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My Air, My Health – My Experience at Health Datapalooza

2014 April 1

Dot Kelly, a member of the winning team in the My Air, My Health challenge, recently shared a blog post on “Health Datapalooza.” It is reposted below. 

My Air, My Health graphic identifierIt was about this time last year that my colleagues and I were in the thick of preparing for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Human Health Services (HHS) My Air, My Health Challenge. The Challenge called upon innovators nationwide to design a small, low-cost sensor that integrated air quality measurements with health data such as heart rate and breathing. This was to help inform the EPA and HHS’ collective work to better understand the impacts of harmful air pollution on people’s health.

In other words, the competition called for a solution that would move us all toward a future in which powerful, affordable and portable sensors provide a rich awareness of environmental quality, moment-to-moment physiological changes, and long-term health outcomes.

Read the rest of the post.


Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations 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.

Rethinking Wastewater

2014 March 28

By Marguerite Huber

glass of beer

The next time you enjoy a beer you might be helping the environment.

The next time you enjoy a cold, refreshing beer or glass of wine, you might also be helping the environment. Over 40 billion gallons of wastewater are produced every day in the United States, and wineries, breweries, and other food and beverage producers are significant contributors.  For example, the brewing industry averages five or six barrels of water to produce just one barrel of beer.

But where most see only waste, others see potential resources. What we label “wastewater” can contain a wealth of compounds and microbes, some of which can be harvested.

One innovative company that has recognized this, Cambrian Innovation, is harnessing wastewater’s potential through the world’s first bioelectrically-enhanced, wastewater-to-energy systems, EcoVolt. (We first blogged about them in 2012.)

Cambrian Innovation is working with Bear Republic Brewing Company, one of the largest craft breweries in the United States. Located in California, which is suffering from severe drought, Bear Republic first began testing Cambrian’s technology to save water and reduce energy costs. Fifty percent of the brewery’s electricity and more than twenty percent of its heat needs could be generated with EcoVolt. Compared to industry averages, Bear Republic uses only three and a half barrels of water to produce one barrel of beer.

The EcoVolt bioelectric wastewater treatment system leverages a process called “electromethanogenesis,” in which electrically-active organisms convert carbon dioxide and electricity into methane, a gas used to power generators.  The methane is renewable and can provide an energy source to the facility.

Rather than being energy intensive and expensive, like traditional wastewater treatment, Cambrian’s technology generates electricity as well as cost savings.

Furthermore, the EcoVolt technology is capable of automated, remote operation, which can further decrease operating costs.

EPA first awarded Cambrian Innovation a Phase I (“proof of concept”) Small Business Innovation Research contract in 2010. Based on that work, the company then earned a Phase II contract in 2012 to develop wastewater-to-energy technology. Cambrian Innovation has also developed innovative solutions with funding from other partners, including the National Science Foundation, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Department of Defense, and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

With access to water sources becoming more of a challenge in many areas of the country, Cambrian’s technology can help change how we look at wastewater. It doesn’t have to be waste! Wastewater can instead be an asset, but only as long as we keep pushing its potential. That can make enjoying a cold glass of your favorite beverage even easier to enjoy!

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

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations 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.

EPA’s Report on the Environment: Tracking National Trends Over Time

2014 March 27

Reposted from EPA Connect, the Official Blog of EPA Leadership

By Lek Kadeli

With the cold winter still stubbornly hanging on, it’s a bit hard to believe that next week marks the beginning of the 2014 baseball season. As a life-long fan of the game, I always find it easy to slip back into the routine of reading the daily box scores each evening, keeping an eye on batting averages and other pertinent statistics, and assessing the progress of my favorite team—the New York Yankees! I am usually ready to start thinking about October travel plans to the watch playoff home games in the Bronx sometime around the All Star break.

The ability to monitor the state of my team is one of the truly gratifying aspects of baseball. Having a similar ability to assess and monitor trends when it comes to the environment is even a more gratifying aspect of meeting our mission here at EPA: to protect human health and the environment.

Today, our scientists and engineers have reached a major milestone in that area with the release of the draft Report on the Environment 2014 (ROE 2014).

Read the rest of the rest of the blog post. 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations 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.

Diving into the Sandstorm

2014 March 24

A blog post by Sean Sheldrake, an EPA scientific diver and frequent contributor to It All Starts with Science, was recently featured on the Smithsonian Institution’s Ocean Portal blog. We are reposting it again here for you to enjoy. 

