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Technical Models Informed by Indigenous Cultural Values

2014 November 7

November is Native American Heritage month. Throughout the month, we will be featuring blogs by EPA and EPA-supported Native American environmental and public health researchers, and about issues related to Tribal Science

Technical Models Informed by Indigenous Cultural Values

By Len Necefer

Researcher interviewing a women.

Len Necefer conducting surveys with the Navajo Nation.

Growing up in the Navajo Nation, I learned firsthand about the link between the environment and the health of our people. A nonsmoker, my grandfather developed silicosis and had his entire left lung removed at the age of 45, the result of years of unsafe uranium mining practices typical across the Navajo Nation. His health problems were complicated later in life by poor air quality from large coal power plants in the region.

While both uranium and coal provide significant revenue and employment for the tribe, I believed that there must be a way to develop energy resources with fewer consequences to the environment and its people. I believed there could be a way to draw upon the Navajo teachings from my family about my responsibilities to the environment to guide this new path.

I was awarded an EPA Science to Achieve Results (STAR) Fellowship in 2012 to pursue my doctoral work at Carnegie Mellon University. My dissertation is focused on developing technical decision tools to help tribal policy makers make more informed decisions on future energy resource development. The tool will track and display culturally-relevant outcomes from different environmental decisions, such as specific impacts on land and water resources uniquely important to the Navajo Nation cultural practices, such as sacred sites and medicinal herbs.

The technical model that I am developing has already been used to illuminate the long-term environmental impacts of energy resource management policies. It will be building upon Tools for Energy Modeling Optimization and Assessment, to consider non-technical factors of energy resource management decisions.

While the technical model provides a necessary framework for assessing different energy resource management pathways, it is important to understand what the Navajo public understands about these issues and what cultural values inform their opinions. In order to understand these perspectives, I conducted interviews and surveys in the Navajo Nation community. In addition to my studies at Carnegie Mellon, I have continued learning about ceremonial traditions in order to accurately represent Navajo perspectives on the environment.

I hope to extend this tool to help other American Indian and Alaskan Native groups make better informed, lower impact energy resource management decisions that are consistent with their own unique cultural values.

About the Author: Former EPA STAR fellow Len Necefer is a member of the Navajo Nation in the southwestern United States. He graduated from the University of Kansas in 2012 with an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering. His doctoral research at Carnegie Mellon University focuses on the intersection between technical and social issues of energy resources, climate change, and sustainability of native nations.

 

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 Roll with “SustainableJoes”

2014 November 6

By Kelly Witter

EPA's Kelley Witter talks sustainability inside an ELF.

EPA’s Kelly Witter talks sustainability from an ELF.

One of the many reasons I love working at EPA is that I enjoy being around people who share my passion for the environment.  But when your day job is devoted to environmental protection it’s easy to be complacent about becoming more sustainable. After all, feeling guilty about the occasional slip up, such as not being able to compost my banana peel at lunch, is not enough.

Then, last week, Stephen Szucs of SustainableJoes.com rolled into Durham on a solar- and pedal-powered trike called an ELF. In an instant, he inspired me and many of my colleagues to “rethink” with our actions, not just our words.  Stephen is traveling from Canada to Key West, essentially couch surfing the continent,   on a “Rethink” tour to expand the conversation on sustainability and to help drive behavior change.

Stephen aims to create the world’s largest sustainability network and make sustainability EASY. He is spontaneous – always looking for an opportunity to engage the public in conversation about his sustainable journey and how little things can make a difference if a lot of people do them. Each person Stephen meets is asked to make a personal sustainability pledge, and he has collected nearly 2000 pledges thus far in in his 5,000 km journey.

He strives to share his message with everyone—especially students. As the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) outreach coordinator for EPA’s laboratory campus in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, I had the opportunity to have Stephen join me at a Durham middle school to evaluate student proposals on world peace. He was all in.  And there we were, listening to proposals and sharing sustainability with a real judge, a school board member, and a sheriff.

Next stop was the Food Truck Rodeo at Research Triangle Park. To get there, a group of seven of us traveled from EPA—by bike and ELF.  We definitely generated some sustainability conversation when our pedal/solar powered posse rolled in.  The “Rethink” tour truly embodies the Gandhi quote, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

OK, so was I inspired to action by SustainableJoes rolling into my life for three days? Did I rethink anything?  I did.  Nothing huge (yet), but I did rethink and redo a few things this weekend: 1) I used a solar clothes dryer (hung my laundry out on the lawn furniture); 2) My kids and I used rakes to clean up the leaves from our yard; and 3) I joined Durham’s new, soon-to-be food co-op.

