Monthly Archives: March 2013

Making Sure Chemicals Around Us are Safe

By Jim Jones, Acting Assistant Administrator, OCSPP

Chemicals are found in most everything we use and consume— from plastics, to medicine, to cleaning products, and flame retardants in our furniture and clothing. They can be essential for our health, our well being, our prosperity and our safety— it’s no understatement to say that the quality of life we enjoy today would be impossible without chemicals. However, our understanding of chemical safety is constantly evolving and there remain significant gaps in our scientific knowledge regarding many chemicals and their potentially negative impacts on our health, and the environment.

While you may be familiar with the Clean Air and the Clean Water Acts— you may not be as familiar with the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the environmental statute enacted in 1976 to regulate all chemicals manufactured and used in the U.S. When TSCA was enacted, it grandfathered in, without any evaluation, the 62,000 chemicals in commerce that existed in 1976.

Unlike the laws for drugs and pesticides, TSCA does not have a mandatory program where the EPA must conduct a review to determine the safety of existing chemicals. TSCA is the only major environmental law that has not been modernized. The process of requiring testing through rulemaking chemical-by-chemical has proven burdensome and time consuming.

Compared to 30 years ago, we have a better understanding of how we are exposed to chemicals and the distressing health effects some chemicals can have – especially on children. At the same time, significant gaps exist in our scientific knowledge of many chemicals, including those like flame retardants. Increasingly, studies are highlighting the health risks posed by certain chemicals and recent media coverage has heightened public awareness about the safety of flame retardants.

As part of EPA’s efforts to assess chemical risks, we will begin evaluating 20 flame retardants in 2013 in order to improve our understanding of the potential risks of this class of chemicals, taking action if warranted, and identifying safer substitutes when possible. Over the years, EPA has also taken a number of regulatory and voluntary efforts, including negotiating the voluntary phase-outs of several toxic flame retardants. EPA’s review of and action on flame retardants has spanned over two decades and while these are important steps forward, the long history of EPA’s action on flame retardants is tied in no small part to the shortcomings of TSCA and stands as a clear illustration of the need for TSCA reform.

We have the right to expect that the chemicals found in products that we use every day are safe and provide benefits without hidden harm. It is critical that we close the knowledge gaps and provide this assurance under a reformed, 21st century version of TSCA.

About the author: Jim Jones is the Acting Assistant Administrator of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. He is responsible for managing the office which implements the nation’s pesticide, toxic chemical, and pollution prevention laws. The office has an annual budget of approximately $260 million and more than 1,300 employees. Jim’s career with EPA spans more than 24 years. From April through November 2011, Jim served as the Deputy Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. He has an M.A. from the University of California at Santa Barbara and a B.A. from the University of Maryland, both in Economics.

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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Help Us Find the Winners! National Award for Smart Growth Achievement

2012 Winner for Overall Excellence in Smart Growth: The BLVD Transformation, Lancaster, CA Photo courtesy of EPA

By Sarah Dale

Do you know a community that has made its downtown more walkable, bikable, and accessible to public transit? Used policy initiatives and regulations to improve the local environment? Turned its public parks into a driver for economic development? Then you might know a community that could apply for the National Award for Smart Growth Achievement. If so, please pass this blog post along!

Communities across the country are making choices about how to grow and develop while improving environmentally, socially, and economically. Through this award, EPA recognizes and supports communities that use innovative policies and strategies to strengthen their economies, provide housing and transportation choices, develop in ways that bring benefits to a wide range of residents, and protect the environment. This year, EPA is

2012 Winner for Equitable Development: The Mariposa District, Denver, CO Photo courtesy of EPA.

recognizing communities in four categories:

  • Built Projects
  • Corridor and Neighborhood Revitalization
  • Plazas, Parks, and Public Places
  • Policies, Programs, and Plans

Additionally, the review panel will choose one Overall Excellence winner.

Past winners are enthusiastic about the award: here’s what a few of the 2012 winners had to say:

  • “We’ve received an outstanding response from winning this award, and our project has received attention from throughout the state, across the nation, and even internationally.” Marvin Crist, Vice Mayor, Lancaster, CA
  • “Receiving the award increased awareness about what the Denver Housing Authority is doing among many different policy makers and stakeholders.” Kimball Crangle, Denver Housing Authority, Denver, CO
  • “I think the Smart Growth Award is a part of what solidified our position to the point where partners decided they wanted to be a part of this.” Scott Strawbridge, Housing Authority of the City of Fort Lauderdale, Lauderdale, FL

2012 Winner for Programs and Policies 2012: Destination Portsmouth, Portsmouth, VA Rendering courtesy of Urban Advantage.