By Sean Sheldrake

Ship with a large pipe off the side with a stream of sand coming out.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers removing a sandbar off Virginia Beach, VA.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers image

Diving can be a wild ride that evokes more than a little trepidation, especially in the Pacific Ocean’s famously big, cold waves. Waves that are otherwise fun for my weekend surfing can turn a scientific dive into a serious challenge. But then, diving to support the mission of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can be full of surprises. At a seafloor survey site at the mouth of the Chetco River off the Oregon coast, waves transmit so much energy that divers can feel the swells nearly 80 feet down on the seafloor. As divers swim along the bottom, these swells often push them several feet forward, then “suck” them backward several feet.

Such natural water movements not only make diving difficult, but can also drastically alter the underwater terrain. Humans further these changes by digging up sand and sediment from the bottom of a river or ocean and depositing it elsewhere, a process known as dredging. Ports might dredge an area to clean up the seafloor, or make an area deep enough for large ships to navigate. Without it, sandbars would grow to such enormous heights that river entry would be worrisome to even the most experienced captains. Such large sandbars can wreck ships; one was nicknamed the “Graveyard of the Pacific” (PDF) in the early days of Columbia River navigation. And, on one beach I often surf, the wreck of the Peter Iredale remains as an eerie reminder to respect “the bar.”

EPA divers from Atlanta place this instrument in Charleston Harbor in order to monitor currents and better predict sand movement.

EPA divers placed this instrument to monitor currents and better predict sand movement. EPA image

But if you’re going to dig up a bunch of sand, you have to put it somewhere. EPA divers around the country evaluate dredge material disposal sites regularly, where ports deposit literally tons of sand into the ocean. How much? In 2013, more than eight million cubic yards of sediment will be removed from Oregon’s Columbia River alone. This, and many other dredging operations upriver, help move 42 million tons of cargo from Oregon, Washington, and Idaho farms to market each year with as few bumps as possible.

Placing dredged material from a river or harbor into the ocean is not necessarily a problem, as long as it’s a load that is small enough to not overwhelm the creatures that live there, like crabs or sea stars.  For example, if the load just adds several inches of sand to the area, crabs and sea stars can ‘hop’ up above that material. But if several feet were placed all at once, it’s likely that these critters would be buried. Sometimes, new sand can be beneficial to certain ecosystems, such as sandy beaches that have eroded. However, when sand is placed on rocky reefs or other sensitive environments, it can change the habitat. A rocky reef that gets buried in sand can no longer support its vital organisms, such as anemones and urchins.

That’s where the divers come in. EPA’s scientific divers visit and observe dredge deposit sites to make sure there is no damage to marine life on the seafloor—critters like worms, clams, crabs, and other tiny organisms that live in the bottom sediments—as ordered by the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act. To do this, we visit locations before and after dredged sand has been dumped to see if habitat has changed slightly, been dramatically transformed, or remained relatively unchanged since our last visit. For some areas, we might also use remote sensing techniques like sonar to quickly direct divers toward areas that need to be monitored more closely, like those sensitive rocky reefs. If we find the impacts to an area are too severe, the dredge disposal may be moved or future deposits will be stopped altogether in that location.

Because ports continually accumulate sediment—from human dredging, natural erosion and runoff—the cycle of dredging, dumping and observation happens on a regular basis, even twice a year for some sites. All to make sure that ecosystems stay healthy, ports can continue working, and that beachgoers and surfers like me can continue to enjoy them.

Read more about the latest EPA scientific diving.

About the AuthorSean Sheldrake is part of the Seattle EPA Dive unit, and a project manager working on the Portland Harbor cleanup in Oregon.  He serves on the EPA diving safety board, responsible for setting EPA diving policy requirements.   

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations 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.

Nutrient Management: Always on My Mind

2014 March 14

By James R. Mihelcic, PhD, BCEEM

EPA-grantee and guest blogger James R. Mihelcic

EPA-grantee and guest blogger James R. Mihelcic

I am inspired to solve the complex problem of nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) management every day.  I think about solving this problem when I tend my winter garden of lettuce and peppers, around my neighborhood as I watch stormwater race from lawns to the Hillsborough River, in the classroom, and when I spend time outdoors enjoying our nation’s waters.

And I am in good company with my thoughts. You see, the National Academy of Engineering has identified managing the nitrogen cycle as one of their Grand Challenges.