Would I have done any of these things otherwise?  Probably not, because it is easier to keep doing the same things in the same way, and that is what SustainableJoes is challenging us to rethink.

My take home messages are that we need to start from where we are, rethinking and moving forward and that, it doesn’t matter what we call it as long as we are doing the right thing.

About the Author: EPA environmental engineer Kelly Witter is the Director of STEM Outreach for the Agency’s laboratory campus in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.

Editor’s Note: Today (November 6, 2014), Kelly welcomes students from Wake, NC State University STEM Early College High School who will be shadowing her at EPA as part of “Learning about careers is STEMtastic!”—stay tuned for a blog about that in the near future. 

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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Visualize Air Quality with RETIGO

2014 November 5

By Kayla Schulte 

EPA scientists developed  “RETIGO.”

EPA scientists developed “RETIGO.”

Today, more and more researchers and citizens are collecting their own air quality data using lower cost and portable instruments. While air quality monitoring technology has expanded into the hands of the individual with the creation of apps and small mobile sensors, the means to explore the measurements in-depth has been fairly restricted—until now.

EPA scientists recently developed the Real-Time Geospatial Data Viewer, or “RETIGO,” a free, web-based tool that allows users to visualize air quality data derived from any number of monitoring technologies.

RETIGO puts the power of analysis in the user’s hands with its interactive platform and easy-to-navigate interface. The user simply uploads their air quality data to the online tool system to visualize and interact with small to large data sets over space and time.  Data collected while driving, riding a bicycle, or walking along a planned route can be explored on a map interface and also shown on several other graphs.

Learn More!
Interested in giving RETIGO a try for yourself? EPA researchers are conducting four training webinars in November where you will be able to learn more, pose questions, and chat with them and other participants.  The interactive component will be conducted by both text and audio (you will need to use a computer microphone or connected headset for live audio).

To find out how you can use this innovative visualization tool to explore your measurements and discover how factors such as nearby pollution sources and wind direction can affect your observations, join one of the following webinars:

  • Monday, November 17, 9:00 am to 10:00 am, EST
  • Monday, November 17, 11:00 am to 12:00 pm, EST
  • Wednesday, November 19, 9:00 am to 10:00 am, EST
  • Wednesday, November 19, 3:00 pm to 4:00 pm, EST

Webinar: https://epa.connectsolutions.com/retigotutorial/
Contact: retigo@epa.gov for more information.

Launching RETIGO is just one of the many ways EPA encourages environmental awareness by inviting individuals to explore their surroundings through innovative science. Join use later this month to learn more!

About the author: Kayla Schulte is a Student Services Contractor with EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy program. She is devoted to communicating pertinent information about the environment to the largest possible audience.

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 – Halloween Edition

2014 October 31

By Kacey Fitzpatrick

What do most movies about zombies, aliens, robots, and monsters have in common with Research Recap? It All Starts with Science! Research recap graphic identifier, a microscope with the words "research recap" around it in a circle

Of course, you can’t always believe what you see in the movies. Here’s some real research that’s been highlighted by EPA this week (and won’t give you nightmares). Happy Halloween!

  • Prescriptions for Cleaner Waterways Left with expired, unwanted prescriptions, many people will pour them down the sink or flush them away. In a recently published study, EPA scientist Christian Daughton presents ways to reduce the active ingredients of pharmaceuticals from getting into our waterways. Read more.
  • Strengthening IRIS: Cultivating Broad Scientific Input EPA has embraced recommendations by the National Research Council to broaden the input they receive while conducting health assessments in the Agency’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS). “Bringing more scientific minds to the table will only strengthen our assessments by encouraging a more robust discussion,” writes IRIS scientist Louis D’Amico, Ph.D.  Read more.
  • Broadcom MASTERS EPA’s Drs. Denice Shaw and Tina Bahadori, along with Melissa Anley-Mills, participated in a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) event with the Broadcom MASTERS finalists. Broadcom MASTERS is a national STEM competition for U.S. 6th, 7th, and 8th graders that aims to inspire and encourage future scientists, engineers, and innovators. 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: 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.

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Prescriptions for Cleaner Waterways

2014 October 30

By Pradnya Bhandari

Teetering on the edge of a chair, my six-year-old self roots through the medicine cabinet, pushing aside plastic orange bottles for the gems hidden behind them: my gummy vitamins. My mother immediately asks me to come down, wondering if I had accidently gotten my hand on any of the medicines. Later, I see her pouring pills down the toilet and flushing them away into oblivion.

