Monthly Archives: July 2010

Hollywood Doesn’t Always Portray Things From The Right ASPECT

About the author: Jeffery Robichaud is a second generation scientist with EPA who started in 1998. He serves as Chief of the Environmental Assessment and Monitoring Branch in Kansas City.

Movies require you to suspend your disbelief, but when you watch a film that hits close to home it can be tough. I have a friend in federal law enforcement who squirms when cardboard cutout agents run across the screen. Action flicks don’t do his profession justice, but at least his job is sometimes glorified on celluloid. The only two movies I can remember featuring a prominent EPA employee are Ghostbusters and the Simpsons Movie, neither of which ever made a kid say, “Man, when I grow up I want to work for the EPA.” On the off-chance your youngster was inspired to seek out public service please let them know we don’t inspect unlicensed nuclear storage facilities, nor do we have a fleet of helicopters. We do however, have one cool plane.

EPA’s Airborne Spectral Photometric Collection Technology, known as ASPECT, is an aircraft equipped with sensors that allow for surveillance of gaseous chemical releases from a safe distance. ASPECT gives emergency responders information regarding the shape, composition and concentration of gas plumes from disasters such as a derailed train, factory explosion or terrorist attack.

This was the scene in Kansas City outside our office windows in 2007 when a chemical facility went up in flames. ASPECT deployed and was instrumental in verifying that while ominous, the fire did not present a significant health threat to the community (the white signature you see below is the fire).

Since its inception ASPECT has flown over several fires, provided support during the Olympics and Columbia shuttle recovery, and supplied some of the first aerial images of the devastation along the coast during Katrina.

Most of the technology you see in movies is sheer fantasy, but EPA’s high-tech plane and the scientists who operate it are worthy of a spot in the next summer blockbuster. Here’s hoping for the appearance of an EPA scientist who isn’t a bad guy (although with my face the best I could hope for is Thug #4 in the next straight to DVD clunker).

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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South Platte River Restoration

SouthPlatteWhile visiting Denver over Memorial Day weekend, I walked from my downtown hotel to the lower downtown area and the South Platte River. I did not expect to see a revitalized waterfront with very busy bicycle paths lining the river along with new apartments and condos. The rapids at Confluence Park, where Cherry Creek joins the South Platte, was filled with young adults tubing its length as though they were in a water park. In fact, this was an urban water park where children and their parents build sand castles on the banks of the rivers and splash to their hearts’ content. Onlookers enjoyed the site of so much activity both along and in the two rivers, as dog walkers and even a bird watcher strolled along the river bank.

It was a very heartwarming and impressive site for an urban waterway, especially considering how heavily degraded the area once had been. The Greenway Foundation documents the history of restoration of both the rivers and the neighborhood. This effort could serve as a model for other Urban Waterways. Their work has obviously paid off. It would be nice to hear from those that enjoy this resource and other similar areas.

About the Author: Wayne Davis is an environmental scientist in the Office of Environmental Information and has been promoting the use of aquatic biological indicators for community outreach for most of his 23 year EPA tenure. He also manages a Web site on biological indicators – http://www.epa.gov/bioindicators.

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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July is Lakes Appreciation Month- Join in the Celebration!

One of my favorite vacations as a kid was visiting Lake Wallenpaupack, PA. Our family had a house near the lake and we would spend afternoons canoeing on the water, playing on the beach, and strolling around the lake. July is one of the best months to visit lakes. It’s also Lakes Appreciation Month, a time to celebrate our nation’s lakes and dedicate ourselves to protecting them.

Every July, the North American Lake Management Society, Kent State University, and EPA sponsor the annual Secchi Dip-In. Secchi disks have alternating black and white quadrants and are used to measure water transparency. The disks are lowered into the water until the black and white sections can no longer be seen. During the Secchi Dip-In trained volunteers gather data about the health of their lakes and contribute it to a national database. The information gathered from the Dip-In is important for scientists and communities to understand trends in the health of our nation’s lakes.

The National Lakes Assessment, completed in April 2010, is the first-ever study of the condition of the nation’s lakes conducted by EPA and state and tribal partners. In this report, you can read about the biological condition of lakes, the quality of lake shoreline habitat, and much more. EPA also hosted a free Watershed Academy Webcast on July 15th called “Healthy Lakeshores Through Better Shoreline Protection.” This Webcast featured a landscape ecologist and two state lakes specialists who discussed voluntary and regulatory approaches to lake shoreline protection. An archived version will be posted soon at www.epa.gov./watershedwebcasts.

