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This Week in EPA Science

2014 September 19

By Kacey Fitzpatrick

Research recap graphic identifier, a microscope with the words "research recap" around it in a circleFor most of the U.S., access to clean drinking water is as easy as turning on the faucet. In fact, a lot of hard work has gone into making sure our waterways are healthy and the water we drink is safe. Forty years ago, Congress passed Safe Drinking Water Act and since then EPA has contributed an incredibly vast amount of research to protecting human health by safeguarding the nation’s public drinking water supply—you might say it’s an ocean’s worth.

We and others highlighted a lot of water-related EPA research this past week. And an EPA-grantee was named a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” awardee! Below is this week’s “EPA research recap.”

  • Prescription for Trouble? Studying Pharmaceuticals in Wastewater.
    Due to human excretion and people flushing unused pills, pharmaceuticals can end up in the wastewater stream, presenting a challenge to the nation’s wastewater treatment plants. EPA researchers are studying pharmaceuticals in wastewater to help protect the nation’s waterways. Researchers designed a model to estimate potential concentrations of active pharmaceuticals in treated wastewater. Read more.
  • Tri, Tri, Tri Again for Clean Water
    Recently, the Washington DC area experienced storms and heavy rainfall that caused a combined sewer overflow and sent a mixture of sewage and stormwater into the Potomac River. This caused the swim portion of the Nation’s Triathlon to be canceled due to unsafe water quality. EPA works to promote green infrastructure practices to help minimize and prevent stormwater events that can threaten public health, all while protecting the quality of rivers, streams, and lakes. Read more.
  • EPA engineer led effort to reduce wastewater pollution along the Arizona-Mexican border
    Raw and partially treated sewage has flowed persistently for years across the border from Nogales, Mexico into neighboring Nogales, Arizona. Through a decade of hard work, Thomas Konner, an EPA engineer, was instrumental in leading the U.S. effort to upgrade the wastewater infrastructure along the border and greatly improve the water quality and the environment. Read more.
  • Green Island and the Hyporheic Zone: Why Restoration matters
    Large river floodplains present diverse benefits to communities, yet management strategies often fail to consider the broad suite of ecosystem services provided by these systems. EPA is evaluating the benefits associated with restoring large river floodplains, specifically levee setback and revetment removal. This effort will provide scientific support for community-based environmental decision making and support restoration efforts. Read more.
  • Detection of Silver Nanoparticles in Vadose Zone Environments
    Use of nanoparticles is quickly increasing within the global marketplace as a result of their beneficial use in science, medicine, engineering and technology.However, very little is known about the effects that the increased and widespread use could have on the environment. EPA and Oklahoma State University have partnered to research and determine the effects. Read more.
  • EPA Grantee Tami Bond Named 2014 MacArthur Fellow
    The University of Illinois professor did a comprehensive study of how human-produced soot (black carbon) is affecting the atmosphere, illuminating how it is one of the leading contributors to climate change and standardizing how researchers measure and describe it. Bond received her first EPA “Science to Achieve Results” (STAR) grant in 2003, and currently has two other projects supported by the program. Read more.

Looking forward, next week is “Climate Action Week” and we’ll be featuring how EPA researchers are working to support taking action on climate change.

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

About the Author: Writer Kacey Fitzpatrick is a member of the science communication team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development as a student contractor.

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.

Teaming Up with Science Teachers

2014 September 19

By Kacey Fitzpatrick

“One afternoon my high school physics teacher said, ‘Wow, you’re picking this up a lot faster than you realize, and you might have a knack for this.’ That comment sort of lit off a bell for me.”

If you ask an EPA researcher to share what first inspired them to pursue their current career, there’s a good chance they will point to a teacher or professor who sparked their budding passion in science, technology, engineering, or math with an interesting class experiment or some words of wisdom.

EPA's Gayle Hagler, Ph.D. shares her science at a science and engineering festival.

Environmental engineer Gayle Hagler shares her science. Learn more about how to incorporate her’s and other EPA science into the classroom.

EPA environmental engineer Dr. Gayle Hagler, who will be returning the favor in one of the webinars below, can remember the exact day that her teacher inspired her. “One afternoon my high school physics teacher said, ‘Wow, you’re picking this up a lot faster than you realize, and you might have a knack for this.’ That comment sort of lit off a bell for me.”

