Monthly Archives: March 2013

Water, Wind, and Sun

By Neftali Hernandez Santiago

In Kansas City we briefly glimpsed spring before having another snowstorm come through the area.  There were a couple of patches of green before the white stuff covered everything again.  It got me thinking about diagrams in my old textbooks, the ones showing the cycle of photosynthesis and respiration.  As you know photosynthesis is the name we give to the process of converting light into energy that can be used to support plants which create their own food.  Nutrients, water and daily sunlight are almost enough to maintain their life styles.  Plants could be totally independent but they are not.  They also rely upon the wind, pollinators, and other animals to carry seeds and assist with propagation.

If someone asked me what the bare minimum for human beings to survive is, I would say food, water, shelter and clothing.  Thankfully, plants don’t only produce energy for themselves, but they share their transformed energy by producing wood, fibers and edible fruits to help us cover our very basic needs.  Plants do all these by utilizing the sun as their primary source of energy.

Our modern world, however, is full of needs beyond the basics.  Our society is maintained with many complex networks such as transportation, communications, energy supply, water and wastewater.  As part of our society we need energy to power our industries, cars, appliances, computers, tablets, and the heating or cooling of our homes.  But if we had to act like plants, just getting our needs met by the water, wind and sun, could we do it?

Currently the world human energy consumption during an entire year is 15 terawatts (10 to the 12th power watts give or take).  Each day, 89,000 terrawatts of solar radiation (energy) reaches the earth.  In a year, this totals almost 32.5 million terawatts.  Doing the math, 15 terawatts is a really, really, small percentage (in fact a decimal place with six zeros) of the energy the sun sends our way.  In fact, a professor at Stanford (Mark Z. Jacobsen) has put some numbers to it.  According to his calculations, we would need: 3.8 million (5-mega watts) wind turbines; 720,000 (0.75-mega watts) wave devices; 5,530 (100-mega watts) geothermal plants; 900 (1300-mega watts) hydro plants; 490,000 (1-mega watts) tidal turbines; 1.7 billion (3-kilo watts) roof PV systems; 40,000 (300-mega watts) solar PV plants; and 20 (300- mega watts) concentrated solar panels plants.  This sounds like a lot of Green (both figuratively and metaphorically) but lots of work is already being undertaken.

EPA has established the Green Power Partnership,  a voluntary program that encourages organizations to use green power as a way to reduce the environmental impacts associated with conventional electricity use. The Partnership currently has more than 1,400 Partner organizations voluntarily using billions of kilowatt-hours of green power annually.   The National Renewable Energy Lab, (part of the US Department of Energy) has as its goal, developing renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies and practices and transferring knowledge and innovations to address both the nation’s energy and environmental goals.  They also have great GIS data and maps relating to solar radiation.

So, can we fulfill the energy needs of modern human civilization and improve our environment at the same time as we move forward as a civilization by being more like plants?  It may be a long way off, but the math says YES.  Plants have been doing a good job of converting sunlight into energy a lot longer than humans.  For them it is easy to be green.   If we continue to find new ways to be green ourselves, someday we might not find ourselves singing Kermit’s famous song.

About the Author: Neftali Hernandez grew up in Puerto Rico and is an Environmental Scientist with EPA Region 7′s Drinking Water Branch.  He is a member of EPA’s Water Emergency Response Group and has a bachelor of science degree in biology and a masters of science degree in environmental health from the University of Puerto Rico.

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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Your Assimilative Capacity Has Been Reached

By Pam Lazos

On a recent excursion to Santa Fe, N.M. I was struck by how dry it was even in the late fall. Yes, the climate ranges from arid to semi-arid, but should snow feel dry? For me, it accentuated what’s true of much of the western half of our nation: they’re running out of water.

The Ogallala aquifer, a 10-million-year-old deposit, provides water to New Mexico and seven other High Plains states and is the most important water source in the region, serving an area of 174,000 square miles. Eighty-two percent of the people living in the High Plains get drinking water from this aquifer yet most of the Ogallala is used for agriculture. About 80 percent of the food grown in the U.S. comes from this part of the country.

No wonder the Ogallala is being depleted at a rate 14 times faster than it’s recharging. Population growth, and contaminants like pesticides and nitrates, have contributed to its decline.

Failure to recharge means not only less water but also degraded water quality. Recharge occurs through rainwater and snowmelt combined, a paltry one inch per year. With eight states tapping into one aquifer, at this rate of withdrawal and recharge the Ogallala will be depleted in a few decades and once depleted there is no turning back.