If you know a community that is doing amazing things, encourage them to apply today! The competition is open to both public- and private-sector entities that have successfully used smart growth principles to improve communities. The application process is outlined here; the application deadline is April 12, 2013.

About the author: Sarah Dale is a special assistant with the Office of Sustainable Communities, which manages EPA’s Smart Growth Program. This is her third year managing the awards.

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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Junior High Kids Rockin’ Senior High-like Projects

By Sam Porter

I also had the opportunity to judge Environmental projects  at the 62nd annual Kansas City Science and Engineering Fair.  The Junior Division contained two dozen projects from 7th and 8th graders.  It was an honor to judge these excellent projects with my fellow colleagues,  Daniel Dorn and Janece Koleis, both Organic Chemists in the Environmental Service Division.

We awarded first place in the Environmental category to Maelea Coulson from West Platte Junior High in Weston, MO.  Her project was entitled, An A-Peeling Filter.  She devised an experiment that demonstrated an alternative method of removing chromium from drinking water.  Typically, chromium is removed during drinking water treatment by the use of cation exchange or filtration with active carbon (charcoal).  In third world remote villages such processes for water purification are neither usually available nor sustainable.  Maelea’s experiment demonstrated that filtration of water with banana peels is an effective process for removing chromium in water.  This process is effective because banana peels contain carboxylic acids which bind to toxic metals and remove them from the water.  Maelea’s project was clear, concise, and well articulated and the results showed the effectiveness of banana peels in water purification.  This was certainly an impressive project for a middle-schooler.

Second place was awarded to Ashton Iteii from Trailridge Middle School in Lenexa, KS.  Her project was entitled, Before You Drink That…, and evaluated various techniques for removing coliform bacteria from water.  The techniques she evaluated were Iodination, Chlorination (from household bleach), and boiling.  In her project, samples were taken from three different sites in the Kansa City area.  Her procedure for evaluating each technique was very thorough and easy to follow.  Her results clearly showed these techniques are effective in the removal of both total and fecal coliform bacteria.  All-in-all, this was a very nice project.

The third place award in the Environmental category was presented to Lexie Chirpich from St. Andrew the Apostle Parish School in Gladstone, MO.  Her project was entitled, Drowning in Plastic.  Her project evaluated the impact of pollution from plastic products in waterways on water quality.  The quality of water was evaluated by measuring the amount of dissolved oxygen (DO) in the polluted water.  Oxygen is produced and consumed in a stream ecosystem.   If more oxygen is consumed than is produced, dissolved oxygen levels decline and sensitive animals may move away, weaken, or die.  Her experiment was concise as potential variables in the test procedure were controlled.  Her results clearly showed that uncontaminated water had a higher level of DO than polluted water.  This project demonstrates the importance of proper trash disposal and the use of R3; Reduce, Reuse, & Recycle.  This is particularly important as it has been estimated that 100 billion plastic bags are used in a single year in the United States.

There were many great projects in the Environmental category for this age group.  We felt it necessary to also present an Honorable Mention Award to Keealondre Roseberry from Frontier School of Excellence in KansasCity, MO.  His project was entitled, Energy from Saltwater.  Salt molecules are made of sodium and chlorine ions.  Ions are atoms that have an electrical charge because they gain or lose an electron when bonded.  When salt is added to water, the water molecules pull the sodium and chlorine ions apart.  These ions are a good conductor of electricity as they carry the electrical charge through the water.  His project clearly demonstrated this principle.  Good thought was put into this project as it questions the potential use of saltwater as a sustainable energy source!

Even though these projects were highlighted, there were many other great projects in this category.  It was neat to see the talent and intellect of these middle-schoolers demonstrated through their projects.  As Jeff stated in his previous post, there is certainly a bright future for this up-and-coming scientists and engineers.

Sam Porter is a chemist with the Chemical Analysis and Response Branch of the Environmental Services Division, located at EPA Region 7’s Science and Technology Center in Kansas City, Kansas.

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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How Did You Celebrate Earth Hour?

By: Kelly Siegel

Did you participate in Earth Hour on Saturday?  If not, it’s ok!  Although Earth Hour took place on Saturday March 23, 2013 at 8:30PM, we can make every hour, Earth Hour. 

Earth Hour began in 2007 and has been gaining steam ever since.  It involves world participation in hopes to raise awareness on climate change.  For one hour, everyone turns off their non-essential lights.  My roommates and I did this on Saturday night and realized we don’t need our computers, tv, and phones all going at the same time to have fun!

