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New Model for Mississippi Nutrient Pollution

2015 February 26

By Marguerite Huber

Landsat image of the mouth of the Mississippi River

Landsat image of the mouth of the Mississippi River. (NASA Image by Robert Simmon, based on Landsat data provided by the UMD Global Land Cover Facility.)

EPA scientists are tackling one of the nation’s biggest water quality challenges, and I mean in physical size and importance: nutrient pollution flowing from the Mississippi River watershed into the Gulf of Mexico.

Scientific assessments have concluded that the nutrients from the Mississippi River watershed are the primary cause of the dramatic drop in oxygen levels (“hypoxia”) sparking the Gulf of Mexico’s summer time “dead zone.”

EPA researchers have built the Coastal General Ecosystem Model (CGEM) to help address that challenge.

Mississippi watershed (image courtesy of NASA)

Mississippi watershed (image courtesy of NASA)

The state-of-the-art Coastal General Ecosystem Model provides a wealth of important information to scientists and stakeholders seeking to better understand the dynamics of nutrient pollution in the Gulf. The model receives nitrogen and phosphorus data collected from the Mississippi River and then predicts how these nutrients trigger eutrophication and hypoxia.

Armed with that information, researchers and others can predict the impacts of reducing nitrogen and phosphorus on water quality in the Gulf, including estimating how much nitrogen and phosphorus reduction would be needed to achieve the Mississippi River Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force’s goal of reducing the size of the hypoxic area from its current average size of 15,000 km2 down to 5,000 km2.

John Lehrter, research ecologist developing and working with CGEM notes, “Knowing that the goal is 5,000 km2, we can adjust the nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to the model to estimate a range of reductions required to achieve the goal. Water quality managers and policy makers can then use this and other information to determine how to achieve these reductions.”

Additionally, a team of federal and academic scientists are using the model in the Coastal and Ocean Modeling Testbed. The Testbed aims to increase the accuracy and reliability of coastal and ocean forecasting products.

Overall, the model will help the states in the Mississippi River Basin demonstrate to stakeholders the link between nutrient loading and water quality impairment in the Gulf and show how nutrient reductions result in water quality improvement.

About the Author: Marguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

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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Applying EPA Research to the Underworlds

2015 February 25

By Dustin Renwick

stack white sewer pipes

Sewer pipes

Flushing a toilet eliminates waste, but when we flush information about our health circles down the pipes too. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) scientists have launched the Underworlds project to study community health by monitoring sewage. The project builds on the work of EPA scientist Christian Daughton.

“If we could actually gauge the collective health of an entire community, that has profound implications,” Daughton says. “You’re achieving something that’s never been seriously considered before – examining communities as integral patients.”

Daughton published conceptual research in 2012 as part of EPA’s Pathfinder Innovation Projects program that explained his idea of Sewage Chemical Information Mining (SCIM). Now MIT associate professor Eric Alm will explore the data that travels beneath Massachusetts neighborhoods.

MIT team members found Daughton’s research when they were writing the proposal for Underworlds. The large project encompasses biological components, looking for viruses and bacteria, as well as Daughton’s ideas that Alm says “explained in exquisite detail how to mine sewage as an information platform.”

SCIM relies on biomarkers, scientific shorthand for certain biological compounds our bodies produce when something happens in our cells.

Think of the loading screen that pops up when your computer opens an application. That’s a visible sign that gives clues to an underlying process. In our bodies, stress and disease produce these same sorts of clues via biomarkers that include a group of chemicals called isoprostanes.

If the sewage mining concept is correct, the levels of isoprostanes will rise with increased stress in the community.

However, Alm and the MIT team first need to answer fundamental questions about data collection: where to take sewage samples, how frequently, and how do samples change depending on the source, the season, or the time of day?

Once researchers can show that monitoring sewage systems is feasible, they can then develop parameters for a community’s “normal” biomarker range.

“If you have a community in the normal range and another far beyond it, you have some important questions to pursue at that point,” Daughton says.

Key factors could include healthcare availability and exposures to toxic substances or to physical stressors such as noise and heat. For a future best-case scenario, sewage streams would become reliable data streams that translate to change at ground level.

“In addition to cool basic science that I’m sure will come out of the program,” Alm says, “can we glean information that really helps make informed policies about what’s going on in their city?”