The main barrier to further recharge is impermeability. Currently, the specific yield of the Ogallala — meaning what’s available for use — is 15 percent. The rest of the water is locked up in the unsaturated zone where it’s inaccessible due to impermeability.

Until technology is developed to move this water to the saturated zone, the high quality Ogallala, once used for drinking without either filtration or treatment, will continue to degrade. If a water body is unable to refresh, the water quality tanks, or to put it in scientific parlance, its assimilative capacity, the level at which the water can no longer cleanse itself, has been reached.

Here in the water abundant eastern states drought conditions last seasons, but in the western higher elevations, arid land droughts can last for years, turning an acute issue into a chronic one. Without attention, chronic problems tend to become emergencies. While some inroads have been made regarding the impermeability puzzle, it’s only been achieved on a small scale. It’s time to focus our attention locally before our most valuable global natural resource is beyond recharging.

About the author: Pam Lazos works in Region 3’s Office of Regional Counsel chasing water scofflaws and enforcing the Clean Water Act. In her free time, when her family allows, she writes both fact and fiction, but mostly she likes to laugh.

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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Go Green this Spring!

By: Kelly Siegel

Although it still feels like winter in parts of the Midwest, spring is officially here!  As we gear up for the start of spring and plan spring activities it is important to remember to keep these activities green.  Here are some ideas to make the most of the season:

  1. Get your hands dirty and plant a vegetable garden.  It takes some work and patience now, but when you are eating your home grown tomatoes this summer, it will all be worth it.
  2. Get outside.  Go for long walks, bike rides, or runs and explore your neighborhood you have missed over winter.
  3. Many of us associate spring with spring cleaning.  Go through those old boxes and your closet and donate, recycle, or reuse anything you don’t need any more. You never know what you might find!
  4. On the topic of spring cleaning, use green cleaning supplies.  There are even ways to make your own.  It is very simple and not only better for the environment, but your wallet as well. 
  5. Use reusable water bottles – You can get some with cool designs and not waste plastic water bottles. 

Do you have other tips to go green this spring?  Please share.

Kelly Siegel is a student volunteer in the EPA’s Air and Radiation Division in Region 5, and is currently obtaining her Master’s degree in Urban Planning and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  She has a passion for sustainable development, running, and traveling with friends

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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Eco-friendly New York City Weekend Events

Finally this weekend we should get a taste of spring! Get out and celebrate with some of our suggestions for sustainable things to do in the NYC area.

The Art of Nesting: Come out to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden to learn about animal architects and the ways they make homes from plant materials. Children will have a chance to try their own nest-making skills and can bring home a nesting bag for the birds on their block.  Friday, March 29, 11 a.m. – 1 p.m.

Community Environmental Center EcoHouse: Explore this mobile environmental education exhibit at Inwood Hill Park. Friday, March 29, 3 p.m. – 5 p.m., Saturday, March 30, 11 a.m. – 4 p.m.

Early Spring Bird Walk: Hike around the Jamaica Bay ponds and uplands to look for the first birds of spring. See ospreys, oystercatchers, ibis, great egrets, laughing gulls, and phoebes, to name a few. Saturday, March 30, 10 a.m. – 1 p.m.

Exploring Clouds: Discover the different types of clouds and what they can tell us about upcoming weather patterns. Fort Trotten Park Visitor’s Center, Queens. Saturday, March 30, 1 p.m.

Herb Planting: Check out the Lefferts Historic House in Prospect Park to see how their herb gardens are coming along. Plant your own pot of herbs to take home using newspaper, soil and seeds. March 29, 1 p.m. – 3 p.m.

SAFE Disposal Event: The NYC Department of Sanitation is holding five SAFE Disposal Events this spring to provide a one-stop method to get rid of potentially harmful household products. Bring your hazardous household materials to Citi Field on Saturday, March 30, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

Spring Egg Hunt: Visit the Queens Botanical Garden for a family friendly spring egg hunt. Other activities include seed planting, face painting and a visit from Flora the Flower. Saturday, March 30, 11 a.m. – 2 p.m.

Volunteer Meadow Shearing: Head uptown to Sherman Creek Park for a unique volunteer opportunity. Learn about preparing flower beds for spring and help cut back grass and wildflowers in the meadow to help the park get ready for the warmer season. Saturday, March 30, 1 p.m. – 3:30 p.m.