I even started my New Year by canoeing in the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge and got to thinking about nutrients.  This was because some of the springs that feed the refuge have developed the tell-tale signs of nutrient pollution (green, slimy-looking plant growth) from on-site wastewater generation and lawn runoff from surrounding homes.  On that day we were also welcomed into the winter home of a group of manatees.  Manatees depend on sea grass for survival, and excessive nutrients cloud coastal waters, preventing sea grass growth. 

With support from an EPA Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grant, we established our Center for Reinventing Aging Infrastructure for Nutrient Management, which is transforming my daily thinking to everyday reality.  We are reimagining aging coastal urban infrastructure systems to consider nutrient recovery and management that contribute to sustainable and healthy communities.

Manatee at a U.S. Wildlife Refuge, Florida. Image courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Manatee at a U.S. Wildlife Refuge, Florida. Image courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

I have great expectations for our Center research and demonstrations.  Our goals are to develop the science behind new technology and management innovations, and to develop a deep understanding of integrated systems.  We will demonstrate and assess innovations to provide new knowledge for students, community members, practitioners, and other stakeholders.

We are even transforming how we educate new engineers. For example, our new textbook, Environmental Engineering: Fundamentals, Sustainability, Design integrates sustainability and nutrient concepts into every chapter, and has the potential to reach over 10,000 undergraduate engineers every year.

Our research will benefit the public because poor water quality lowers the economic, social, and environmental value of our nation’s waters for current and future generations. 

In Florida, our springs, rivers, estuaries, coastal waters, and the Everglades all suffer because of nutrient pollution.  We have already come up with some ways to help manage nutrient pollution while also meeting the agricultural needs to provide national and global food security. For example, we have shown that 22% of the global demand for phosphorus could be met if we just recovered this valuable resource from domestic wastewater. We’ve also shown how wastewater infrastructure that serves a rapidly urbanizing world can be integrated with recovery of valuable water and nutrients to improve food security.

You can see why nutrients are always on my mind.  I hope they are now on yours.

About the author: EPA-grantee and guest blogger James R. Mihelcic is a Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering and State of Florida 21st Century World Class Scholar at the University of South Florida (Tampa), where he directs the Center for Reinventing Aging Infrastructure for Nutrient Management

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations 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.

Organizing the Ocean

2014 March 13
coastal scene

The Coastal and Marine Ecological Classification Standard is the first such system for marine ecosystems.

By Marguerite Huber

Do you like things alphabetized? In chronological order? Color coded? If so, you probably love organization. You probably have a place and category for every aspect of your life.

Well researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NatureServe, the U.S. Geological Survey, and EPA have taken organization to the next level. For more than a decade they have been working to organize the first classification standard for describing coastal and marine ecosystems.

This classification standard, called the Coastal and Marine Ecological Classification Standard (CMECS), offers a simple framework and common terminology for describing ecosystems—from coastal estuaries all the way down to the depths of the ocean. It provides a consistent way to collect, organize, analyze, report, and share coastal marine ecological data, which is especially useful for coastal resource managers and planners, engineers, and researchers from government, academia, and industry. The Federal Geographic Data Committee has already adopted CMECS as the national standard.

Organization at its finest, CMECS is basically a structure of classification, with the helpful addition of an extensive dictionary of terms and definitions that describe ecological features for the geological, physical, biological, and chemical components of the environment.

Using CMECS, you first classify the ecosystem into two settings, which can be used together or separately. The Biogeographic Setting covers ecoregions defined by climate, geology, and evolutionary history. The second, Aquatic Setting, divides the watery territory into oceans, estuaries and lakes, deep and shallow waters, and submerged and intertidal environments.

For both of these settings, there are four components that describe different aspects of the ecosystem, which are outlined in CMECS’s Catalog of Units. The water column component describes characteristics of, you guessed it, the water column, including water temperature, salinity, and more. The geoform component includes characteristics of the coast or seafloor’s landscape. The substrate component characterizes the non-living materials that form the seafloor (like sand) or that provide a surface for biota (like a buoy that has mussels growing on it). And finally, the biotic component classifies the living organisms in the ecosystem.

A benefit of CMECS’s structure of settings and components is that users can apply CMECS to best suit their needs.  It can be used for detailed descriptions of small areas for experimental work, for mapping the characteristics of an entire regional ecosystem, and for everything in between.  People reading scientific papers, interpreting maps, or analyzing large data sets can have clear and easily available definitions to understand the work and to compare results.

Additionally, it will be much easier to share data because CMECS allows everyone to use the same units and the same terminology. It is much easier to share and compare data when you’re using the same definitions and the same units!