Kuwait City, Kuwait, will serve as the full-scale Underworlds testing site after MIT concludes work in Massachusetts in 2017.

“If Alm’s work proves successful,” Daughton says, “it will represent a significant advancement in the prospects for quickly and inexpensively monitoring public health in real time.”

 

About the Author: Dustin Renwick works in conjunction with the Innovation 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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Precisely Right

2015 February 24

By Dustin Renwick

Close up image of a the inside of a pill bottle filled with blue pills.During his State of the Union Address a few weeks ago, President Obama outlined his vision for a Precision Medicine Initiative, “a bold new research effort to revolutionize how we improve health and treat disease.” The proposal has received praise from universities, think tanks, and the National Institutes of Health.

One EPA researcher has been at the forefront of this topic for more than a decade already.

Christian Daughton—a recipient of three EPA Pathfinder Innovation Project awards—has focused his research on topics related to precision medicine, more commonly known as personalized medicine.

The basic premise: treatments targeted to the individual instead of the statistically average patient.

In the past, Daughton says, small-town doctors could know their patients and corresponding medical histories, which facilitated individualized treatments, prescriptions and doses. The White House effort updates that historical ideal.

“This new initiative from President Obama is making use of the latest advancements in clinical research to capitalize on making drugs more effective,” Daughton says.

His work at EPA explores the intersection of medicine and the environment. The drugs prescribed in the doctor’s office can eventually end up, in some form, in our waterways. They can contaminate our water resources and harm the species that call those aquatic environments home.

Pharmaceuticals typically enter the environment through human excretion and bathing, as well as improper disposal, such as dumping pills down the drain or tossing them in the trash.

“Human health is intimately connected with the health of the environment,” Daughton says. “If one is ignored, there can be ramifications for the other. But the connections—such as disposing of unused medicine or simply daily excretion and bathing—might not be obvious, and they might not be short-term. That’s why they often escape people’s attention.”

“If you optimize healthcare for treating the patient and the environment as one, you optimize the choice of medication, if any, as well as the dose regimen for the individual patient.”

When doctors tailor precise prescriptions for each patient, they can minimize leftovers, theoretically reduce costs throughout the healthcare system, and succeed in dispersing fewer doses to the environment.

That all adds up to a reduction in the amount of medication that finds its way down a drain or into landfills. Another major advantage: potentially reducing the incidence of recreational use and accidental poisonings among children.

“It’s hard to find any negatives to it other than it’s not easy to implement,” Daughton says.

But the White House has taken a first step toward that reality by making precision medicine a priority.

About the Author: Writer Dustin Renwick is a student contractor with EPA’s Innovation Team and a frequent contributor to “It All Starts with Science.”

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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Chasing the “WOW!” With Citizen Schools and EPA Science

2015 February 20

By Andrew Murray

Students share their final presentations.

Students share their final presentations.

When I was first asked to lead an after school Citizen Schools apprenticeship, I was fairly apprehensive. Sure, I had taught plenty of episodic classroom presentations and felt comfortable around kids, but committing to teach the same 20 students every week? It was a bit intimidating at first, especially since I’ve never been trained as a teacher and just graduated from college myself.

I was quickly reassured that Citizen Schools is all about having non-teachers teaching; thus the reason it’s called “Citizen” Schools. Volunteer “Citizen Teachers” teach after school hands-on apprenticeships on topics from their careers and expertise. The apprenticeships are taught for 90 minutes, once a week, for 10 weeks, with a final showcase at the end of the semester. The Citizen Schools program targets low-income middle schools to close the “opportunity gap” through academic enrichment and career insight. EPA has been participating in the Durham, NC Citizen Schools program for seven years, at both Neal Middle School and Lowe’s Grove Middle School.

Last fall, I was lucky enough to join a team of veteran EPA employees teaching at Lowe’s Grove. Our apprenticeship was called “Power Play,” which focused on studying various energy generation methods, and their relations to pollution and climate change.

Once we decided on what we were going to teach, we pitched our apprenticeship at the Citizen School Apprenticeship Fair. The students then get the opportunity to sign up for the apprenticeships that interest them. I watched the veterans pitch the apprenticeship a couple of times, and then took my first swing at it. After seeing the kids get excited, my own excitement and confidence grew and, suddenly, I was hooked.

