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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.

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.

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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This Week in EPA Science

2014 October 17

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

Celebrations in October usually elicit carving pumpkins, eating candy, and dressing up, but did you know that October is also Children’s Heath Month? EPA is celebrating by making this week Children’s Health Action Week.

EPA researchers work all year to protect children from environmental threats and promote environmental health wherever they live, learn, and play. This week we’ve highlighted some of those efforts.

Recipe for Fun: Just Add Water

For many kids, favorite summer activities, like sprinting through waves or leaping over sprinklers, involve lots of water. EPA researchers are continually working to keep these water-based activities fun and safe!

Read more.

Small, Curious, and Growing

Pound-for-pound, children eat, drink, and breathe more than their adult counterparts, potentially compounding exposure rates to pollutants and other unwanted things that might be lurking in our food, water, and air. EPA has always made protecting children’s environmental health a top priority.

Read More.

Children’s Health: An Investment in Our Future

In 1998, EPA helped establish the EPA/NIEHS Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Program, one of the most successful public health research programs in the world and their work has led to groundbreaking research results.

Read more.

Science Matters: Children’s Health Research

Read more about children’s environmental health research in our newsletter.

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: Student contractor and writer Kacey Fitzpatrick is 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.

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.

Recipe for Fun: Just Add Water

2014 October 16

By Marguerite Huber

Child playing running through a sprinkler

Fun: just add water

The combination of my current job—sharing results from EPA safe and sustainable water research—and this week’s focus on “Taking Action on Children’s Health” rekindled some happy, watery memories for me.

As a kid, the key ingredient to my two favorite summer activities was water. I loved going to the beach and playing in the sprinkler in our backyard on hot summer days. When we went to the beach I would splash in the waves, dig through the sand, and create elaborate sandcastles. When we couldn’t make the trip to the beach, my friends and I would spend hours running through the sprinkler in my backyard.

While it’s not quite as much fun as sprinting through waves or leaping over sprinklers, I am learning how EPA researchers are continually working to keep such water-based activities fun and safe for those lucky enough to devote their summers to such pursuits (children!).  For example:

  • A major focus of EPA clean water research is protecting the nation’s drinking water to help keep families safe, whether they are consuming it, or using it to simultaneously water the lawn and keep their children cool and entertained.
  • The “Virtual Beach” software suite developed by Agency researchers and modelers uses data on beach location, local hydrology, land use, wave height, and weather to create models that can predict bacteria and other waterborne pathogen outbreaks at saltwater and freshwater beaches before they happen.
  • Research focused on understanding nutrient pollution includes developing innovative ways to use remote sensing and satellites to monitor for harmful algal blooms that could threatened both drinking water sources and the safety of the water at your favorite beach.
  • EPA scientists are even studying links between exposures to harmful bacteria and beach sand, working to provide beach managers with an early warning to pass along to parents if needed.

Children's Health MonthOur mission at the EPA is to protect public health and the environment. Supporting that mission, our research helps protect vulnerable populations and life stages, especially children. A healthy environment for children is one in which environmental conditions ensure that they have the opportunity to reach and maintain their full potential. Since children are different from adults in how they interact with their environment, their health may be affected by these interactions differently as well. I’m glad to know that EPA’s work is keeping happy memories alive.

For more information please visit our Health and Water Research page.

About the Author: Marguerite Huber is a student contractor with the science communications team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. She frequently blogs about water research for “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.

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.

Small, Curious, and Growing

2014 October 15

By Aaron Ferster

Children's Health MonthBam! I remember jumping out of my chair at the sudden, reverberating sound of something smacking the empty metal file cabinet I had left in the middle of the living room, meaning to move it into a safe, tidy corner before becoming distracted. I listened for signs of trouble as I sprinted downstairs to find my daughter preparing to strike again. She wound up and head butted the side of the cabinet, then gazed up smiling from ear to ear as she shared the thrill of making something go “thud” with her head.

That was more than ten years ago now, but I’m sure any parent can share exact moments of when their wandering toddlers showed them just how different they are at experiencing the world. Every new encounter is an opportunity to explore the world through taste, touch, and smell. And while the vast majority of those behaviors—from crawling on the ground to tasting new found items—are both normal and healthy stages of development, some can lead to trouble.

From a public health standpoint, particular childhood behaviors may increase their risk of encountering environmental contaminants and hazardous chemicals. Pound-for-pound, children also eat, drink, and breathe more than their adult counterparts, potentially compounding exposure rates to pollutants and other unwanted things that might be lurking in our food, water, and air. Additionally, because their bodies and internal systems are still developing and growing, the earliest stages of life can be the most vulnerable to long-term health impacts.

For all those reasons, EPA has always made protecting children’s environmental health a top priority. As Dr. James H. Johnson, Jr. pointed out in his blog kicking off this week’s focus on “Taking Action on Children’s Environmental Health,” Agency scientists and their partners have been working for years to better understand—and reduce—environmental risks to infants and children in all stages of development.

Science Matters Childrens Health IssueI invite you to learn more about that research and how it is improving the lives of children “wherever they live, learn, and play” in the special issue of our EPA Science Matters newsletter.

News, audio clips, and other examples highlighting the highly successful EPA partnership with the National Institute of Environmental Health Science, the EPA/NIEHS Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Program, are also available at http://go.usa.gov/f2eJ. That site includes feature stories of how research results are being put into action, publications compiling the first decade of findings, and information about past and upcoming program webinars.

I’m happy to report that my daughter was quickly persuaded to substitute a big wooden spoon for her head before proceeding to treat me to an afternoon of sporadic cacophony. That was an easy, and obvious action I could take to protect children’s health in my own home. Check out the sources mentioned above for some far more important and far-reaching examples. I promise to try and keep the noise down.

 About the Author: EPA science writer Aaron Ferster is the father of two teenage daughters.

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.