As I have grown older and learned about the threats to our nation’s lakes, I value even more my memories of Lake Wallenpaupack. I realize now that all our individual actions—even ones seemingly small and insignificant—can add up to big problems. I am grateful for the opportunity to be working with EPA on a campaign to educate people about EPA’s National Lakes Assessment and ways to help protect and improve lake water quality.

We all have an important role in keeping our lakes healthy and clean so we can continue to enjoy them. Examples of things we can do include: planting riparian buffers along the shoreline, limiting use of fertilizers, and installing rain gardens to collect runoff. You can learn more by visiting EPA’s Clean Lakes page, downloading our new lakes widget, and following @EPAowow on Twitter.

About the author: Allison Gold is an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) Fellow in the Policy, Communications, and Resource Management Staff in the Office of Wetlands, Oceans, and Watershed.

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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Métodos de limpieza más favorables al medio ambiente (Parte 2)…Ambos lados de la moneda

Después de publicar el blog sobre “Métodos de limpieza más favorables al medio ambiente” la semana pasada, recibí varios comentarios de una amplia gama de personas interesadas, incluyendo aquellos que insisten en el uso de productos totalmente naturales hasta nuestros socios en el Consorcio de Diseño para el Medio Ambiente (DfE, por sus siglas en inglés) quienes advirtieron que algunos de los consejos verdes que identificados podrían no ser tan beneficiosos como asumimos originalmente. Me he comunicado con amigos en el programa de EPA de Diseño para el Medio Ambiente y quisiera compartir la información con ustedes referente a la etiqueta DfE.

Dfeb&g1A todos nos gustaría cumplir con las prácticas más favorables al medio ambiente. Sin embargo, la definición de “verde” realmente depende bajo el cristal con que se mira. No trataré de dar una cátedra de química, pero hay algunas razones químicas básicas que podrían explicar el por qué algunas recetas de limpieza caseras no podrían ser tan efectivas como un producto comercial. Por ejemplo, el bicarbonato de sosa quizás no funcionaría tan bien como un producto formulado con surfactantes y otros ingredientes claves. Me explico. El bicarbonato de sosa trabaja simplemente por elevar el nivel de pH del agua lo cual aumenta su alcalinidad. Los surfactantes, por su parte, en efecto, reducen la tensión superficial de las moléculas de agua lo cual facilitan que el agua se lleve el sucio y la grasa. Esta interacción química es una de las razones principales por las cuales rara vez encontramos productos de limpieza de un solo ingrediente.

Asimismo, algunos agentes de limpieza caseros podrían ser ineficaces o hasta tóxicos si no los usamos correctamente. Por ejemplo, si combinamos el blanqueador con amoniaco, se puede formar un gas peligroso. Mientras el bórax es considerado como un detergente verde, algunos estudios apuntan a efectos tóxicos en los sistemas reproductivos, neurológicos y al desarrollo. La lejía (utilizada para hacer jabones caseros) es extremadamente alcalina y peligrosa en cantidades concentradas. Se le considera corrosivo porque puede ocasionar quemaduras en la piel y daño permanente a los ojos.

Al preparar nuestras mezclas caseras, podríamos neutralizar, sin querer, la eficacidad de ingredientes naturales como el vinagre y el jugo de limón mientras limpiamos. Como no somos peritos en química, podríamos cometer el error de no utilizar estas sustancias caseras supuestamente benignas cuidadosamente y producir más daño que bien. El mejor consejo para el manejo de cualquier producto de limpieza, desinfectante o pesticida es—más no es mejor. Hay que seguir las instrucciones cuidadosamente.

Por lo tanto, si usted prefiere una opción comercial más segura para la gente y el planeta, busque aquellos con el logotipo de DfE en la etiqueta. El riguroso proceso de pruebas y certificación le ofrece la tranquilidad y certeza de proteger al medio ambiente.

Sobre la autor: Lina M. F. Younes ha trabajado en la EPA desde el 2002 y está a cargo del Grupo de Trabajo sobre Comunicaciones Multilingües. Como periodista, dirigió la oficina en Washington de dos periódicos puertorriqueños y ha laborado en varias agencias gubernamentales.

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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Green Cleaning, Part 2…Two Sides of the Coin

After last week’s blogpost on “Green Cleaning,” I received comments from a broad spectrum of stakeholders, including those who insist on totally natural products to some of our partners in the Design for the Environment Partnership, cautioning that some of the green tips I had listed might not be as healthy for consumers and the environment as originally assumed. I have consulted with friends in the Design for the Environment (DfE) program in EPA to guide me through this process. I would like to share some of their thoughts with you regarding the DfE label.