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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Around the Water Cooler: Thinking Outside the FrogBox

By Dustin Renwick

From birthday presents to lunches, a box lends a mysterious quality to even mundane contents. Mary Gilbert, an EPA research scientist, works with a box that contains some not-so-common tadpoles.

Gilbert and her team conducted research to test a new method for detecting contaminants in water supplies: tadpoles that glow in the presence of chemicals that disrupt the thyroid, a gland with critical functions related to growth and maturation in vertebrates.

Thyroid hormones influence growth processes and fetal brain development in many animals, including humans. Frogs have become science examples of choice because their thyroid hormones jumpstart the transformation from tadpoles to adult frogs.

“The beauty of it is that it represents a cumulative index of what the animal is being exposed to,” Gilbert said. “It’s a living organism, so it has a complete biological system that integrates all that information.”

As part of an EPA Pathfinder Innovation Project, Gilbert and her team worked with researchers at the University of Cincinnati, the University of Northern Arizona, and a Paris-based company, WatchFrog, to test the aptly-named FrogBox. Scientific American magazine recently featured the research.

The box contains the tadpoles in two water chambers. As tadpoles move from one reservoir to the other, they pass a detection device that measures how brightly they glow.

This type of technology represents the potential for a major shift in how scientists can test for water-based contaminants. Instead of searching for individual chemicals, the tadpole, referred to as a “biosensor,” provides a broader ecological picture.

Gilbert said much of what we know about the damage caused by thyroid hormone disruption comes from observing biological responses in mammals, often after a thyroid gland has been removed. Environmental contaminants affect our bodies in less obvious ways.

“There’s not much literature to inform EPA about what the consequences might be if there are more subtle perturbations of the thyroid system.”

The tadpoles have a gene that produces a fluorescent protein when activity stimulates the thyroid system, but the tiny, translucent creatures can’t show researchers which compound is present or how exactly the compound changes thyroid activity.

A change in glow only indicates a problem exists. Compared with a control measurement, a tadpole glowing dimmer indicates the presence of a thyroid-suppressing compound. Conversely, a brighter tadpole means the disruptor compound is activating the amphibian’s thyroid system.

This biosensor system holds potential for two reasons: (1) too many chemicals exist to test in traditional ways and (2) humans rarely come in contact with a single chemical at a time.

“We’re exposed to complex combinations at very low levels,” Gilbert said. “There may be adverse effects we would not be able to determine in exposure to a single compound.”

An integrated biosensor that detects low concentrations of chemicals presents opportunities for cleaner watersheds by identifying sources of contamination, testing the efficacy of wastewater treatments, and removing the mystery about whether a stream contains harmful contaminants.

About the author: Dustin Renwick works as part of the innovation team in the EPA 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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Where Environmental Justice, Smart Growth, and Equitable Development Meet

By Megan McConville

It all started after Hurricane Katrina.  In a previous job as a communications specialist at an environmental nonprofit, I went to New Orleans’ Ninth Ward to train residents to talk to the media about their vision for rebuilding.  The neighborhood was devastated, but nevertheless, the residents had come together around an inspiring goal.  They wanted to rebuild in a way that addressed longstanding environmental and health challenges and improved their quality of life, with better access to the services and opportunities they needed to thrive. My role was to help neighborhood leaders create a communications strategy, work with reporters, and generally build support for their vision.

I also provided assistance to disadvantaged communities in Washington, DC; El Paso, Texas; and other cities across the country where residents had similar objectives—to reduce exposure to pollution, clean up and reinvest in existing neighborhoods, provide affordable housing and transportation options, and improve access to jobs and amenities.

Walking audit of neighborhood to examine barriers to walkability such as high vehicle speeds and a lack pedestrian and bicycle routes.

Those experiences showed me that environmental justice, equitable development, and smart growth must go hand in hand.  The way neighborhoods, cities, and regions are planned and built has an important influence on public health and the environment, and many of the challenges low-income, minority, and tribal communities face are related to land use decisions.  Combining approaches from environmental justice, smart growth, and equitable development can help avoid future health, environmental, and economic disparities, ensure that development processes are inclusive, and result in projects, policies, and regulations that enhance quality of life for everyone.

EPA’s new publication, Creating Equitable, Healthy, and Sustainable Communities: Strategies for Advancing Smart Growth, Environmental Justice, and Equitable Development, brings together these related, but too often separate, concepts.  It provides a menu of land use and community design strategies that community-based organizations, local and regional decision-makers, developers, and other stakeholders can use to revitalize their communities.  These strategies include:

The redevelopment of Egleston Crossing in Boston.