Overall, with the use and application of CMECS, we will be able to improve our knowledge of marine ecosystems, while satisfying organizers everywhere.

About the authorMarguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations 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.

EPA Releases Resource to Help Guide Green Infrastructure

2014 March 7

By Lahne Mattas-Curry

Rain barrel captures roof runoff in Santa Monica, CA. (Copyright Abby Hall, US EPA)

Rain barrel captures roof runoff in Santa Monica, CA. (Copyright Abby Hall, US EPA)

Imagine you are a municipal sewer system operator in an urban area. You probably would be well aware of the millions of gallons of untreated water that enter your combined sewer systems creating a big old mess in your local water bodies. But what if there was a cost effective solution available? And even better than low-cost, what if the solution made your community pretty and created a great community for people to live, work and play? You would jump on it, right?

Well, many communities with combined sewer overflows have been using green infrastructure – rain barrels, rain gardens, greenways, green roofs etc. – as an attractive way to reduce the stormwater runoff that goes into a sewer system. (We have blogged about it many times before.)  Green infrastructure helps reduce capital costs – traditional grey infrastructure made of pipes and other systems is often cost prohibitive – and has been shown to also reduce operational costs at publicly owned treatment works.

EPA scientists helped develop a resource guide to help more communities manage stormwater and wastewater with green infrastructure. The resource, released Greening CSO Plans: Planning and Modeling Green Infrastructure for Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) Control (pdf),” will help communities make cost-effective decisions to maximize water quality benefits. The resource explains how to use modeling tools such as EPA’s Stormwater Management Model to optimize different combinations of green and grey infrastructure to reduce both sewer overflow volume and total number of overflow events.  The guide also has relevant case studies to showcase how different communities are using green infrastructure.

Hopefully using this resource can help you plan green infrastructure solutions and provide a variety of tools that can help you measure and reduce stormwater runoff.

For more information about green infrastructure at EPA, please visit:

You can also learn more about green infrastructure research and science here:


About the author: Lahne Mattas-Curry works with EPA’s Safe and Sustainable Water Resources team, drinks a lot of water and  communicates water research to anyone who will listen.


Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations 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.

The Environmental Impact of Single-Family Homes

2014 March 7
home construction showing cement mixer and framing

Home construction

By Ksenija Janjic

Recently, it seems like there are new houses being built left and right in my neighborhood. Not only do these houses give our neighborhood a fresh look, they also do wonders for our economy. In 2007, new single-family home construction accounted for one-third of construction-sector’s value, and brought jobs to truck drivers, accountants, engineers, contractors, managers and business owners, just to name a few. It also spurred building material sales, approvals of building permits, and extensions of services.

But not everyone realizes that when we build, use and demolish houses, we disturb and erode soil, disrupt habitats, deplete natural resources, pollute air and water and use up land. According to the Sustainable Materials Management: The Road Ahead analysis, of the significant sectors in the U.S economy, new single-family home construction was one of the most environmentally burdensome.

There is a high demand for single-family homes, and we appreciate benefits that the construction industry brings. At the same time though, we want to preserve a thriving environment and maintain plentiful resources for our children. So what can we do to ease the environmental burden of single-family homes?

In the Analysis of the Life Cycle Impacts and Potential for Avoided Impacts Associated with Single-Family Homes, EPA first fully uncovered this burden and then suggested changes to counteract it. This “life-cycle” analysis of a national scale considers goods used during “pre-occupancy”, “occupancy” and “post-occupancy” stages of single-family homes and highlights the most significant ones. EPA shows that if we grow the recovery and reuse of just a handful of building materials from single-family homes, we could notably counteract their full environmental burden.

So…as homeowners, when we repair or renovate our houses, we can ask the contractor to recover and reuse the construction and demolition scrap. As homebuyers or entrepreneurs, we can demand that our homes and properties include salvaged and recycled materials. Little by little, we can make a difference and be proud of the wonderful place we call home.

Learn more about the environmental impacts of single-family homes and how to avoid them.

About the Author: Ksenija Janjic is an Environmental Protection Specialist in EPA’s Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery.  She joined EPA three years ago and has Master’s degrees in Architectural Engineering and Community Planning

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations 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.

Improving Water by Removing Arsenic

2014 March 6

By Marguerite Huber

Arsenic removal system, Twentynine Palms, CA.

Arsenic removal system, Twentynine Palms, CA.

If you lead an active and busy life like me, you probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what is in the water you drink. You just fill up your water bottle and are out the door.

