air quality and protecting public health will continue.

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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Navigating Your Right to Know About Toxic Chemicals

By Sarah Swenson

When I joined EPA six years ago after earning my Master’s degree, I reached a goal I’d had since middle school.  I now worked for the government organization with the most important mission I could think of: protecting human health and the environment. When I started my new job in the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) Program, it was clear that I’d landed in a unique and important program office at EPA.

TRI should be an important topic for all of us. This program, established by the 1986 Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, is all about ensuring that people have access to information on industrial use of toxic chemicals. TRI can tell you what chemicals the facility down the street is using, how much is going into the air, water, and land, and what that company is doing to prevent and reduce pollution. And, this information is all in one place!

The program has grown significantly since my arrival.  In 2012, I led a team tasked with redesigning the TRI website. At the time, the site included some useful resources, but lacked logical organization, updated content, and materials tailored to community members. This project was a chance to improve the quality of existing information, create new webpages, and present everything in a clear and understandable way.

Today the website looks very different. The number of resources for concerned citizens and community groups is increasing, as is the amount of content translated into Spanish. Interactive webpages let users explore a TRI facility while learning common TRI terms that will help them understand TRI data. Two tools on the TRI homepage give instant access to facility-level data and factsheets for cities and zip codes, and the “TRI in Action” report gives examples of how the data can be used. A webpage devoted to TRI’s pollution prevention data explains how TRI can help identify which companies are working toward improving their environmental performance.

Although we launched the new TRI website in 2013, we’re still working to make it better, and your comments and suggestions can help! We’re hosting a webinar on June 23 from 12:30-1:30 p.m. EDT to point out some of the newest additions, demonstrate the easiest way to find TRI data for your community, and get your feedback.  We look forward to hearing from you!

About the author: Sarah Swenson is the Communications Coordinator and Web Content Manager for the Toxics Release Inventory Program.

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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EPA: Taking Action on Toxics and Chemical Safety

For all of their beneficial uses, chemicals can also pose potential risks: manufacturing them can create emissions and waste, and exposure to them can impact our health and the environment. One of EPA’s highest priorities is making sure our children, our homes, and our communities are safer from toxic chemicals.

Last October, Administrator McCarthy asked EPA employees to log into GreenSpark, our internal online employee engagement platform, and share stories of the innovative and collaborative work that they are leading to take action on toxics and chemical safety. I’d like to share some of their exciting work with you.

CHEMdna

Developing Innovative Science: EPA’s Office of Research and Development, with support from the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, is working to change the way we evaluate chemical safety to make it quicker and easier to understand the potential toxic effects of chemicals on human health and the environment. Here are a couple of great examples:

We’ve developed the Toxicity Forecaster (ToxCast), which uses automated chemical screening technologies to understand the effects of chemical exposure. ToxCast evaluated more than 2,000 chemicals from a broad range of sources, including potentially “green” chemicals that could be safer alternatives to existing chemicals. Based on this work, the new Interactive Chemical Safety for Sustainability (iCSS) Dashboard provides a user-friendly web-based application that offers product manufacturers, researchers, and others a faster way to evaluate the safety of chemicals. ToxCast data is also being applied in the Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program to target priority chemicals and avoid expensive and time-consuming animal testing methods.

CHEMzebraAnother innovative approach that our Office of Research and Development scientists are developing is a program using zebrafish to rapidly screen standard chemicals and their green alternatives for their ability to affect developing embryos.

CHEMHorizMaking Use of Data: Several EPA programs work daily to make sure the public, communities, regulators and industry have access to data that keeps people safe. EPA’s Office of Environmental Information is working to integrate facilities data relating to chemical plants and their relationship to communities. This work, in collaboration with the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Labor, and other agencies supports Executive Order (EO) 13650: Improving Chemical Facility Safety and Security and helps inform planning and emergency preparedness and response for safer communities.

Providing Technical Assistance: Artisanal and small scale gold mining is the largest man-made source of mercury. Mercury exposure at high levels can harm the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs, and immune system. To reduce airborne mercury emissions from artisanal and small scale gold mining, EPA’s Office of International and Tribal Affairs worked with Argonne National Laboratory to develop a simple mercury capture system (MCS).

Data collected during site visits in the Amazon and high Andes areas of Peru showed that in shops with the installed MCS technology, mercury vapor concentrations were reduced by 80% compared to shops without the technology. We are now working to raise awareness of the mercury capture technology in developing countries through partnerships with key organizations.

CHEMpeoplestandingWorking in Collaborative Partnerships: Working with local partners including the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC), EPA Region 2 is helping improve chemical management in high school and college laboratories and the adoption of green chemistry practices through hands-on training for high school science teachers and college faculty in New York. More than 200 teachers from 138 school districts and 29 college and university faculty have participated in trainings, and faculty participants have produced ten case studies on implementing green chemistry practices in college and university settings. This is just one example of the work that our Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention is leading along with our Regional Offices to promote innovations in green chemistry.

Please join me in thanking all of the talented, dedicated employees who have contributed to these and other amazing activities that improve the human health and environment of the communities we serve.

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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Consumer Product Companies Leading the Way to Greener Products

Getting a tour of Earth Friendly Products in Southern California.

Getting a tour of Earth Friendly Products in Southern California.

 

During some recent travel, I spent time with several consumer product companies and retailers who are stepping up as  safer product leaders and innovators, advancing industry beyond the safety “floor” set by the outdated Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)

In Southern California, I met with Earth Friendly Products. All their products are manufactured in the U.S. and 90% have earned the Design for the Environment (DfE) label.

I also took part in the Safer Consumer Product Summit in California followed by a visit to the Consumer Specialty Product Association (CSPA) meeting in Chicago.Then, outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I met with BerkleyGreen (Berkley Packaging Company Inc.), a family- and woman-owned DfE partner with 29 DfE-labeled products.

More

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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Flush or Drain, Will Cause a Strain

Drug Takeback Day

By Trey Cody

Do you, like many other Americans, look into your medicine cabinet and see bottles of unused prescription medicines and over-the-counter drugs? Being in the bathroom with a sink and toilet readily available, your first thought may be to simply flush or dispose of them down the drain. Yes, pills are water soluble, but this solution may have negative outcomes.

When flushed and drained, it’s possible for pharmaceuticals to get into our streams, rivers and lakes.  This is because drugs, including antibiotics, hormones, contraceptives and steroids are not always removed completely at waste water treatment facilities. Continued exposure to low levels of pharmaceuticals in our water systems may alter the behavior and physiology of the fish and other aquatic organisms who call it home.  EPA has been working with other federal agencies and state and local government partners to better understand the implications low levels of pharmaceuticals in water, the potential effects on aquatic organisms and if there is an impact on human health.

Though flushing and draining is not the only way pharmaceuticals enter our wastewater, it’s one we can do something about.

April 28, 2012 is the next National Prescription Drug Take Back Day issued by the Drug Enforcement Administration.  During this time you can drop off your unwanted drugs at many participating municipal locations, where they will be disposed of safely and properly.  The last event collected over 188.5 tons of unwanted or expired medications at the 5,327 take-back sites that were available in all 50 states.

But you don’t have to wait until April to dispose of your old meds. You can contact your city or county government’s household trash and recycling service to find if there are drop off locations in your area.  If all else fails, you can dispose of drugs in your household trash by following a few simple steps.

How do you dispose of your unwanted pharmaceuticals? Have you participated in any take back programs?  Do you have any suggestions of how to improve programs like these?  Let us 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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