Dr. Hagler and other Agency researchers are joining forces with The National Science Teachers Association, the world’s largest organization of science teachers, to share their personal stories about the work they do helping to protect human health and the environment.

The Association’s online learning center offers free, 90-minute, web-based, interactive, live seminars featuring scientists, engineers, and education specialists from their partner organizations. The goal is to unite science teachers with nationally acclaimed experts to help them develop fun and exciting ways to engage their students in science.

Check out these three webinars presented by EPA researchers to learn more about tools you can use in and outside the classroom.

 

  • Do-It-Yourself Air Monitoring: Explore the Atmosphere and Turn on Light Bulbs!
    Date: Thursday, September 25, 2014
    Time: 6:30 p.m. ET
    How many tiny particles are in one cubic centimeter of air? What’s the difference between “good” ozone and “bad” ozone? In this webinar, Dr. Gayle Hagler will explore what’s in the air we breathe; how and why scientists measure air pollution, and the growing popularity of citizen science. You will learn a fun hands-on activity for students to build their own air monitor that uses the latest micro sensors to measure particle pollution, commonly known as dust, and turn on light bulbs based on the level in the atmosphere! Learn more.
  •  Get Energized: Interactive Generate! Game Explores Energy Choices and Environmental Quality
    Date: Thursday, October 23, 2014
    Time: 6:30 p.m. ET
    How do we understand the costs and benefits of the energy choices we make? What happens if the mix of energy sources changes in the future? What does this all mean for our climate, air, water, and overall environmental quality? In this webinar, Dr. Rebecca Dodder will present some of tools EPA scientists are developing to help states, communities and Tribes make decisions about energy use now and in the future. It will also introduce an interactive board game developed by EPA scientists called Generate! that encourages students to explore energy choices and the environment. Learn more.
  • Exploration and Discovery through Maps: Teaching Science with Technology
    Date: Thursday, November 13, 2014
    Time: 6:30 p.m. ET
    Are you interested in using maps to engage students in science? EPA’s EnviroAtlas tool uses a combination of maps, analysis tools, fact sheets, and downloadable data to help users understand the interactions between people and the environment. Users of all skill levels can access hundreds of maps embracing a range of disciplines including biology, chemistry, geography, and environmental science. In this webinar EPA researchers Anne Neale and Jessica Daniel will give you a first-hand look at all the resources EnviroAtlas has to offer. Learn more.

 

Below are a few more things our researchers shared on “EPA Scientists@Work” about how teachers inspired them.

I had a wonderful 10th grade high school chemistry teacher who instilled in me a love for chemistry. I knew after that class that chemistry was what I wanted to study in college.

In the early 1960s, there was a television show called Gilligan’s Island, and the character I most identified with was the professor. He was making coconut radios and figuring out meteorological events and developing new things, all in the hope of getting them off the island. The professor was a role model. Here was a guy on an island without any tools and he was trying to make a difference. I wanted to be the guy who could look at problems and find solutions involving the use of science.

I knew around the start of high school. I took a lot of math courses and, thanks to some great teachers, I was really motivated to learn more math and science. By the time I was in the tenth grade, I narrowed it down to chemical engineering.

When I was in fifth grade, I had an outstanding teacher. He did all kinds of hands-on experiments in the classroom. In one particular experiment, he separated the class into three groups where one group washed their hands with soap and water, one group washed their hands with just water, and one did nothing. The group who only washed their hands with water had by far, the most bacteria on their hands. The water just mobilized the bacteria off of their fingers. Those experiences really got me interested in science.

I was very curious as a child and always wanted to know why and how things work. My “aha moment” was probably during my freshman year in high school when one of my science teachers told me that I should study engineering—specifically chemical engineering—since I was a good math and science student.

Probably junior year of high school. My teachers were inspirational role models, and I enjoyed all of my classes. By senior year I was intrigued by practical applications of math and science, and started to think about engineering as a career path.

I’ve been interested in science since my 9th grade earth science class. It was the first time I got to do experiments and see that I could learn different things about the world through experiments.

A lot of my interest in science came from my dad, who was a physicist and professor at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts. I always wanted to be like my dad.

Do you have a similar memory of a favorite science teacher or class? Please share in the comments below!

About the Author: Writer Kacey Fitzpatrick is a member of the science communication team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development as a student contractor. When asked about her own science education, she replied: “I had a really cool forensics science class in school!”

