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EPA Science: Insight. Innovation. Impact.

2014 May 26

By Lek Kadeli

“Science has been the backbone of the most significant advances EPA has made in the past four decades and continues to be the engine that drives American prosperity and innovation in the future.”  — Gina McCarthy, EPA Administrator

Late last month, Administrator Gina McCarthy gave a speech to the National Academy of Sciences about the central role that science plays in the work that we do here at EPA. In her speech, she noted how EPA research results have helped protect generations of American’s who now enjoy not only a cleaner, healthier environment, but a more prosperous future. “When we follow the science, we all win,” the Administrator said.

As the acting assistant administrator for the Agency’s Office of Research and Development, I have the privilege of watching that winning science unfold on a daily basis. I have a front row seat to the deliberative, time-honored scientific processes that yields results that have been carefully scrutinized, peer-reviewed, and more importantly, advances our understanding of some of the most critical challenges facing our nation.

Because our mandate is clear—to protect human health and the environment—our researchers must deliver results that support actions and policies that have true impact. Highlights of some of those achievements from last year are featured in our recently-released report, Insight. Innovation. Impact. 2013 Accomplishments, EPA Office of Research and Development.

The accomplishments presented in the report illustrate how insight, innovation, and impact are at the heart of our research.

annual-report-2013-lgTogether with agency program offices and regions as well as partnerships cultivated with stakeholders and throughout the scientific community, EPA research teams provide critical insight into current and emerging human health and environmental challenges. To that knowledge, they apply a collective spirit of innovation to provide timely, cost-effective tools, models, and other solutions. Finally, their research results are incorporated in ways that have true positive impact: improving human health, taking action on climate change, lowering exposure and risks to harmful pollutants, increasing national security, and advancing more resilient, sustainable and prosperous communities.

No other research organization in the world offers the overall diversity of expertise found in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. For more than four decades, this community of scientists and engineers has helped the Agency protect our environment, even as the economy has grown and the country has become stronger and more secure. I invite you to use our latest report for a transparent look at some of the latest achievements that continued commitment has yielded. Thanks to their efforts, we all win.  

Download the report. 

About the Author: Lek Kadeli is the Acting Assistant Administrator in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research and Development. He has more than 29 years of management experience in both government and the private sector, with broad experience in leading organizational change and improvement, policy development, resource management, information management and technology.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Listening In On the Future

2014 May 23

By Andy Miller

EPA's Andy Miller with Patrick H. Hurd Award winner Miriam Demasi

EPA’s Andy Miller presents Miriam Demasi with the Patrick H. Hurd Sustainability Award.

The other day I overheard an amazing conversation between two teenage girls.  “That is so cool!  I have to tell my friend—she’ll freak out!” one of them gushed.  It sounds typical, but what amazed me was what they were talking about—using coal fly ash as a replacement for Portland cement.

Really. This was the kind of discussion one heard among thousands of teenagers at this year’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles, where I was lucky enough to be a judge for an EPA-sponsored award.

The conversation I overheard ended when one of the girls had to go back to her project to talk with other judges, but she rushed off saying, “We’ll be back when we’re done.  We really need to talk more.”  About fly ash, Portland cement, shear strength, Young’s modulus (a measure of material stiffness and elasticity), and admixing accelerants. These were the girls’ words, not mine.

One of the girls in this conversation was a high school freshman from West Virginia, Miriam Demasi.  She is this year’s winner of EPA’s Patrick H. Hurd Sustainability Award, which is given at the ISEF each year.

Miriam’s project was to create, from wastes, a building material that would be more resilient to earthquake damage than adobe.  She used fly ash and newspaper to create bricks that were lighter than adobe, and she showed, among other analyses, how the strength changed with the amount of newspaper.  Every question we posed to her was answered thoroughly and confidently.  It was clear she knew her stuff.

Miriam’s interests are not just in engineering.  A few years ago, she did a study to see if peoples’ ability to read mirror writing – writing as you would see it backwards, as in a mirror—depended upon whether they were predominantly left-brained or right-brained.  And she’s a soccer player.

Of course, Miriam was not the only one who really knew her science.  The bits of conversation I heard when walking along the posters rivaled those at a professional technical conference.  Here’s just a small sampling:

  • “The extraction method did well.”
  • “It doesn’t require much of an operations staff.”
  • “These use scaffolds of synthetic polymers.”
  • “We connect it in a linear fashion.”