Over the following ten weeks, we would meet with the students every Wednesday after school and teach them about energy and the environment. We built solar ovens, wind turbines, and water wheels, and learned about energy consumption and modeling through an Energy Generation board game developed by EPA colleagues.

"GENERATE!" board game developed by EPA researchers.

“Generate,” a board game developed by EPA researchers.

Every week was mentally challenging, but extremely rewarding. It all lead up to the final presentations – the WOW! event where the students had the chance to “teach back” to the public, their teachers, and their families. For me, the WOW! was what made teaching the apprenticeship addicting. After seeing what the students took away and how excited they were to present it and teach it to the public, I realized what a difference the citizen teachers make in the lives of these students.

The new semester of Citizen School is about to start, and I will be teaching with the same team again at Lowe’s Grove. We will be leading an apprenticeship on “Making Sense of Air Quality,” while another team leads an apprenticeship at Neal on “Environmental Sensing.” I’m so excited to get back in the classroom to make a difference in the lives of another class of up-and-coming environmental experts!

About the Author: Andrew Murray is a Student Services Contractor for EPA’s Office of Research and Development. He graduated from the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in 2009, and a received B.S. in Environmental Science from NC State University in 2014.

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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This Week in EPA Science

2015 February 13

By Kacey Fitzpatrick

Roses are red,
EPA Science is cool.
We highlight some here,
Like the new SWMM-CAT tool.

 Here are this week’s highlights!

  • Moving Away From “High Risk”

    Valentine, you’re all I want to focus on.

    Valentine, you’re all I want to focus on.

    This week the Government Accountability Office released their biennial High Risk Report, which included EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System Program. EPA’s Lou D’Amico, Ph.D. and Samantha Jones, Ph.D. discussed the program’s progress on the blog.

    Read the blog post here.

  • On a Mission: Finding Life Cycle Environmental Solutions
    EPA’s Small Business Innovation Research program is a small program with the big mission: to protect human health and the environment. Through the years, the program has supported advances in green technologies such as state-of-the-art monitoring devices and pollution clean-up systems and processes.Read more about these advances in this blog.
  • Storm Water Management Model Gets Climate Update
    EPA’s Stormwater Management Model is a publically-available rainfall-runoff simulation model that provides a suite of information about urban water patterns. A new addition to the tool, the Storm Water Management Model Climate Adjustment Tool (SWMM-CAT) is a simple to use software utility that allows future climate change projections to be incorporated into SWMM.Read more about the update in this blog.

If you have any comments or questions about what I shared or about the week’s events, please submit them below in the comments section!

About the Author: Kacey Fitzpatrick is a student contractor and writer working with 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.

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.

Storm Water Management Model Gets Climate Update

2015 February 13

By Marguerite Huber

Image of a flooded local park

EPA researchers are helping address runoff problems.

EPA researchers are developing strategies and resources to help city planners, managers, and others address stormwater runoff problems, including those related to impervious surfaces and combined sewer overflows. One powerful tool available is the Stormwater Management Model, also known by its acronym, “SWMM.”

EPA’s Storm Water Management Model is a publically-available rainfall-runoff simulation model that provides a suite of information about urban water patterns. It is used for planning, analysis, and design related to stormwater runoff, combined sewers, sanitary sewers, and other drainage systems in urban areas, and is the basis for the National Stormwater Calculator.

SWMM has the ability to estimate the pollution loads associated with stormwater runoff. Various versions of the model have been in existence since 1971, and it has been used in thousands of hydrology and drainage system design projects around the world.

The tool is designed to be customizable, helping particular urban areas meet local watershed challenges. For example, municipalities and communities can use it to design and size drainage system components for flood control, to design control strategies for minimizing combined sewer overflows, and to control site runoff using low impact development practices.

The Storm Water Management Model Climate Adjustment Tool (SWMM-CAT) is a new addition to SWMM.  It is a simple to use software utility that allows future climate change projections to be incorporated into SWMM.

Screen shot of EPA's SWMM-CAT tool showing a map with stormwater data

Storm Water Management Model

SWMM-CAT provides a set of location-specific adjustments that derived from global climate change models run as part of the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 3 (CMIP3) archive. These are the same climate change simulations that helped inform the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in preparing its Fourth Assessment report.