 

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.

Prescription for Trouble? Studying Pharmaceuticals in Wastewater.

2014 September 18

By Marguerite Huber

EPA researchers are studying pharmaceuticals in wastewater to help protect the nation’s waterways. Image courtesy of U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

EPA researchers are studying pharmaceuticals in wastewater to help protect the nation’s waterways. Image courtesy of U.S. FDA.

Approximately 1,800 drugs are approved for prescription use in the United States. Have you ever thought of what happens to all those drugs once they have left you (or your medicine cabinet)? Due to human excretion and people flushing unused pills, these pharmaceuticals can end up in the wastewater stream, presenting a challenge to the nation’s wastewater treatment plants.

To estimate potential pharmaceutical concentrations in wastewater, EPA scientists conducted a survey of wastewater effluent from 50 large U.S. municipal wastewater treatment plants between January and April 2011. They then used the data to evaluate an EPA model designed to estimate potential concentrations of active pharmaceuticals in treated wastewater.

The model generates preliminary estimates of associated risks, and provides a basis for prioritizing the pharmaceuticals that generate the greatest concern for future research efforts.

EPA scientists used pharmaceutical marketing data to choose the 56 pharmaceuticals with the highest number of minimum daily dose equivalents dispensed in the U.S. each year. You may recognize acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and hydrocortisone from the list.

The 50 wastewater treatment plants were chosen based on a number of factors, but together they produce about six billion gallons of treated wastewater a day that is released into rivers and streams. In all, these facilities serve more than 46 million people.

The researchers then analyzed treated wastewater samples from the selected plants to determine the concentrations of the 50 high-priority active pharmaceutical ingredients they identified from the marketing data.

Overall, the survey found low concentrations of pharmaceuticals present in every water sample the researchers analyzed.

Based on the screening data, the researchers estimated that risks were low for both healthy adults and aquatic life from pharmaceutical exposure in wastewater effluent for most drugs. They also found that even under the extreme scenario of someone consuming half a gallon of treated wastewater per day over the course of a year, they would get the equivalent of less than a daily dose of any pharmaceutical currently in use. For most pharmaceuticals, it would be less than one daily dose over the course of a lifetime.

Additionally, based on what the survey revealed about pharmaceuticals in wastewater effluent, the researchers determined that risk of antibiotic-resistant bacteria developing in aquatic environments is low.

Mitchell Kostich, an EPA Scientist who worked on the study, said Agency researchers plan to now focus on the handful of pharmaceuticals that are most frequently used, and appear at levels for which risks to aquatic life cannot be ruled out. With the help of the model and additional data, they expect to be able to predict the maximum wastewater concentrations of any pharmaceutical in current use.

Interested in more about this topic? Join our Water Research Webinar: Pharmaceutical Residues in Municipal Wastewater on Wednesday, September 24th from 12:00 PM – 1:00 PM (EDT), and check out our previous post, A Prescription for a Healthier Environment!

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, 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.

Tri, Tri, Tri Again for Clean Water

2014 September 15

By Marguerite Huber and Dustin Renwick

From the left, cyclist Marguerite Huber, runner Dustin Renwick, and would-be swimmer Sarah Edwards.

From the left, cyclist Marguerite Huber, runner Dustin Renwick, and would-be swimmer Sarah Edwards.

When athletes register for a race, they invest money, time, and energy. My fellow EPA blogger, Dustin Renwick, and I signed up to be a part of a relay team competing in the Nation’s Triathlon here in Washington, D.C.

Dustin ran the 10k, I biked the 40k, but our swimmer didn’t even get wet.

Our teammate, and all of the other athletes, did not get to participate in the swim portion of the race because it had been cancelled due to unsafe water quality.

The night before the event, the local area experienced storms and heavy rainfall that caused a combined sewer overflow that sent a mixture of sewage and stormwater into the Potomac River just north of the triathlon swim starting line.

The District Department of the Environment informed race officials of the unhealthy conditions late that evening and due to the high levels of bacteria such as E. coli, they agreed to cancel the swim.

Although boating, kayaking, and paddle boarding are allowed in the Potomac River, “primary contact recreation activities,” like swimming, have been banned in the river within the District of Columbia since 1971, when District health officials and EPA sought to protect people and publicize the health hazards of local water bodies.