It’s hard to remember these were teenagers, still—or even barely—in high school.  Selecting just one out of the more than 250 environmentally-related projects was not easy.  But it was one of those efforts that gives one tremendous hope for the future.

ISEF Award FestivitiesMiriam’s prize includes a trip to Washington, DC next spring to attend EPA’s National Sustainable Design Expo where she’ll display her winning project along with entries to the P3 (People, Prosperity, Planet) Student Design Competition for Sustainability, giving her the  chance to interact with college students with similar interests in sustainability.

I was fortunate enough to be able to congratulate Miriam personally at the awards ceremony.  I hope you all have the opportunity to meet one of the exceptional ISEF finalists and congratulate them on their achievements.  For those of us in EPA, if you happen to run into Miriam when she’s in Washington, congratulate her and, most definitely, be nice to her.  We’ll probably be working for her before too long.

About the Author: When not serving as an eavesdropping science fair judge, Andy Miller is the Associate Director for Climate in EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy research program. Scientists in that program conduct research to assess the impacts of a changing climate, and to develop the scientific information and tools the nations needs to act on climate change.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Insects as Indicators

2014 May 22

By Marguerite Huber

Twelve spotted skimmer dragonfly perched on a reed.

Twelve-spotted skimmer. Image courtesy of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Scientists have developed ways to use certain species as kinds of “living barometers” for monitoring the quality of the environment. By studying the abundance, presence, and overall health of such indicator species, they gain insight into the general condition of the environment. Now, EPA researchers are developing ways to use insects in this way to explore the effects of environmental contamination and how it might spread across a watershed.

The Superfund program, established by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, identifies sites that contain hazardous substances, such as pollutants and contaminants, that may pose a threat to human health or the environment.

Superfund sites include former landfills, industrial and military complexes, and abandoned mines.

In their study, EPA researchers sought to determine if insect communities could be used to measure the benefits of Superfund site clean-up and to monitor the effectiveness of site remediation and restoration. To be accurate, they also had to account for the differences between impacts from Superfund contaminants, and those related to urbanization.

The researchers compared a number of indicators related to urbanization, such as land development, housing unit density, and road density.

In the end, the researchers found that once they had accounted for the effects of urban development, they were able to use insects as indicators for detecting the effects of Superfund sites in the watershed. Using what they learned from that work, they also developed models that can discriminate the effects of Superfund activities from those of development upstream, and help identify those streams where impacts exceed what would be expected based solely on the amount of development across a watershed. Researchers and others can also use the models to assess the effectiveness of remediation efforts at contaminated sites.

Overall, developing methods to tap insects as indicators is helping EPA researchers understand how Superfund sites affect entire watersheds. It’s a big step toward cleaning them up and helping EPA fulfill its mission of protecting human health and the environment.

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

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Advancing Chemical Testing by the Thousands

2014 May 22

Reposted from EPA Connect, the official blog of EPA leadership.

By Bob Kavlock

Bob Kavlock PortraitStudying thousands of chemicals at a time with the use of high-tech computer screening models and automated, often robot-assisted processes sounds like science fiction. But it’s not. EPA scientists are doing just that, leading the advancement of “high-throughput screening,” fast, efficient processes used to expose hundreds of living cells or isolated proteins to chemicals and then screen them for changes in biological activity—clues to potential adverse health effects related to chemical exposure.

This scientific advance is positioned to transform how we understand the safety of chemicals going forward. Twenty years ago, using high-throughput screening to test chemicals for potential human health risks seemed like technology that belonged in a science fiction television series rather than in real life.

Back then there were several large data gaps that would not allow us to extrapolate from the isolated biological changes we observe on a cellular level to adverse human health effects. However, through our computational toxicology (CompTox) research, which integrates, biology,

Robotic arm moving samples for screening

Robotic arm moves samples for automated chemical screening.

biotechnology, chemistry, and computer science, that is changing. We are helping to transform the paradigm of chemical testing from one that relies almost solely on expensive and time-consuming animal testing methods to one that uses the full power of modern molecular biology and robotics.