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. Food and Drug Administration.

I’m sure many of us have been in the same situation, left with expired, unwanted prescriptions and pouring them down the sink or flushing them away. Medications pose a threat within the household, especially homes with children, because accidental ingestion can have severe consequences. However, have you ever thought of these discarded drugs as a problem to our environment as well?

In a recently published study, Eco-directed sustainable prescribing: feasibility for reducing water contamination by drugs, EPA scientist Christian Daughton presents ways we can prevent the active ingredients of pharmaceuticals from getting into our waterways. Traditionally, approaches to addressing such water pollution have been limited to waste disposal and wastewater cleanup.

Daughton’s research examines practices that are ultimately responsible for the entry of pharmaceuticals into our waterways, practices that could be altered to reduce or prevent pollution: disposal (like my mom flushing her old medicines when I was a kid), excretion (active drug ingredients your body flushes out instead of deactivation), bathing (which releases topically applied medications and drugs excreted via sweat) or other sources.

Daughton focused his research on the metabolism (deactivation) of active pharmaceutical ingredients and how they impact the environment. He used an existing system that categorizes drugs based on water solubility and intestinal absorption. Using this data, Daughton categorized drugs according to two distinct excretion profiles: (1) drugs that are excreted largely unchanged (and therefore retain their biological activity in the environment) and (2) drugs that are extensively metabolized (transformed usually into chemicals with less activity). He then examined published data on the occurrence of each drug in municipal wastewaters to find that drugs from the second category occur with less frequency and at lower levels.

In his paper, Daughton illustrates how such excretion profiles could be used to develop a healthcare practice called “eco-directed sustainable prescribing.” Understanding how a drug is excreted could help physicians prescribe drugs at lower doses or with less potential to be excreted and reach waterways. This would help reduce pollution and lead to cleaner waters.

For more about EPA research to reduce the amount of pharmaceuticals in the environment, see:

About the Author: Pradnya Bhandari is an intern for the science communications team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development and attends the University of Maryland.

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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Join us to Chat About Green Infrastructure

2014 October 28

By Aaron Ferster

Rain + pavement = stormwater runoff.

Rain + pavement = stormwater runoff.

Rain can fall as a drizzle, a steady patter, or a deluge. It can bring life to crops, recharge aquifers, and douse wildfires. But in many instances and places, it can also bring trouble.

Stormwater—particularly flowing over urban and suburban landscapes with their abundance of pavement, roofs, and other impermeable surfaces—is a major source of pollution reaching the nation’s waterways. As it flows from the land and into storm drains, such runoff absorbs excess nutrients, oils, and other contaminants. Large storms and Spring melt events can also overwhelm municipal sewer systems, leading to overflows that include not only tainted runoff, but raw sewage as well.

The end result can mean impaired water bodies locally as well as far downstream.

EPA scientists and engineers are helping. Their research is advancing low-cost, innovative solutions, “green infrastructure,” that communities can tap to improve stormwater management and protect the health of their waterways.

Green infrastructure refers to techniques that enhance or mimic nature to absorb, pool, slow, and cleanse stormwater where it falls. It can take many forms, from rain barrels and local rain gardens to watershed-scale strategic plans that identify collective actions of “best practices” to employ across communities.

EPA researchers are providing the data, knowledge, and tools needed to advance green infrastructure for healthier, more sustainable communities. They are leading the effort to identify and quantify the beneficial impacts of green infrastructure and share what they learn with Agency partners.

Rain garden

EPA researchers are studying green infrastructure, such as rain gardens.

To learn more about green infrastructure and ask questions, please join our researchers tomorrow (October 29, 2014) from 2:00-3:00pm ET on twitter. Questions should be sent to #EnvSciChat.

You can also read more in our latest EPA Science Matters Newsletter: Green Infrastructure Research.

About the Author: EPA science writer Aaron Ferster is the editor of 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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Strengthening IRIS: Cultivating Broad Scientific Input

2014 October 27

By Louis D’Amico, Ph.D.

IRIS graphic identifierAs a scientist in EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) Program, I am routinely faced with the task of evaluating evidence to determine if a chemical may cause a toxic effect. Developing chemical health assessments involves evaluating complex, sometimes controversial scientific issues that may lead to differing opinions about the interpretation of the data. That’s why the IRIS Program has always relied on engagement with the larger scientific community, through public comment and peer review, to support the development of our assessments.