Since then, clean-up efforts have resulted in a cleaner Potomac. Special swimming events, such as the Nation’s Tri, could apply for exceptions to the rule as of 2007. Event organizers are required to monitor and analyze water quality samples prior to the event and submit a contingency plan in the event the District Department of the Environment determines the river is unsafe for swimming.

Despite the progress, sewer overflows can still harm river quality. The Nation’s Triathlon had to cancel the swim in 2011 as well.

Judging by social media reactions, most athletes felt the Nation’s Tri race officials made the right choice in cancelling the swim. Safety is important, no matter how many hours of training you have put in.

But the disappointment of several thousand athletes is only a symptom. This situation really calls attention to the need for improvement in our stormwater infrastructure.

The 772 cities in the U.S. that have combined sewer systems can all be challenged by heavy rains that rush over urban impervious surfaces and into their sewers. This results in stormwater and untreated waste polluting our water bodies.

EPA has worked to promote green infrastructure practices to help minimize and prevent stormwater events that can threaten public health, all while protecting the quality of rivers, streams, and lakes. Green infrastructure techniques such as green roofs, permeable pavement, and rain gardens help slow down runoff and help water more naturally filter out excess nutrients and other pollutants on its way into the ground.

These kinds of activities help protect human health and the environment. Hopefully one day soon, as race contestants, we can count on completing the bike, run, and swim through our nation’s capital and in similar events across the country.

About the Authors: When student contractors Marguerite Huber and Dustin Renwick are not biking or running through the District, they can be found helping the science communication and innovation teams (respectively) 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, 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.

Research Recap: This Week in EPA Science

2014 September 12

By Kacey Fitzpatrick

Research recap graphic identifier, a microscope with the words "research recap" around it in a circleOne thing I’ve learned since starting work here at EPA is that we love to use acronyms. I even keep a running list in my notebook which I sometimes discretely check mid-conversation. For example, I work in EPA ORD IOAA Comms (translation: Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Research and Development, Immediate Office of the Assistant Administrator, Science Communications).

Read below to find out why a discussion at EPA involving PARIS isn’t necessarily about the city in France, and learn about more research that’s been highlighted this week.

That being said, here is today’s Research Recap: this week in EPA science, or as we like to call it: R.R. – T.W.I.E.P.A.S. (Just kidding!)

 

  • PARIS III: EPA’s Solvent Substitution Software Tool

EPA researchers have developed a software tool called “Program for Assisting the Replacement of industrial Solvents, version 3.0, “ or PARIS III, that helps companies find alternate chemical mixtures or solvents that still improve their industrial processes but are not as harmful to our environment. The tool is provided by the EPA for free, and can be effective and efficiently used to help individuals find better and more benign solvent mixtures for many different common industrial processes.

Read more.

Download the tool.

 

  • Digitally Detecting Waterborne Illnesses

EPA researchers are bringing current methods of monitoring human pathogens in drinking water into the digital age. This advancement would offer a whole new set of opportunities, including greater statistical power to detect if the pathogen is present and, if so, to determine its concentration.

Dr. Eric Villegas, a scientist working on the project explains, “Digital PCR can perform up to a million reactions in the same amount of time that standard techniques take, improving how we model the detection of waterborne pathogens.”

Read more.

 

  • EPA Announces Funding to Create Two New Drinking Water Innovation Centers.

Two EPA-funded innovation enters will develop and test advanced, low cost methods to reduce, control, and eliminate groups of water contaminants that present challenges to communities worldwide.

“These centers will help to develop innovative and practical solutions for challenges faced by smaller drinking water systems, which make up the majority of public water systems in the United States,” said Lek Kadeli, Acting Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Read more.

 

  •  EPA, Virginia Department of Environmental Quality renew partnerships with Hampton University, Norfolk State University

The goals of the partnership include promoting an increase in the number of minorities with careers in environmental science and environmental engineering, and promoting a greater understanding of the causes and effects of air pollution. The partnership will also continue an EPA-funded program called LEAP—Linking Environmental and Academic Programs—at both universities.

Read more.

 

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

About the Author: Writer Kacey Fitzpatrick recently joined the science communication team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development as a student contractor.

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.