  • Conducting community assessments
  • Reducing exposure to facilities with potential environmental concerns
  • Fixing existing infrastructure first
  • Designing safe streets for all users
  • Preserving affordable housing
  • Creating new development that strengthens local culture, and others.

The publication also contains in-depth case studies of seven low-income, minority, tribal, and overburdened communities that have used these strategies: Edmonston, MD; Chicago, IL; Spartanburg, SC; New Orleans, LA; Ohkay Owingeh, NM; Boston, MA; and Seattle, WA.


Creating Equitable, Healthy, and Sustainable Communities
was developed jointly by EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice and Office of Sustainable Communities, and was informed by comments from 40 reviewers received through a public comment process.

I hope this document is useful to you, whether you’re a community resident advocating for neighborhood revitalization, a local planner working to integrate equity and sustainability into your policies and codes, or a developer seeking to create an authentic and enduring project.

Megan McConville is a Policy & Planning Fellow in EPA’s Office of Sustainable Communities. She explores how overburdened communities can combine smart growth and environmental justice strategies to improve their neighborhoods, health, and quality of life.

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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Desencadene su niño interior

La otra noche cuando mi hija más pequeña se preparaba para dormir, me preguntó algo que me ha estado dando vueltas en la cabeza desde entonces. “¿Mami, por qué los adultos pierden su creatividad cuando son mayores? ¡Imagínate lo que los niños podrían inventar! Su perspicacia me dejó muda mientras trataba de encontrar una explicación atinada.

¿A medida que crecemos y maduramos, qué suprime nuestra creatividad? ¿Por qué somos menos aventureros y menos dispuestos a tomar riesgos? He visto cómo muchos niños absorben nuevos idiomas como esponjas, mientras que los adultos parecen perder la habilidad de “escuchar y pronunciar” nuevos sonidos.  Mientras podría haber algún factor fisiológico envuelto, me parece que las normas de la gramática del vernáculo se convierten en el obstáculo mayor a aprender nuevos idiomas.  Lo mismo parece suceder con las ciencias y las matemáticas a veces. Me explico.

Me acuerdo jugar el juego de la “Ruleta de la Ciencia” en varias exhibiciones de educación ambiental. Los niños pequeños le daban la vuelta a la ruleta entusiastamente para jugar y adivinaban las respuestas aún cuando no tenían idea de la contestación correcta. Mientras tanto, muchos padres, al contrario, literalmente adoptaban una mirada de pánico de simplemente ver la palabra “ciencia” escrita y dudaban mucho al responder. ¿Por qué será? ¿Acaso las normas y prácticas tradicionales de la sociedad nos impiden pensar de manera creativa? ¿Acaso eso es parte del proceso de madurar?

¿No han notado cómo muchos de los inventores, artistas, directores de cine más creativos son criticados por “actuar demasiado como niños?” No creo que se trate de que tengan un complejo de Peter Pan. Al contrario, estos adultos creativos ven mucho más allá de las convenciones tradicionales. Nosotros, como sociedad, explicamos ese comportamiento singular diciendo que estos individuos creativos actúan demasiado como niños. Qué pena.

Hace algún tiempo cuando trabajaba con mis colegas en la Oficina de Investigación y Desarrollo de EPA en un proyecto para destacar la labor de ingenieros y científicos de EPA, noté que compartían algo en común.  No se trataba de su amor por las ciencias y las matemáticas. Era algo más profundo.  Era ese sentido de asombro.  Ese sentido de curiosidad y muchos también estaban muy interesados en la naturaleza y actividades al aire libre.

¿Entonces, por qué no instamos a nuestros niños a darle rienda suelta a su creatividad? Tanto los niños como el mundo se beneficiarían en el proceso. ¿Qué le parece? ¿Cuál es su sentir al respecto?

Acerca de la autora: Lina M. F. Younes ha trabajado en la Agencia de Protección Ambiental de EE.UU. desde el 2002 y se desempeña, en la actualidad, como portavoz hispana de la Agencia, así como enlace de asuntos multilingües de EPA. Además, ha laborado como la escritora y editora de los blogs en español de EPA durante los pasados cuatro años. Antes de unirse a la Agencia, dirigió la oficina en Washington, DC de dos periódicos puertorriqueños y ha laborado en varias agencias gubernamentales a lo largo de su carrera profesional en la Capital Federal.