It is important to realize that we should not celebrate Earth Hour for one hour every year, but every hour of every day!  There are little things we can do every day to raise awareness and fight climate change, that are so simple that they are often forgotten.  Try some of these out: 

  1. Turn off the lights when you leave a room.
  2. Try to fall asleep without your TV or computer on.  Not only does this conserve electricity but you will get a better night’s sleep!
  3. Don’t just put your computer to sleep when not in use, but actually shut it down.  This goes for all appliances. 
  4. You don’t always need to be connected to the internet.  Take a break to read a book or write a blog post!
  5. Get your friends and family involved.  You can brainstorm about other ways to be energy efficient together.

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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Two NYU Co-eds, Bring Home Unwelcome Guests from their Spring Break Trip

By Marcia Anderson

I just got a panicked call from Amanda, a mom whose daughter and roommate came home from a spring break trip to Panama City, Florida, with bed bugs. Amanda told me that a recent cold front brought temperatures down to near freezing in Northern Florida, so instead of partying on the beach, 20 or so students crammed into a beachside motel where some friends were staying and they returned to New York City with more than they bargained for.

Luckily, New York University has extensive experience with bed bugs and has a lot of useful information on its website.

Here is some additional advice for Amanda and other parents of traveling students if they suspect that their offspring came home with a few hitchhikers:

Upon arriving home, never place luggage or clothing directly on the bed. Sprinkle a little talcum powder on the bottom of the bathtub and have your student drop their luggage in the bathtub along with all of their outer clothing. A bathtub provides a slippery surface hindering the bed bugs from climbing out and crawling around. The talcum powder makes even less traction for the bed bug.

Heat dry all clothing, including sneakers, sandals and jackets, in a clothes dryer set on high for a half hour. Use a large garbage bag to transport the clothes to the dryer. Dispose of the bag, and place the clean clothes in a clean bag.

Inspect and wipe down all other items, such as packages, very carefully. If you are unsure about some items, like books, place them in a zip-lock bag and freeze for a week.

Don’t forget to vacuum your student’s path from the front door to the bathroom drop site. When finished, vacuum up a little talcum powder as well. It will make the insides of the vacuum too slippery for vacuumed bed bugs to crawl out. Place the vacuum bag and contents in a plastic bag, knot it or seal it tightly and dispose of it properly.

Take your time and do a thorough job, as bed bugs can hide in the tiniest of cracks or crevices and can live for over six months without a meal. In addition, it only takes one pregnant female bed bug to be responsible for creating 32,000 additional bed bugs in six months.

What about the car that transported her home? A steam cleaning of the interior should take care of any unwanted hitchhikers.

Still worried? Purchase bed bug interceptors and place them under all bed, couch and upholstered chair legs. Keep the interceptors in place for at least six months. Move the bed a few inches away from the wall, so that these tiny vampires can’t find a way up onto the bed to feed on a sleeping victim. Remove anything stored under the bed. You can also sprinkle a little Diatomaceous Earth (DE) under the bed, couch or recliner. Follow all label directions. DE works to kill bed bugs physically, not chemically.

Amanda, next year for spring break, send your daughter and her friends with the EPA Bed Bug Traveler card. It’s the size of a credit card, but packs a lot of important information.

About the Author: Marcia is the bed bug and vector management specialist for the Pesticides Program in Edison. She has a BS in Biology from Monmouth, second degree in Environmental Design-Landscape Architecture from Rutgers, Masters in Instruction and Curriculum from Kean, and is a PhD in Environmental Management candidate from Montclair – specializing in Integrated Pest Management and Environmental Communications. Prior to EPA, and concurrently, she has been a professor of Earth and Environmental Studies, Geology and Oceanography at Kean University for 14 years.

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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Discovering Silica Cycling

By Joanna Carey

Rivers draining more forested watersheds contain significantly less silica than those draining more developed watersheds.

I am standing, engrossed in quiet, on a wooden bridge in Northern Massachusetts, with a perfect view of the Ipswich River.  I can see it meander once before it eventually opens up to form a babbling riffle. This river is alive, performing complicated metabolic processes as the water moves downstream.

Thanks to my EPA Science To Achieve Results (STAR) Graduate Research Fellowship, I went to this bridge (among others) weekly for a year, sampling the river for nutrients. While filtering my water samples here, people walking by would often ask, ‘how is the river doing?’

Before answering, I would hesitate; it turns out this is a complicated question!

From a human health perspective, most of the rivers I studied were in fine shape (thanks to the Clean Water Act and EPA), meaning that people could swim in the river without getting sick. However, other aspects of the river condition could use improvement.