Digitally Detecting Waterborne Illnesses

2014 September 11

By Marguerite Huber

Toxoplasma gondii oocysts

Toxoplasma gondii oocysts

The smaller something is, the harder it is to find. Just try finding a needle in a haystack, or low concentrations of pathogens such as Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii) and Cryptosporidium in drinking water. These two human pathogens are the leading causes of protozoan waterborne illnesses (toxoplasmosis and cryptosporidiosis), so they are something the drinking water industries are working hard to monitor.

To understand exposure risks associated with T. gondii and Cryptosporidium, sensitive and accurate detection and clinical diagnostic tools must be in place. The lack of such tools make environmental monitoring for these parasites challenging.

One of the biggest issues with monitoring human pathogens is that if it is environmentally transmitted (such as through drinking water), its concentrations can be very low, making it difficult to detect with current water monitoring practices.

EPA researchers have recognized that detection is the biggest challenge.  They are working to help bring current methods–which rely on a technique known as polymerase chain reaction (PCR) that amplifies genetic material (DNA) for further analysis—into the digital age. They have designed software to assess the performance and detection limits of digital PCR (dPCR) to accurately quantify low concentration levels of T. gondii and Cryptosporidium.

Dr. Eric Villegas, a scientist working on the project explains, “Digital PCR can perform up to a million reactions in the same amount of time that standard techniques take, improving how we model the detection of waterborne pathogens.”

This capability of dPCR offers a whole new set of opportunities, including greater statistical power to detect if the pathogen is present and, if so, to determine its concentration. “The software that we developed assesses the quality of the data collected and determines the concentration of pathogens with high precision and accuracy,” researcher Dr. Scott Keely, explains. Ultimately, this approach will provide additional sensitivity for quick and accurate diagnosis of parasite infections.

Overall, this research will detect pathogens better and faster than existing methods, which will allow policymakers, drinking water utilities, and managers to scrutinize available data, analyze it with confidence, and learn what type of data to collect in the future. Most importantly, it will help minimize any health risk related to drinking and recreational water quality by providing decision-makers with methods and tools that decrease the amount of time to reach decisions regarding the management of water bodies or other sources of drinking water where these pathogens are of potential concern.

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, 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.

PARIS III: EPA’s Solvent Substitution Software Tool

2014 September 10

By Paul Harten, Ph.D.

Opening screen of EPA's PARIS III.

EPA’s PARIS III

For decades, companies have used chemicals or solvents to improve the performance of their industrial processes.  Unfortunately, many of these solvents are released as harmful wastes into our environment.  EPA researchers are helping reduce that practice.

Recently, my colleagues and I developed a software tool, called PARIS III, that helps companies find alternate chemical mixtures or solvents that still improve their industrial processes but are not as harmful to our environment.

PARIS III stands for “Program for Assisting the Replacement of industrial Solvents, version 3.0”.  Previous versions of the PARIS tool have been as effective, but this version has specifically been developed by the EPA as a free solvent substitution software tool.  It can be used by any environmentally-conscious individual, including solvent technicians, industrial and solvent engineers, and environmental consultants.

The PARIS III database includes more than 4000 solvents commonly used by industry.  In the search for replacements, it taps only those that have less environmental impact (greener), mixing them together in different proportions to find mixtures that perform as close as possible to the performance of those currently used by companies.  The close replacement mixtures found can then be sorted to choose those mixtures that are least harmful to the environment.

To download and learn more about the tool, go to: www.epa.gov/nrmrl/std/parisIII/parisIII.html

Learn more and download the tool at the website listed below.

The software uses the Environmental Index of solvent mixtures. That is a measure of a solvent mixtures’ impact on the environment, made by combining a various indicators, including human health, acid rain, and global warming.  By looking at the ratio of the original solvent mixture’s Environmental Index to the Environmental Index of its replacement, you can get an estimate of how much harm to the environment will be avoided.  For example, if the Environmental Index of the original solvent mixture is 10.0, and the Environmental Index of the replacement solvent mixture is 1.0, then using the replacement solvent instead of the original solvent will reduce harm to the environment by a factor of 10.0 to 1.0.

This solvent substitution software tool is provided by the EPA for free, and can be effective and efficiently used to help environmentally-conscious individuals find better and greener solvent mixtures for many different common industrial processes.  Simply download and start using this tool at EPA’s website:

http://www.epa.gov/nrmrl/std/parisIII/parisIII.html

About the Author: EPA Physical Scientist Paul Harten has a Ph.D. in computational physics and a great amount of experience in computer science. He has been extensively involved with growth in the computer-oriented environmental sciences during his fifteen years with the Agency.