A significant part of this effort is the Toxicity Forecaster (ToxCast), launched in 2007. ToxCast allows us to prioritize potentially toxic chemicals for more extensive testing as well as giving us the opportunity to test newer, possibly safer alternatives to existing chemicals. By 2013, we evaluated more than 2,000 chemicals from industrial and consumer products to food additives using more than 500 high-throughput screening assays.

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Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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New Guide Provides Climate-Smart Solutions

2014 May 21

By Jordan M. West and Susan H. Julius

Cover of publication, "Climate-Smart Conservation"If you’ve ever been to Rocky Mountain National Park, you know that it is a land of majestic peaks, clear blue lakes, and green forested slopes. But these days, huge swaths of dead, reddish-brown trees mar the view. As a result of climate change, ongoing drought and rising temperatures have weakened the trees and triggered more extensive and severe infestations of bark beetles. Whole stands of trees have died as a result.

Scientists have been predicting these types of negative impacts for years and expect them to worsen in the future. At the same time climate change also combines with existing pressures from humans in ways that can cause new and unexpected ecosystem changes. Therefore managers who work to protect our natural resources have to not only address traditional environmental problems, but also anticipate and prepare for future climate-change-driven challenges that they may never have seen before.

Managers recognize that conservation and natural resource management must be viewed through the lens of climate change and are asking:

  • How do we prepare for and respond to the impacts of climate change?
  • What should we be doing differently in light of climatic shifts, and what actions continue to make sense?
  • What approaches are best for integrating climate change into our planning processes, managing for ecosystem changes, and re-evaluating management goals as new scientific information becomes available?

EPA researchers are helping to answer those questions. Agency climate change experts, together with partners from other federal agencies and non-governmental organizations, developed a guide to help natural resources managers integrate climate change into their planning.  Called Climate-Smart Conservation: Putting Adaptation Principles into Practice, the guide covers topics such as setting goals; assessing ecosystem vulnerability; identifying and prioritizing adaptation and implementation options; and monitoring the effectiveness of what’s been implemented.

For each topic, the guide demonstrates how to consider climate change information using examples such as Chinook salmon in the Northwest. In many streams where salmon spawn, climate change is expected to cause increased sedimentation (deposition of mud and sand particles), increased temperatures, and decreased flows in spawning habitats – all of which will be detrimental to the survival of eggs. The guide advises managers on how to consider “climate-smart” information on changes in stream temperatures, flows, and sedimentation rates in different locations as a basis for selecting sites for habitat restoration. This ensures that the restored sites will be good spawning habitat for salmon far into the future.

This and other examples in the guide provide a path forward for systematically incorporating climate adaptation into management planning and implementation. By using the guide, managers can craft management strategies that successfully achieve conservation goals in a changing climate.

About the Authors: Jordan M. West and Susan H. Julius are research scientists in the Global Change Impacts & Adaptation Program of EPA’s Office of Research and Development who contributed to the guide.

Reference: Stein, B.A., P. Glick, N. Edelson and A. Staudt (eds). 2014. Climate-Smart Conservation: Putting Adaptation Principles into Practice. National Wildlife Federation and US Fish & Wildlife Service, Washington, DC.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Community Resiliency Supports Community Sustainability

2014 May 15

By Gregory Sayles, Ph.D.

The three pillars of sustainability

Figure 1. The three pillars of sustainability

Whether it’s the residents of lower Manhattan recovering from flooding and power outages in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, entire municipalities evacuated from areas surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, or California’s farming communities adapting to long-term drought conditions, everyone’s talking about “resiliency”—what it takes to bounce back once a community has been impacted by a natural or human-made disaster.

Reducing environmental risks and restoring environmental services are essential components of resilience.

Last week, nearly five dozen scientists, program managers and community liaisons from across EPA gathered for a two-day workshop to parse through scientific and policy definitions of “resiliency” and examine the critical factors that support community resiliency. The group then brainstormed ways to create indicators and an index that communities might use to evaluate their vulnerabilities to disaster, their capacity to bounce back, and the resources they need to prepare for future disasters.

Our discussions taught us that resilience is built on many community functions and qualities, most of them interdependent.  Brian Pickard, of EPA’s Water Security Division highlighted how community drinking water systems are inter-connected to energy supplies and health delivery systems.  If a tornado, flood or hurricane knocks out electricity, drinking water pumping stations crash and critical care facilities such as hospitals need back-up supplies to continue operating.  Hospitals and emergency rooms must have access to emergency water supplies to manage the casualties and injuries that often result following a disaster.