Both SWMM and the Stormwater Calculator are a part of the President’s Climate Action Plan.

“Climate change threatens our health, our economy, and our environment,” said Gina McCarthy, EPA Administrator. “As part of the President’s Climate Action Plan, this tool will help us better prepare for climate impacts by helping build safer, sustainable, and more resilient water infrastructure.”

The continued development of predictive modeling tools such as SWMM will provide urban planners and other stakeholders with the resources they need to incorporate both traditional stormwater and wastewater system technologies with the emerging, innovative techniques of green infrastructure.  The collective impact will be more sustainable urban areas and healthier waterways across the nation.

SWMM-CAT can be downloaded here.

If you are interested in learning more about SWMM-CAT, join our webinar on 2/25/15 at 12:00 PM ET!

About the Author: Marguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

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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Moving Away From “High Risk”

2015 February 12

By Lou D’Amico, Ph.D. and Samantha Jones, Ph.D.

 

IRIS graphic identifierYesterday the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released their biennial High Risk Report, which lists government functions and operations identified as needing attention by Congress and the Executive Branch. EPA’s IRIS Program is on the list along with the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) under the broader area, Transforming EPA’s Processes for Assessing and Controlling Toxic Chemicals. For the first time, GAO has provided ratings in five criteria to help programs gauge their progress in resolving the high risk designation.

GAO found that, specific to the IRIS Program, EPA has:

  • Met, a demonstrated commitment to, and top leadership support for, addressing problems;
  • Partially met, the development of a corrective action plan;
  • Partially met, instituting a program to monitor corrective measures;
  • Not met, demonstrating progress in implementing corrective measures; and
  • Not met, demonstrating the capacity to address problems.

We think this report shows improvement while acknowledging that there is more to do. The recommendations received from GAO, the National Research Council (NRC), and our Scientific Advisory Board Chemical Assessment Advisory Committee (SAB CAAC) provide important ongoing feedback and a framework through which EPA will ensure, as part of a multiyear process, that the IRIS Program produces timely, transparent, and high-quality scientific assessments.

As GAO noted, EPA’s leadership has reaffirmed the importance of the IRIS Program. In the coming weeks and months, you’ll hear more about IRIS activities that address issues raised by the GAO. An important one will be the IRIS multi-year plan, which reflects a reprioritization of the chemicals on the IRIS agenda to best meet Agency needs. Also, soon-to-be announced workshops will allow scientists in the IRIS Program to benefit from in-depth scientific discussions that directly inform ongoing work in our assessments.

The IRIS Program has taken a number of steps to strengthen, streamline, and clarify the science presented in our assessments. To increase capacity in an ever-changing environment, the IRIS Program has restructured the process for developing assessments, including the use of workgroups that bring together individuals with common expertise by scientific discipline (e.g., neurotoxicity), to evaluate a specific hazard. We’ve also recently implemented an executive review committee to ensure that scientific decisions are discussed by a greater number of senior scientists and managers within EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment, and to maintain quality and consistency across assessments.

Demonstrating progress is the criterion that presents a significant challenge to IRIS. The number of posted final assessments is only one measure of progress. In recent years, the same staff and managers that work on assessments have also been implementing recommendations from the GAO and NRC. One of those recommendations, adopting systematic review methodologies, is an ongoing effort. In the coming months, the public will see new sections of the IRIS Handbook, including a collection of the procedures and protocols we’ll use to implement systematic review in the IRIS Program. It is also important to advance chemicals at every stage of the IRIS process. Since 2013, IRIS has held bimonthly public science meetings on 12 chemicals under assessment. Finally, it’s important to consider the impact of these assessments. How should the IRIS Program balance the completion of complex assessments with widespread interest (which require greater resources and time) with those that may present fewer challenges and have comparatively less interest, but still have important public health impacts? The recently finalized IRIS assessment of Libby Amphibole Asbestos is only one assessment, but the impact to other federal and state agencies, and local communities is significant. Regardless of the metrics, the IRIS Program is committed to increasing productivity to meet the needs of the Agency and the public.