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.

Research Recap: This week in EPA Science

2014 September 5

By Kacey Fitzpatrick

Research recap graphic identifier, a microscope with the words "research recap" around it in a circleIt’s the first week of September which means it’s the end of summer, kids are going back to school, football is starting, and pumpkin-flavored everything is appearing in grocery stores and coffee shops.

September is also National Preparedness Month, and although EPA researchers work year-round to help local communities across the nation become more resilient and better prepared to respond to disasters, their efforts will be highlighted this month.  

  • Yale University’s The Metric blog featured how the Agency’s Office of Homeland Security “is now taking steps to build community capacity on environmental resilience to reduce risk from both natural and manmade risks.” Read Disasters Looming, EPA Focuses on Environmental Resilience.
  • To learn more about how EPA homeland security researchers support such efforts, see the special homeland security issue of our EPA Science Matters newsletter.

Recently, we saw how toxins from harmful algal and cyanobacterial blooms can disrupt the nation’s source waters.

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

About the Author: Writer Kacey Fitzpatrick recently joined the science communication team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development as a student contractor.

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.

Helping Communities and Water Utilities Address Harmful Algal Blooms

2014 September 4

By Darren Lytle, Heath Mash, and Nick Dugan

Satellite image of west end of Lake Erie showing algal bloom.

Algal bloom in the west end of Lake Erie, August 3, 2014. Image courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory.

Toxins from harmful algal and cyanobacterial blooms are increasingly contaminating many of our nation’s source waters. We saw this just recently in Toledo, Ohio where toxins, most likely microcystins, made their way through the water treatment facility leaving many people without drinking water.

Many of the drinking water treatment facilities in the Great Lakes region were built before World War II and were designed to filter out particles of a certain size.  As a result, removing the much smaller cyanobacterial toxins, such as microcystins, at these facilities can be difficult and expensive. Our research is helping communities confront this challenge.

Close up of hand filling a glass with tap water.

EPA researchers are helping to protect drinking water sources.

For example, recognizing the potential health and economic consequences of disruptions to municipal water supplies, we have partnered with Ohio EPA and the U.S. Geological Survey to conduct studies aimed at helping water treatment facilities cope with water quality changes in their water sources, and to optimize treatment to reduce risks associated with harmful algal blooms, also known for the acronym “HABs.”

Preliminary surveys of full-scale treatment facilities have shown that the size of the contaminant is key to the problems it can cause. Cyanobacteria cells are large enough for existing treatment facilities to remove by filters and other methods, as long as the cells remain intact. However, toxins leaking out of damaged or dying cyanobacteria cells can be difficult for existing facilities to treat without expensive additional actions or modifications.

To address this, we are looking for ways to improve the performance of existing drinking water treatment facility operations. Our researchers are looking at how to modify certain treatment operations such as where in the process treatment chemicals are applied, the types and concentrations of chemicals used for treatment and the pH levels at which the processes are operated. We are also conducting research on ways to improve sampling and analysis to more effectively monitor and control cyanobacteria and their toxins, including microcystins.

Harmful algal blooms aren’t just a major concern for drinking water. Fish, birds, and other animals can come in contact with or ingest these toxins, and suffer adverse effects. There have even been incidences of pet and livestock fatalities from drinking water contaminated with algal toxins.

Blooms can also affect recreational activities. For example, people swimming, waterskiing, or fishing in contaminated water can be exposed to algal toxins.

Some of our colleagues are working to better define the environmental factors controlling the development, persistence, and toxin production related to harmful algal blooms. Collaborative research efforts are focusing on controlling nutrient runoff, remote sensing and monitoring of such blooms, as well as developing early warning systems that would alert recreationists and drinking water treatment plant operators alike to their presence and the potential of toxin formation, to help eliminate exposure risk. Other researchers are exploring the human health effects related to microcystin exposures, with an eye toward developing a health advisory in the near future.

Our goal is to develop tools and methods that communities can use to manage potential impacts of harmful algal blooms. We want to ensure our water is clean for generations to come and protect the environment and the health of people, pets, and livestock across the country.