Strengthening community resiliency means becoming better prepared for the next disaster.

How are resilience and sustainability inextricably related?  Sustainability strives to balance three pillars—economic, social, and environmental—in equilibrium (see figure 1).  Disaster disrupts that equilibrium, and with it the path toward sustainability. Resiliency is building in the capability to restore this balance following a disaster.

According to EPA sustainability researchers Alan Hecht and Joseph Fiksel, “sustainability is the capacity for: human health and well-being, economic vitality and prosperity, and environmental resource abundance” while, “resilience is the capacity to: overcome unexpected problems, adapt to change, and prepare for and survive catastrophes.”

Workshop participants agreed to continue developing a discrete set of indicators that can be used to measure community environmental resiliency and present them at a follow-up workshop in July. Our long-term goal is to deliver a Community Environmental Resilience Index to communities, EPA, and other federal partners. The index will help local and national stakeholders assess and improve resiliency and guide planning for disasters.

EPA’s homeland security research program is excited to be working with partners from across the Agency to help communities understand and shape their own resilience.

About the Author: Gregory Sayles, Ph.D. is the Acting Director of EPA’s Homeland Security research program.

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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A Job Worth Doing is Worth Doing Together

2014 May 15

By Janice Lee 

Arsenic element from periodic tableMost everyone recognizes the value of teamwork. We learned this from a young age in school, and most people can point to a professional experience where a project has improved because of group input. For me, a terrific example is the inorganic arsenic health assessment that EPA is currently developing through our Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS)—a program that provides information on the health effects that may result from exposure to environmental contaminants.

Arsenic is well known—it’s been used since ancient times for a variety of purposes, it had a major role in the Hollywood movie Arsenic and Old Lace, and many people are familiar with health issues that occur in areas where naturally-occurring arsenic shows up in high levels in drinking water.

Throughout 2013, our team met with a lot of people who will use our inorganic arsenic assessment once it’s developed. We learned a lot from those conversations, including several things that will ultimately improve our assessment and make it more useful to the people who make decisions to protect public health. For example, we had initially planned to focus our assessment on oral exposures—the kind you might get from drinking water or eating food contaminated with inorganic arsenic. Based on the feedback we heard from others, we realized it was important to include information about the potential health effects of inhaling inorganic arsenic, too.  We were also reminded that providing information about those populations that may be more sensitive to the effects of inorganic arsenic is important to the users of the inorganic arsenic assessment.

We also learned that many people wanted to continue to have discussions on science issues that may inform the development of the assessment.  We agreed this was important, and in response started an arsenic webinar series.

To date we have held eight webinars on various topics relevant to assessing the human health risks of exposure to inorganic arsenic. For example, we held one webinar on inorganic arsenic and its potential effects on children’s neurodevelopment. We heard that the most sensitive endpoints to look at when examining the relationship between arsenic and children’s neurodevelopment are IQ and behavior.  We held another one on environmental justice issues related to inorganic arsenic. During that one, we heard about the importance of considering social stressors when looking at susceptibility.  This includes access to nutritional food, health care and prenatal care, and housing conditions.

I have really enjoyed holding these webinars. The talks have been informative, and it has been a great forum for discussion and input. I am happy to note that we are committed to engaging partners and public stakeholders throughout the development of the inorganic arsenic assessment. The next opportunity to provide feedback will be the upcoming IRIS June Bimonthly Public Meeting.

We have released several products for public input and discussion, including an assessment development plan, literature search, risk of bias evaluations for the studies under consideration, evidence tables, and some qualitative summary information about mode of action hypotheses (the chain of events that happens in the body after exposure to cause a health effect).

In addition, we will also be discussing key science issues relevant to assessing the health hazards of inorganic arsenic. A list of these issues is available on our website. We encourage you to help us identify additional science issues that you think are important.

These public discussions will ultimately help shape the science of our assessment. We hope you can join us for the conversation—your input could prove to be another terrific example of the power of teamwork!

About the author:  Janice Lee is a health scientist in EPA’s IRIS Program. She has been with EPA for the past seven years and has a Ph.D. in Environmental Health Sciences.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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The Sweet Spot: Riding to Work

2014 May 14

 Alone with my thoughts as the pavement scrolls by under my wheels, it’s just the perfect symmetry to begin and end the work day.