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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Unleash the Child Within You

By Lina Younes

The other night as I was tucking my youngest in bed, she asked me a question that I have been mulling over ever since. “Mom, why do adults lose their creativity when they get older? Imagine if children invented things!” Her insight left me speechless as I tried unsuccessfully to find a thoughtful explanation.

As we grow up and mature, what stifles our creativity? Why do we seem less willing to take risks? I have seen many children absorb new languages like sponges, while adults seem to lose the power to “hear and pronounce” new sounds. Though there may be some physiological issues involved, it seems to me that grammatical rules of the Mother Tongue become the main constraints to learning foreign languages. The same seems to apply to science and math. I’ll explain.

I remember playing the “Wheel of Science” game at several environmental education exhibits. Young children would eagerly spin the wheel to play and guess the questions even if they had no clue of the correct response. I remember watching how the parents, on the other hand, literally cringed in fear when they saw the word “science” and hesitated in their answers. Why is that? Is it society’s norms and conventions that prevent us from thinking out of the box? Is it the natural maturing and aging process that does so?

Haven’t you noticed that many of the most creative inventors, artists, movie directors are criticized for “acting too much like kids?” I don’t think that they have a Peter Pan complex. Quite the contrary, these creative adults see beyond traditional conventions. So, we, as a society, explain that unique behavior by saying that these creative individuals are acting too much like children, unfortunately.

As I was working with my colleagues in the EPA Office of Research and Development on a project to highlight the work of EPA scientists and engineers, I noticed that they shared something in common. No, it wasn’t their love for science and math. It was something more profound. They shared a sense of wonder. They were inquisitive. Many loved nature and outdoors activities.

So, why don’t we encourage our children to embrace their creativity? Both our children and the world as a whole would benefit in the process. Don’t you think? What are your thoughts on the issue?

About the author: Lina Younes has been working for EPA since 2002 and currently serves the Multilingual Outreach and Communications Liaison for EPA. She manages EPA’s social media efforts in Spanish. 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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Soak it Up! Philadelphia Designs Showcase Rain as a Resource

By Ken Hendrickson

Sitting in the auditorium at the Academy of Natural Sciences and watching the presentations of the nine finalists in the Infill Philadelphia: Soak It Up! design competition, you could feel the excitement in the air.  The pecha kucha presentation format gave the evening a rhythm and cadence, but the design teams gave it substance.  All of the nine finalist teams had creative ideas and I didn’t envy the judges’ position of having to pick the final three winning teams – but in the end, they did.  Throughout the evening as I viewed the design boards, talked to the designers, and watched the presentations, I had the same three thoughts.

My view from the audience at the Soak It Up! Awards

My view from the audience at the Soak It Up! Awards

First, stormwater is exciting, or perhaps more accurately, green infrastructure design solutions to urban stormwater are exciting.  The design solutions treated stormwater as a resource and made it a visible and important part of each site and, by extension, the city.  What is exciting is that not only did these teams provide real, workable, and affordable solutions to addressing one of our most pressing water quality concerns, these designs would also make the city a better place to live and work.

My second thought had to do with collaboration.  I was impressed at the level to which these teams had embraced the collaborative approach to design.  While the competition did specify that teams needed to include a civil engineer, an architect, and a landscape architect to be eligible, the finalists seemed to take this integrated and collaborative design approach a step further.  I couldn’t help but wonder about the process that lead to these designs.  What future partnerships, collaborations, and design solutions might be born as a result of this competition?

Which brings me to my final thought about the Infill Philadelphia: Soak It Up! design competition: that these designs are not just attractive imagery and impressive reports.  They represent a shift in the way we view urban stormwater and the solutions we design to control it.  Each of these designs has a story and they are stories that everyone with an interest in clean water and livable communities deserves to hear.

In an effort to help make these stories available to all, the G3 Academy (Green Streets, Green Jobs, Green Towns) is partnering with the Community Design Collaborative to host a webcast on April 4th featuring the design competition winners.  The webcast is free and open to anyone.  For more information and to register for the webcast, please visit this link.

Infill Philadelphia: Soak It Up! is a joint effort of the Community Design Collaborative, the Philadelphia Water Department, and EPA to inspire innovation in green stormwater infrastructure.  This design competition was the latest product of the partnership between EPA and the City of Philadelphia to advance green infrastructure for urban wet weather pollution control.  For additional resources on green infrastructure, visit the EPA green infrastructure website.