Human activities, such as wastewater discharge, use of fertilizers, and fossil fuel combustion, are increasing the amount of nutrients flowing into rivers, which can spark excess algal growth and other negative repercussions on the entire ecosystem.

As an EPA STAR Fellow, I had the opportunity to be one of the first in the world to examine how watershed land use impacts the amount of silica in the rivers. Silica, or SiO2, is a required nutrient for diatoms, a common type of phytoplankton (tiny photosynthetic organisms) in temperate waters.

Why is the amount of silica in the rivers important?

Well, it all goes back to the fact that rivers supply over 80% of the silica that’s found in marine waters. And the amount of silica directly controls the amount and type of phytoplankton that grow in the ocean. Because phytoplankton makes up the base of the marine food chain, their type and abundance directly impacts organisms higher up on the food chain, such as commercial fisheries.

My research resulted in the discovery that land use type is indeed an important driver of the amount of silica in rivers.

I found that rivers draining more forested watersheds contain significantly less silica than those draining more developed watershed, which may be because of the large amount of silica taken up by land plants. It appears that lack of vegetation in urbanized landscapes results in more silica entering river systems. While more silica in rivers is not a bad thing, the research highlights a previously unrecognized way in which human actions are altering the environment.

For the last three years, I have been honored to be an EPA STAR Fellow. The award not only allowed me to perform the research of my dreams, but highlighted for me the importance of these fellowships for training the next generation of scientists. Thanks to the EPA, I can now count myself among the experts in aquatic biogeochemistry!

About the Author: Joanna Carey, a former STAR Fellow, is currently an ORISE post-doctoral fellow with the EPA Atlantic Ecology Division in Narragansett, RI studying the impact of oysters on nitrogen cycling in Southern New England.

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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Snow Slushies in Spring

Several links below exit EPA Exit EPA Disclaimer

Greetings from New England!Each Monday we write about the New England environment and way of life seen through our local perspective. Previous posts

By Amy Miller

It was the first day of spring and northern New England was looking just plain gorgeous. Not gorgeous like tiny lilac crocus bulbs emerging. Not gorgeous like sun beating down on my patio while I drink coffee.

Rather, gorgeous like Santa in the North Pole, gorgeous like Disney’s winter wonderland. In my Maine yard, soft white snow laces every branch, covers all the pavement and hides any dirt kicked up by car traffic last week. Icicles hang off eaves, while smoke wafts up from woodstoves warming children thrilled to have another snow day home.

OK, it sounds more like heaven in December than in April. But we New Englanders have learned to take what we can get. And make the best of it. So we make snowmen, take walks, get exercise by shoveling and do charity by shoveling for neighbors. We also celebrate with snow slushies. Yes, slushies made with the fallen-from-the-sky white stuff.

Turns out, though, we have to be careful if we are going to make these natural slushies. We all know – even southerners must know – that if the snow is yellow, it has been polluted by animals (likely my dog or his best friend neighbor dog). And black or brown snow most likely comes from cars and people kicking up dirt.

But what about pink snow? Apparently, snow can collect bacteria, which turns the white stuff pink. Snow can also become contaminated by pollution as it falls to the ground. Snow is fairly efficient at collecting pollution as it falls, according to Dr. Helen Suh, environmental studies professor at Northeastern University.

Once formed, the crystals that are snow can stay in the air for hours collecting pollutants before they fall to the ground. This means airborne pollution can be hidden in even newly fallen snow. Meaning that metals, acidic pollutants, and persistent organic pollutants can all be in our slushies.

Lucky for me and my kids, the amount of pollution is related to the amount of pollution in your neighborhood air, which generally is related to traffic. Although my street is sometimes a bypass for people avoiding traffic in the village, we often go minutes at a time without seeing a car.

Even in cities, Suh said, studies have found freshly fallen snow has a low amount of pollution. Just stay away from that colored stuff. And if your kids don’t believe you about the colored stuff, Dr. Suh suggests you melt some snow in a container and see what you find.

About the author: Amy Miller is a writer who works in the public affairs office of EPA New England in Boston. She lives in Maine with her husband, two children, seven chickens, two parakeets, dog and a great community.

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 Home Page

Click for a larger view

As we continue the process of rebuilding our entire website to better serve your needs, we’ve kept our focus on the mantra ‘think first of your audiences and their top tasks.’

In a post back in 2010, Jeffrey Levy told you about how we approached our home page design, using data to make decisions.

We use tools like: popular search terms, web metrics, a customer satisfaction survey, and ‘heat maps’ (scans that show where people are clicking on the current home page).

To add to that, I recently helped with a series of usability tests on different types of content on the site. This is one more critical tool to help give you what you need when you come to epa.gov.