Dfeb&g1I confess that we all would like to abide by the greenest practices possible. However, the definition of green is truly in the eye of the beholder. While I will not attempt to give a course on Chemistry 101, there are some basic chemical reasons why some homemade recipes may work, but may not perform as well as a commercial product. It seems likely, for example, that baking soda alone may not perform as well as a formulated product containing surfactants and other key ingredients. Baking soda works simply by raising the pH of the water, i.e., increasing alkalinity. Surfactants actually lower the surface tension of water molecules enabling water to easily carry dirt and grease away. This chemical interaction is one of the main reasons why we rarely have one-ingredient cleaning products.

Furthermore, some of these homemade cleaning agents like baking soda, borax, ammonia, and bleach may be ineffective or toxic if used incorrectly. In fact, since some are very reactive, they should be used with caution. For example, if bleach is mixed with ammonia, harmful chloramine gas can form. While borax is often suggested as a green detergent, there have been studies that link borax to reproductive, development and neurological toxicities. Lye (used to make soap at home) is extremely alkaline and dangerous in concentrated form. It is “corrosive” meaning that it can cause burns on the skin and permanent eye damage.

In making our homemade concoctions, we might actually neutralize the effectiveness of the natural ingredients such as vinegar, lemon juice, and lime juice while we’re cleaning. Since we are not naturally born chemists, our mishandling of these supposedly benign household substances may produce more harm than good.  One word of advice in using any type of cleaning product, disinfectant or pesticide—more is not always better. Follow instructions carefully.

So, if you prefer a commercial option that’s safer for people and the planet, look for the DfE logo on the label. The rigorous testing and certification process can give you peace of mind.

About the author:  Lina Younes has been working for EPA since 2002 and chairs EPA’s Multilingual Communications Task Force.  Prior to joining EPA, she was the Washington bureau chief for two Puerto Rican newspapers and she has worked for several government agencies.

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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Science Wednesday: Putting Science into Action for Cleaner Communities

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

After reading statements like “further research is needed” or “researching is ongoing” in articles about science and the environment, I am often frustrated. If only it were possible to have all the answers at our fingertips. Strong science to inform environmental decisions is crucial, and in the world we live in, it seems like these decisions can’t be made quickly enough. We are all anxious to hear what science has to tell us and what new solutions it may offer.

The EPA Office of Research and Development’s recently-released Land Research Progress Report struck me as a heartening example that not only are scientists working hard to obtain results but that these results are substantial and have already been used for practical outcomes.

Taking a look at the report helped me understand exactly what work is being done and how extensive, multifaceted, and successful the Land Research Program has been. The program is one of twelve interdisciplinary research programs at EPA, and it focuses on cleaning up and revitalizing land contaminated by hazardous waste. Main areas of research include landfills, contaminated sediments, groundwater contamination, and underground storage tanks among others

The report tracks research results and impacts from 2005-2009. For each area of research, it offers a detailed account of exactly where and why changes have been implemented, and what further efforts are underway. Figures given in the report such as, “Over the last five years, ORD scientists have partnered with over 40 landfill managers to transfer technology on alternative landfill covers. This resulted in installation cost savings totaling 200 million dollars,” drive home the idea that science is being turned into action. It also highlights some important innovations, such as the groundwater research program developing a patented technology and applying it to a clean-up site.

While there is, no doubt, a long way to go in cleaning up our communities and managing hazardous waste issues, it is refreshing to see clear evidence that the research being done is having an impact. The long timelines required by scientific research projects can often be frustrating, but reports like this one make the results visible and serve as welcome reminders that progress is being made.

About the Author: Cathryn Courtin is a student at Georgetown University in the Science, Technology, and International Affairs program. She is spending her summer working as a student contractor at EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

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

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Cross-Cutting Fundamental Strategies: Share Your Ideas by Friday!

Last month, I penned my first Greenversations post. I encouraged readers to share their ideas and feedback on a new component of the Draft FY 2011-2015 EPA Strategic Plan, the Cross-Cutting Fundamental Strategies. Since then, close to 2,000 individuals have checked-out our Discussion Forum and dozens have shared powerful and thoughtful ideas that will help us shape the way we do our work to protect the environment and human health.