Last year, EPA announced several enhancements to improve the productivity and quality of IRIS assessments, including holding regular bimonthly public science meetings. This gives the scientists who develop IRIS assessments the opportunity to engage with the public and the scientific community on topics throughout the development of an assessment. However, we want to ensure that we are hearing scientific perspectives from a diversity of experts in open, public, and transparent ways during assessment development.  As the National Research Council (NRC) 2014 report on the IRIS Process indicated, some stakeholders may not have the staff, organizational, or other resources to provide comments or detailed scientific input. The NRC report recommended that EPA continue with additional efforts to ensure that the full breadth of perspectives are made available to the Agency when discussing the IRIS process and specific IRIS assessments.

IRIS meeting in a large conference room

EPA holds regular public IRIS meetings.

To broaden the input the IRIS Program receives at our bimonthly meetings, EPA has asked the National Research Council to identify additional scientific experts to join in our discussions. The public will continue to have the same opportunity to participate as discussants that they had before. If you want to participate as a discussant, you simply need to indicate that when registering for the meeting. Experts identified by the National Research Council, reviewed for conflict of interest and bias, will participate as discussants in their own capacity to contribute intellectual leadership to discussions on critical scientific issues. The final determination of who serves as an expert participant is made independently by the National Research Council.

Bringing more scientific minds to the table will only strengthen our assessments by encouraging a more robust discussion.  Ultimately it’s not the number of participants expressing an opinion, but the scientific validity of their positions.  Hearing multiple perspectives on how to interpret science issues will help my colleagues and I better address and incorporate those issues and perspectives into our assessments prior to expert peer review. Moving forward, I am looking forward to future discussions on the science at our bimonthly meetings and encourage you to join the continuing discussion on the evolution of the IRIS Program.

About the Author: Louis D’Amico, P.h.D. is the Acting Communications Director for the National Center for Environmental Assessment. He joined EPA five years ago and has a doctorate in Biology.

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

2014 October 24

By Kacey Fitzpatrick

Research recap graphic identifier, a microscope with the words "research recap" around it in a circleCompetition can bring out the best in people or the worst in people. Anyone who’s been watching the World Series or following football this season knows what I mean.

But when it comes to competing for sustainability, everybody wins! Read about the student teams selected to compete for this year’s People, Prosperity, and the Planet (P3) Awards and more in the research highlighted this week.

  • EPA Announces Winning P3 Student Teams
    Since 2004, the P3 Program has provided funding to student teams in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, committing over $10 million to cutting-edge, sustainable projects designed by university students. Read more.
  • EPA Supporting Next Generation of Environmental Scientists Through 105 Fellowship Grants
    EPA announced that 105 graduate students across the nation will receive $8.6 million in Science to Achieve Results fellowship grants to conduct research on topics ranging from climate change and public health to water quality and sustainability that will have cross-cutting impacts in the environmental science field. Read more.
  • Turning Back Time: Repairing Water Infrastructure
    The estimated costs of fixing old, leaky, and cracked pipes through the traditional methods could cost water utilities in excess of $1 trillion dollars over the next 20 years. Innovative, lower cost technologies that could provide alternatives would have enormous impact, but how do utilities know where to turn before they make investments in long-term solutions? Read more.
  • Sustainability and Resilience: Making the Connection
    EPA’s Alan Hecht, Ph.D. offers a new, forward thinking definition of resilience for communities, companies, and others to consider and strive for in the paper Resilience: Navigating toward a Sustainable Future. EPA is looking at research tools and approaches that address and advance community resilience and climate adaptation. Read more.
  • Green Infrastructure Research
    Check out the latest issue of our newsletter EPA Science Matters Newsletter: Green Infrastructure Research and join EPA researchers on October 29 from 2:00-3:00pm ET on twitter to talk about green infrastructure! Questions should be sent to the hashtag #EnvSciChat.

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: 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.

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Sustainability and Resilience: Making the Connection

2014 October 24

By Alan Hecht, Ph.D. Resilience

When most people consider “resilience,” they think about bouncing back from some sort of unwelcome catastrophe. Whether it’s “super storms” devastating coastal communities and disrupting millions of people along the east coast, wildfires in the mountain and western states, or natural disasters and related, human-caused emergencies such as the tsunami and Fukushima meltdown, recent events have magnified the importance of being prepared to ride out hard times.