Learn more about EPA’s research on Harmful Algal Blooms and Cyanobacteria.

For more information on harmful algal blooms and our research, please share your questions in the Comment section below, or contact us directly at sswr@epa.gov.

About the Authors

Darren Lytle is an environmental engineer who focuses his research on drinking water contaminants and treatment technologies. He investigates corrosion control and water quality; lead and copper corrosion control; and filtration with an emphasis on removal of microbial pathogens.

Heath Mash is a chemist who studies the efficacy of hormone-like contaminant removal during water treatment, the occurrence and treatability of harmful algal bloom toxins, and identification of disinfection byproducts from hormones and algal bloom toxins material during treatment.

Nick Dugan is an environmental engineer currently focused on bench-scale trials evaluating the impact of common drinking water treatment oxidants on intact, toxin-producing cyanobacterial cells over a range of water quality conditions.

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.

Research Recap: This Week in EPA Science

2014 August 29

By Kacey Fitzpatrick

Research recap graphic identifier, a microscope with the words "research recap" around it in a circleA good amount of my college career was spent on the top floor of the library, cramming for exams the next day. Even after graduating, I have yet to drop the habit. The night before my first day at EPA, I was frantically trying to catch up on all the research that the Agency had been doing so that I could follow along the next day.

A month later, I’m still a little lost during meetings – there is just that much going on here!

To help keep up—and break a bad habit—I’ve decided to do a quick, weekly review. And as part of the science communication team, I figured it would be a good thing to share what I’ve learned. Starting today, I’ll be posting a quick rundown most Fridays of some of the research that’s been reported by EPA and others over the week.

This is the first post in a new, weekly segment we are calling “Research Recap.”

And if you have any comments or questions about what I share or about the week’s events, please submit them below in the comments section. My colleagues and I will contact our scientists and get back to you as soon as we can with answers. And don’t worry, I promise there won’t be any pop quizzes!

 

This week’s Research Recap:

 

  •  Careers in Environmental Health Science

Oregon State University’s superfund research program created the video “Careers in Environmental Health” to introduce students to various careers in science. Scientists from both the university and EPA were interviewed about their job, as well as how they ended up becoming a scientist.

Watch the videos.
Meet more EPA researchers at work.

 

  • Colorado State University Hosts Cookstove Testing Marathon

Colorado State University hosted a laboratory testing campaign as part of a $1.5 million study on the air quality, climate and health effects of cookstove smoke to help determine to what extent the stoves used by 3 billion people worldwide for heating, lighting and cooking are contributing to climate change and global air quality.

Read more.

 

  • Studying Stream Restoration

EPA scientists set out to evaluate how well “out-of-stream” restoration actions (those actions that take place in the watershed as opposed to within streams) work. These approaches are important because efforts that have focused solely on habitat restoration within streams have had limited success.

Read more.

 

  • EPA Report Shows Progress in Reducing Urban Air Toxics Across the United States

Based largely on Agency clean air research, EPA released the Second Integrated Urban Air Toxics Report to Congress—the final of two reports required under the Clean Air Act to inform Congress of progress in reducing public health risks from urban air toxics. The report shows the substantial progress that has been made to reduce air toxics across the country since the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.

Read more.

 

  • From Lake to Classroom: EPA workshop on Lake Erie Provides Tools for Science Teacher 

A seventh-grade science teacher spent a portion of his summer on an EPA research vessel as part of a workshop sponsored jointly by the Center for Great Lakes Literacy and EPA. “Having the opportunity to research alongside EPA and university scientists aboard a floating science lab was truly a one-in-a-lifetime experience,” he said.

Read more.

 

  • Local Water Woes, No More? Advancing Safe Drinking Water Technology

In 2007, a student team from the University of California, Berkeley won an EPA People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) award for their research project aiming to test a cost-effective, self-cleaning, and sustainable arsenic-removal technology. The same group of former Berkeley students who formed the P3 team now own a company called SimpleWater, which aims to commercialize their product in the US.

Read more.

 

  • Microbe-Free Beaches, Thanks to Dogs

Seagull droppings can carry disease-causing microbes which can contaminate beaches and water. In a new study, researchers show that unleashing dogs keeps the seagulls away—and the water at the beach free of microbes.

Read more.

 

About the Author: Writer Kacey Fitzpatrick recently joined the science communication team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development as a student contractor.

 

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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