The Discussion Forum is a new tool for many of us at the Agency and it has provided EPA with a unique opportunity to engage with you. We have appreciated the feedback you have provided to date—about transparency, partnerships, environmental justice, children’s health, science, and work force. And we welcome your additional ideas and advice as we turn the strategies into actions and take steps to tangibly change the way we do our work.

Share your feedback on the Cross-Cutting Fundamental Strategies Discussion Forum until this Friday, July 30, 2010, which marks the close of the public comment period for the Draft FY 2011-2015 EPA Strategic Plan.

About the author: Kathy O’Brien is the Director of EPA’s Office of Planning, Analysis, and Accountability and leads the efforts to develop and measure progress towards the Agency’s Strategic Plan. She lives in Virginia with her husband and two daughters.

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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Green Overhead

Sun Trust Bank Headquarters in Richmond, Virginia

Sun Trust Bank Headquarters in Richmond, Virginia

Green roofs are roofs that have plants and grasses on top of them. They offer a number of benefits including being an innovative tool to reduce stormwater runoff. Normally, rainwater rushes from rooftops and other hard surfaces into nearby streams and rivers. In highly urban areas, this sudden surge of water can erode the banks of these streams and rivers. Because of the vegetation on top of green roofs, the rainwater that would have poured from the roof is captured by the plants. Green roofs are becoming more popular — SunTrust Bank Headquarters in Richmond, Virginia installed one on its building. and a number of federal government buildings are also getting green roofs.

Is this an idea that’s ready to sprout?

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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Insulation is Cool – Literally!

I’ve written a few times over the 18 months about our home renovation and how we went as green as we could afford. The last time, I was sitting in my dining room during our crazy-snowy winter.

Almost six months later, we’ve just gone through one of the worst heat waves I can remember. And that led to a massive thunderstorm cell that did quite a bit of damage to the DC area. It hit us about 3:30 on Sunday. We were sort of on the southern edge of it, but looking to the north was impressive and ominous.

Just before the skies opened, our power went out. Not that big a deal at the time – we just sat on the porch and watched the storm roar along. But when it didn’t come back on, I started worrying about our fridge and our AC. I get hot very easily.

4158_1157385457836_13237331As the hours wore on, though, I was again reminded of the benefits of our approach to insulation. Since we had the walls off while renovating, we blew in foam to air seal the house, then put fiberglass on top. We also put in double-paned windows with special coatings to reduce direct heating from the sun (I really appreciated the info I got on the Energy Star Web site about all of this). Our porch also keeps the sun off the ground floor windows in the front.

The result? The house doesn’t heat up or cool down very quickly. So although we had no AC during high temperatures, we were pretty comfortable inside. As for the fridge, we just kept the door shut (unlike during Hurricane Isabel, when we ran a very long extension cord across the street to our neighbors’ outdoor outlet).

Have you made any green building choices that later made themselves felt?

If you’re thinking about renovating, check out EPA’s info on green building!

About the author: Jeffrey Levy is EPA’s Director of Web Communications.

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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Share Your Ideas to Advance EPA Science, Research, and Technological Innovation

As the editor of Greenversations’ “Science Wendesday” posts I get to engage in regular discussions about what makes for a good blog post. An articulate blogger-scientist who likes to share their work is always a good recipe. On top of that, my favorites are those that feature timely, interesting research projects. I’m fortunate that EPA science frequently involves all of the above.

But I have to admit that even after almost two years of having a front row seat to EPA science blogging efforts, I’m not so great at predicting which blog posts will be successful. For me, blog success is really measured in the comments that follow the post. In my opinion, a great blog post is one that sparks thoughtful, engaged discussion through the reactions and opinions shared in the comments section.

Social media, or “web 2.0 technology,” provides a great opportunity for us all to communicate better, and is quickly becoming an important tool for managers at EPA for engaging with the public for soliciting ideas and input.

One ongoing such effort is unfolding now as EPA asks you to join the discussion and lend your insights to the following question:

What improvements can be made to EPA’s research efforts? How can EPA better communicate its research to inform and empower communities?

Please share your thoughts!

The on-line discussion is part of the “Cross-cutting Fundamental Strategies” included in EPA’s Draft Strategic Plan for fiscal years 2011 to 2015. One of those strategies is “Advancing science, research, and technological innovation.” One of the best ways to achieve that is tap the collective creativity and expertise of as many people as possible. So please add your voice to the discussion.

About the author: Aaron Ferster is the lead science writer-editor in EPA’s Office of Research and Development, and the editor of the Science Wednesday section of “Greenversations.”

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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