Cyclists gather in downtown Washington, DC

Enjoying post-ride festivities on Bike to Work Day.

 

Reposted from “EPA Connect, the Official Blog of EPA Leadership.

By Lek Kadeli

There are times in life when everything seems to align. When you know you are in the right place at the right time, doing something that is at once productive and satisfying. I’ve found a regular activity that fits the bill: bicycle commuting.

I began making the switch to two-wheeled commuting over time. At first I was primarily looking for a way to build a bit more physical activity into my weekly routine. I began leaving the car at home from time to time in favor of riding. It turned out to be an easy transition.

At eleven-and-a-half miles, the distance between my home in Falls Church, Virginia and EPA’s headquarter offices in Washington, D.C., is an ideal length for riding: not too time-consuming, but long enough to feel like I’ve gotten some exercise. Even more encouraging is that the majority of the route is along the Martha Custis trail, a paved and well-maintained bike path.

Over the years I found myself driving less and less. So much so that I’ve now completely given it up—along with the expensive downtown parking spot. When I don’t ride I take the metro, which is the only place I catch myself longing for those warm spring evenings when I would enjoy the occasional cigar as I drove home with the top down in my convertible. But I don’t even miss those commutes when traveling under my own power. Alone with my thoughts as the pavement scrolls by under my wheels, it’s just the perfect symmetry to begin and end the work day.

Read more…

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Along the Road to Sustainability

2014 May 7

Reposted from EPA Connect, the Official Blog of EPA Leadership. 

By Bob Perciasepe

Bob Perciasepe official portraitTechnology and open access to data and tools have ended the excruciating choice that generations of unsure car travelers have sometimes faced: forge ahead just a few more miles, or stop and ask for directions? Such stress has largely faded with the advent of dashboard-mounted, satellite-enabled navigation systems and readily available smartphone applications.

Getting to your desired destination is always easier when you have the right information at your disposal. That’s why today I’m excited to announce that EPA has released a tool to help environmental decision makers and local communities navigate toward a more sustainable future: EnviroAtlas.

Read the rest of the post. 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Going Solar One Neighborhood at a Time

2014 May 7

By Jacques Kapuscinksi

Photograph of solar-panel-covered roof.

Soaking up the sun with neighborhood solar.

A couple of years ago my neighbor and I discussed how neat it would be to have solar panels installed on our homes. Our unshaded, flat, and south-facing roofs seemed ideal. Then, while doing research about the economic incentives available in Washington DC, I found out about a nonprofit that is helping neighborhoods organize residential solar group purchases. The savings realized by installing panels on many homes in the same area are passed along to the homeowners—up to 30% less on the total cost of the system.

I decided to establish a Coop in the area where I live, and together we organized forums at a community center, a local library, and at a friend’s home to discuss the process, including the economic and environmental benefits of going solar.

Our initial group of 24 collectively selected a vendor to install our solar panels. We must be on to something, because the number of interested homeowners has now grown to more than 135, and over 25 people have already signed contracts.

In addition to the savings of buying via a coop, a 30% Federal tax credit is available until the end of 2016. Additionally, our local DC utility company is required by law to get a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable energy.  People who install solar panels in Washington DC generate Solar Renewable Energy Credits, or SRECs, which the utility buys instead of building their own solar arrays. Homeowners can also sell these credits on an open market. SREC values fluctuate with the market, but right now their value can account for around another 30% of the cost of the system over time.

Another incentive that is not available right now but may be soon is a DC renewable energy rebate. Such a rebate could be as much as $1,500 to $2,000 for each solar-panel-topped home. In 3 to 4 years I will recoup all of my upfront costs, and will have lower utility bills.

Over its 25 to30 year lifetime, a system will generate tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of electricity.  I will be connected to the grid, and thanks to something called “netmetering,” my home will seamlessly switch between using the energy produced on my roof and “rolling over” any excess produced to the grid.

The photovoltaic panels that will be installed have micro-inverters, so each panel will have a monitor attached that feeds into the meter outside of the house, if one of the panels ever goes down I will know immediately.

All of these incentives make solar panels an affordable investment, and a priceless down payment for my children’s future to combat climate change.

About the Author: Jacques Kapuscinski is the Web Content Coordinator for EPA’s Office of Research and Development and is the community manager for EPA’s Science Inventory.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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