But behind the scene a lot goes into making our water safe to drink. To protect public health, EPA regulates arsenic in drinking water. Arsenic is a semi-metal element that can enter drinking water supplies through natural deposits or from agricultural and industrial practices. Health effects due to prolonged excess exposure can include skin damage, circulatory system problems, and increased risk of cancer.

EPA initiated the Arsenic Removal Technology Demonstration Program to evaluate the performance, reliability, and cost of arsenic removal and the effect on water distribution systems. One type of arsenic removal system consists of a tank of adsorptive media that is similar to a home water softener.

As the water passes through the tank of media, the dissolved arsenic adsorbs on to surface of the media. Adsorption is not to be confused with absorption, which is the process in which a fluid is dissolved by a liquid or solid, such as water being absorbed by a sponge.

Adsorption on the other hand is the process in which atoms, ions or molecules, stick to a surface. Once the media reaches its arsenic removal capacity, the media must be replaced. Many water systems, such as the Twentynine Palms Water District in California, have experienced high operating costs due to frequent replacement of the adsorptive media.

EPA researchers partnered with Battelle to conduct lab and pilot studies to investigate the possibility of these media being reused to reduce costs. The study found that as much as 94% of the arsenic from exhausted media could be removed and the media could be regenerated.

Following the successful results of the laboratory regeneration study, EPA and Battelle demonstrated the efficiency of media regeneration in Twentynine Palms, CA. The testing led to substantial reductions in the operational cost, proving to be successful and that regeneration can work.

The goal of this research was to reduce operating costs, and since starting the regeneration program in 2010, Twentynine Palms Water district has been saving about $20,000 a year.

All in all, there is a lot of science and technology that bring you the clean water in your water bottle.  I’m now going to stop and appreciate that each time I fill up my water bottle.

About the authorMarguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations 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.

Green Roofs Keep Urban Climates Cooler

2014 March 4

By Thomas Landreth

Image of a green roof

Green roof

From conversations I’ve had with friends in construction: roofing is tough work. Steep angles make for dangerous conditions, metal roofing is remarkably sharp, and whatever material you work with, it’s guaranteed to be heavy.

During the summer, heat adds an almost unbearable element. This can be especially bad in metropolitan areas, where ambient temperatures combine with heat coming off numerous nearby roofs, pavement, and other elements to create an “urban heat island.”

EPA researchers and partners recently published findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing how three types of roofing can help: “cool” (coated in a reflective material to eliminate heat buildup), green (vegetated), and hybrid (vegetated with reflective plants).  Hybrid roofs, which are a new concept and not yet available, would be constructed with light-colored plants that have higher reflectivity similar to cool roofs and also the advantages of green roofs, like water retention.

The authors found that any of these roofing options can have benefits by cooling urban heat islands. Thus, this helps to reduce the impacts of global climate change by cooling metropolitan regions.

Lead author Matei Georgescu, a sustainability scientist at Arizona State University, explains, “What we found for cool, green, and hybrid roofs is that they don’t just offset urban expansion—they can offset additional warming.”

Georgescu partnered with EPA scientists Philip E. Morefield, Britta G. Bierwagen, and Christopher P. Weaver, his co-authors on the study.

Through EPA’s Integrated Climate and Land Use Scenarios (ICLUS) project, researchers  had access to a wealth of modeled data focused on impacts from projected urban growth. Using these data, they explored the three methods of roofing designed to absorb less heat to compare and contrast benefits and trade-offs. What they discovered is that while all three  have positive environmental implications, green roofs have less heat-mitigating power than cool roofs (hybrid roofs cool at least as well as cool roofs alone), but cool roofs may mean that additional heating is needed during the winter in some areas.

Though roofing is a single component among major factors such as urban sprawl and carbon pollution, this study shows it can have an impact on reducing heat in large urban areas.

New roofing alternatives may offer an added component to innovative urban designs, new building styles and grid layouts created to offset urban heat islands. “Green cities” may not be a reality yet, but facets to such future cities are currently being considered and implemented. Interest in cooling down urban heat islands is growing and recently caught the attention of over 40 news outlets, including Popular Mechanics, Scientific American, Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, the LA Times, and several international newspapers.    

Although roof installation may not get any easier, green and cool roofs may soon make American’s urban hotspots cooler.

About the author: Until last week, Thomas Landreth was a student services contractor working with EPA’s Office of Research and Development. He recently accepted a new position with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations 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.