For many, that has meant storing caches of nonperishable food, water supplies, and plenty of extra batteries. An emergency plan and meeting spot for all family members is also a great idea. But what is the best way to define resiliency for society as a whole? Can we incorporate actions into plans that not only make our communities more resilient to future catastrophes, but make us more prosperous and healthy now?

My colleagues and I at EPA have been exploring ongoing research to consider resiliency in a broader context, linking it with programs that help us and our partners identify challenges and advance a more sustainable future.

In January of 2013 EPA in cooperation with the National Science Foundation, the National Council for Science and Environment, and Dow Chemical hosted a workshop on resilience and sustainability. Papers from this workshop are now highlighted in a special issue of the Solutions Journal.

What's the best way to define resiliency?

What’s the best way to define resiliency?

In a featured paper in this issue: Resilience: Navigating toward a Sustainable Future, we share what we have learned and offer a new, forward thinking definition of resilience for communities, companies, and others to consider and strive for: “the capacity for a system to survive, adapt, and flourish in the face of turbulent change and uncertainty.”  Along with my co-authors Joseph Fiksel (who also served as the journal’s guest editor) and Iris Goodman, we explore a variety of solutions for strengthening both resilience and sustainability in urban communities and industrial enterprises.

We are not alone. The concept of resilience and its relationship to sustainability is now attracting a great deal of attention:

  • EPA is looking at research tools and approaches that address and advance community resilience and climate adaptation.
  • Policy makers, business executives, and community leaders are incorporating resilience into their planning operations.
  • Major companies are systematically strengthening the resilience of their global supply chains.
  • A network of urban planners, architects, designers, engineers, and landscape architects are developing creative and practical strategies to increase the resilience of cities.

These and many other leading organizations are taking steps today to prepare for the next “super storm” threatening their operations, while helping us find ways to achieve a sustainable future for us all. Read more about how leading government, non-government and business organizations are working toward a sustainable future in the face of climate change and global urbanization: Resilience: Navigating toward a Sustainable Future.

About the Author: A leader in sustainability research, Alan Hecht, Ph.D. is the Director for Sustainable Development 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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Turning Back Time: Repairing Water Infrastructure

2014 October 21

By Marguerite Huber

I am about to turn 25 years old—the quarter century mark! Yikes! While I may start to feel “old” when I consider that number, I am in considerably better shape than some of the pipes and sewer mains that make up the country’s water infrastructure, some components of which are more than four times my age.

Homes, apartment buildings, and businesses in nearly every neighborhood and city across the country are connected to miles and miles of pipes carrying wastewater and drinking water. That’s a lot of pipes to take care of!

Large bulldozer and crew at work on  a city street.

Aging water infrastructure: fixing old, leaking sewer pipes in downtown Washington, DC.

The estimated costs of fixing old, leaky, and cracked pipes through the traditional methods of digging them up and patching or replacing them could cost water utilities in excess of $1 trillion dollars over the next 20 years. Innovative, lower cost technologies that could provide alternatives would have enormous impact, but how do utilities know where to turn before they make investments in long-term solutions?

To answer this question, scientists and engineers from EPA’s aging water infrastructure research program reported on innovative and emerging technologies in their study, Innovative Rehabilitation Technology Demonstration and Evaluation Program (Matthews, et. al., 2014). They and their partners conducted field demonstrations to test these new technologies, such as those that aim to repair existing pipes “from the inside out,” under real-world conditions.

EPA’s work with industry partners gathered reliable performance and cost data on technologies that line the inside of the aging pipes to fill in the holes and cracks, prolonging their life. They shared what they learned with water and wastewater utility owners, technology manufacturers, consultants, and service providers.

They tested two types of liner technologies. One was a cured-in-place method that essentially is a pipe-within-a-pipe. The second was a spray-in-place method that uses a computer-controlled robot to apply a new pipe liner.

The researchers provided reliable information on the performance and cost of the emerging technologies. Stakeholders can benefit from the work: water and wastewater utility owners can reduce the risk of trying out unproven technologies by using technologies that have undergone evaluation; manufacturers and developers will realize the opportunity to advance technology development and commercialization; and consultants and service providers will have the information they need to compare the performance and cost of similar products.

Overall, these innovative technologies can be efficient and economical alternatives to full-blown replacements of water infrastructure. I hope I have similar options when I pass the century mark myself!

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

Literature Cited: Matthews, J., A. Selvakumar, R. Sterling, AND W. Condit. Innovative Rehabilitation Technology Demonstration and Evaluation Program. Tunnelling and Underground Space Technology. Elsevier BV, AMSTERDAM, Netherlands, 39:73-81, (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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