The independent reviews provided by the GAO and SAB CAAC, as well as the recent NRC review of the IRIS process, have validated a number of the steps taken by the IRIS Program. We will continue to evolve and we hope that stakeholders will continue to share their opinions with us – either in the comments sections of blog posts, on the IRIS general comments docket, or at some of our public meetings and workshops. We want to hear from you!

About the Authors: Lou D’Amico is the Acting Communications Director for NCEA. Samantha Jones is the Associate Director for Science in the IRIS Program.

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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On a Mission: Finding Life Cycle Environmental Solutions

2015 February 11

A blog post by April Richards and Mary Wigginton highlighting EPA’s Small Business Innovation Research program–“the small program with the big mission”–was recently posted by the U.S. Small Business Administration. A portion is reposted below. 

Compostable packing for shipping wine

Read about EPA-supported innovative companies and their products, such as environmentally-friendly packaging (pictured), in the SBA blog post.

We often describe the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program as the small program with the big mission, to protect human health and the environment. The mission is big and the areas of focus are broad: air, water, climate change, waste and manufacturing. We strive to promote “greening” it all.

The President’s budget calls to equip the EPA with the best scientific information and research to underpin its regulatory actions and helps the agency find the most sustainable solutions for the wide range of environmental challenges facing the United States today. It supports high-priority research in such areas as air quality, sustainable approaches to environmental protection, and safe drinking water.

Through the years, the EPA SBIR program has supported advances in green technologies such as state-of-the-art monitoring devices and pollution clean-up systems and processes. Recently though, we have expanded to support companies whose ideas are launched from a foundation of life cycle assessment (LCA). This proactive approach means solving an environmental problem in a way that takes into account resources, feedstock, emissions, toxicity and waste.

While clean-up, containment systems, and other “end-of-pipe technologies” are still important for managing pollution and potential contaminants after they have been produced, we want to foster game-changers that reduce or eliminate their production in the first place.

Read the rest of the blog. 

 

 

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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This Week in EPA Science

2015 February 6

By Kacey FitzpatrickResearch recap graphic identifier, a microscope with the words "research recap" around it in a circle

February is American Heart Month but no, not those heart-shaped cards, candy and cookies that seem to be everywhere this time of year. American Hearth month is about real hearts, the ones in our bodies that pump our blood and are critical to our health.

EPA is raising awareness of heart disease and its link to air pollution and other environmental factors as a partner in Million Hearts campaign, a national initiative to prevent 1 million heart attacks and strokes by 2017. To support this, EPA’s Healthy Heart initiative was created to spread the word about the importance of clean air to cardiovascular health, specifically to increase awareness among health care providers, patients with heart disease who are at highest risk from the ill effects of air pollution, and the general public.

Read more about this important issue in this blog by EPA’s Dr. Wayne E. Cascio whose research explores the effects of air pollution on the heart and blood vessels.

And here is some more EPA research from this week.

  • EPA: Taking Action on Toxics and Chemical Safety
    One of EPA’s highest priorities is making sure our children, our homes, and our communities are safer from toxic chemicals. EPA’s Gwen Keyes Fleming shared some stories of the innovative and collaborative work that Agency researchers are leading to take action on toxics and chemical safety.
    Read the blog post here.
  • Exposing the Missing Link: Advancing Exposure Science to Rapidly Evaluate Chemicals
    EPA researchers are at the forefront of exposure science, developing and testing new paradigms to efficiently generate and collect information about how people encounter chemicals and other toxic substances. EPA’s National Program Director for Chemical Safety for Sustainability, Tina Bahadori, describes how advances in EPA research have transformed exposure science in a very short time.
    Read the blog post here.
  • Researchers Link Smoke from Fires to Tornado Intensity
    Research partially funded by EPA found that smoke from fires set to clear agricultural fields in Central America are exacerbating tornadoes in the United States. News about the study was published in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.
    Read more about the study here.

If you have any comments or questions about what I shared or about the week’s events, please submit them below in the comments section!

About the Author: Kacey Fitzpatrick is a student contractor and writer working with 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.

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.

EPA: Taking Action on Toxics and Chemical Safety

2015 February 5

The following was originally posted on EPA Connect, the Official Blog of EPA Leadership.

Innovative-Research

By Gwen Keyes Fleming

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.

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.

Read the rest of the post. 

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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