How does stormwater affect your community, and how would green infrastructure help?  Do the designs from the Philadelphia: Soak It Up! design competition inspire ideas for where you live?

About the Author: Ken Hendrickson has worked at the EPA since 2010 and is the Green Infrastructure staff lead in the Office of State and Watershed Partnerships.  Ken has a background in landscape architecture, geology, and watershed management.  He enjoys working to empower communities to improve their environment and finding solutions that create more resilient social, environmental, and economic systems. When not in the office, Ken enjoys challenging and rewarding outdoor activities and creative indoor hobbies.

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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Creepy Crawlies

By Regina Klepikow

It is almost that time of year when all of Mother Nature invades your space and creeps you out.  It is funny how we as humans have fears of small insects and spiders.  Most of us are quick to jump on a chair or run out of a room with the reflexes of The Six Million Dollar Man when we spot a spider on the wall or see a beetle scurry across the floor.  My daughter and my niece have a thing where they crouch down and move their hands in such a fashion that they try to resemble a bug of some sort; all while running around sporadically, wiggling their fingers and screaming “Creepy crawlies… creepy crawlies… creepy crawlies everywhere” repeatedly.  It is a hilarious sight to see.

All this has begged the question, “Why are we scared of things we can see and not so scared of things we cannot see?” I am positive that there are many “creepy crawlies” out there that we cannot see that we should be worried about. Do not get me wrong, I am not trying to freak anyone out but it is a cause for concern. We all get cautious when we here about someone having the flu and we have to work alongside them. We all know that when cold and flu season come around that we have to pay more attention to our actions and wash our hands or use more sanitizer. We all know that preparing and cooking meat at a certain temperature is necessary in order to keep from acquiring a food borne illness. I am a moderate germ-a-phobe when it comes to coughing people, snotty babies and raw meat. However, how often do people think about bacteria or invisible “creepy crawlies” in our drinking waters or recreational waters?

It is fairly common to grab a glass out of your cabinet and walk over to your refrigerator or kitchen faucet to get a glass of water, and just as common in the summer time to go swimming at a lake or maybe gather a group of friends for a float trip.  Therefore, if the things we can see scare us … why not the things we cannot see (no not the paranormal…muwahahaha) like microscopic bacteria.  Well, fortunately the EPA has got us covered.  As Jeff had blogged about acronym soup, the CWA and SDWA are laws put in place to protect the environments’ watersheds from contaminants and to ensure the quality of our drinking water.

I work most closely with Escherichia coli, or E. coli. (pictured to the right)  This microbe is about 1-3 microns or micrometers long in comparison to a strand of hair, which is about 50 microns thick. Typically, it is hard to see anything smaller than a millimeter (1000 microns) with the naked eye.  Currently EPA and State environmental and public health agencies use E. coli is an indicator organism. This means that it is easier to test and analyze for E. coli than any other pathogens in a body of water.  When a water sample has been collected, it goes back to a laboratory to be analyzed, and if E. coli is found above particular levels, that indicates the potential of other harmful bacteria or other microorganisms in that water source at levels of concern.  Bear in mind not all strains of E. coli are harmful. Contaminated waters usually contain high levels E. coli and clean unpolluted waters generally do not contain very small levels of E. coli if any.  For that reason, when you hear an alert from your city water department about a boil order that means the water was potentially compromised.  By boiling your drinking water, you kill living organism that could be harmful to your health; thus reducing your potential risk of infection.    When your local parks and recreation departments close a swimming beach or water body it is usually because the E. coli counts exceeded a particular level associated with increased risk of infection.   The picture to the left is one of the more common methods for analyzing E. coli.

Have you ever had traveled across the US border or abroad?  Have you ever been swimming at a lake then accidentally swallowed the water?  Have you ever acquired “the stomach flu” after the fact? If you have then you mostly likely drank or swallowed an invisible creepy crawly.  Now anytime I see a potential “germy” situation… I picture my daughter and niece running around, bodies contorted with their fingers wiggling and singing “creepy crawlies… creepy crawlies… creepy crawlies everywhere”.

Regina Klepikow is a Life Scientist for EPA Region 7. She is a Drinking Water Certification Officer and maintains the microbiology laboratory at the Science and Technology Center.  She loves to spend time at the lake with her family.  She always keeps disinfectants nearby because “you never know when you will need them.”

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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