We’ve adjusted the home page since 2010, adding things like the map that lets you roll your mouse around to get state-by-state updates. Now it’s time to again apply what we’ve learned. We took all that good historic knowledge and combined it with what we learned in the usability tests to create a new, more usable home page.

Some highlights of the new design:

  • A smaller banner: it’s smaller than it was in 2010, but shrinking it even more frees up critical space ‘above the fold’ while still giving us a place to tell you about some of the most important topics affecting the environment.
  • Task-specific navigation: Next to the banner are several links that will help different audiences accomplish their tasks.
  • An entire section on what you can do, divided into “At Home”, “At School or Work” and “In Your Community”.
  • Links related to our three main pillars of Science, Health, and the Environment are directly under the banner and use our visual ‘chunk’ concept we’ll be using throughout the site.

Our main goal was to give you easy access to what you need in a clean uncluttered and visually appealing page. While it’s not live quite yet I do have a mock up to share. Want to take a peek?

Please tell us what you think.

 

About the author: Danny Hart is EPA’s Associate 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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Village Green Project: What’s in our Air?

By Ronald Williams

What’s in our air? It’s made up of 78 percent nitrogen, 21 percent oxygen, and one percent other gases such as carbon dioxide.  An even smaller contribution comes from gaseous air pollutants such as ozone or carbon monoxide.  In addition to the gases, air contains tiny particles from both natural and man-made processes.

In the Village Green Project, my EPA colleagues and I are developing a community-based system that repeatedly measures select gases and particles so residents can monitor local air quality and know what’s in their air.

Here are three important components:

Ozone
Knowing daily changes in ozone concentrations is very important, especially to those with respiratory illnesses such as asthma.  Ozone is generally highest on sunny summer days, when sunlight fuels atmospheric chemistry and generates ozone from a mixture of emissions.   The Village Green monitor will report ozone many times during the course of the day, showing how ozone levels go up and down based upon air pollution emissions and sunlight.

Particulate Matter

Particulate matter. For a larger version, go to: http://1.usa.gov/14hbTWp

All of us are exposed to particulate matter from a wide variety of local and distant sources.  After being produced, particles can transport hundreds of miles.  We encounter it in our homes, in our cars, in our work places, and out in our yards.  Understanding how it changes in the environment on a day-by-day and even hour-by-hour basis will help local citizens be better informed about this pollutant, which has been associated with a wide variety of human health effects.

Black Carbon
There’s an old saying that ‘everyone complains about the weather, but no one ever does anything about it.’ Now here’s our chance to learn about a pollutant that may affect our climate and is also important for health. Scientists now know that combustion products, such as black carbon, have the potential to influence climate change.  Black carbon is also a good indicator of emissions from fuel-burning, including from vehicles, forest fires, and smoking.  By monitoring black carbon levels in local air, the Village Green Project will help increase our understanding of links between local pollution sources and their impact on black carbon.

Even before the monitor is up and running, we’ve received regular inquiries about the Village Green Project from community groups, environmental scientists and those involved in air quality research.  Cleary, we’ve struck a nerve with citizens, and the desire of local communities to know what’s in their air and gain information about local air quality is ever-growing!

We expect the Village Green monitor will be operating this summer.  Stay tuned to this blog for more (and for our future web site) as we move forward.

About the Author: Ron Williams is an exposure science researcher who is studying how people are exposed to air pollutants and methods to measure personal exposure.

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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A Peek into an Unknown World

By Kelly Dulka

A while ago, I made a discovery that reminded me of the vastness of the unknown or unseen.  There are all kinds of references, both funny and fantasy, to worlds and places unknown to us: from the Keebler elves to the Hobbit and even a Journey to the Center of the Earth. I’d like to tell you about my discovery of an unseen natural wonder that really set me to wondering.

A few months ago while getting ready for winter, I was helping my husband replenish the firewood for our woodstove.  He was splitting, and I was stacking. As he was splitting the logs, the pieces would fall apart and to the ground. As I picked up one of the pieces, to my amazement I discovered a small, fragile mushroom growing INSIDE a knothole in the middle of the log. I was shocked, but it was an instant reminder that no matter how far I travel or how hard I try, much of the world around me I may never see.

Mushroom growing in a logIt also made me wonder about what else exists in nature around us in places that we’ll never know. Frequently we hear of a new discovery of an animal species previously unknown, or new sea life that exists far down in the ocean where humans have never been. These unexpected discoveries remind me of both the fragility of nature, but also of its durability and continuity. It seems that Mother Nature has been doing what she does best for years and years just fine, in spite of our mistreatment and the demands we place on her.

Imagine how much more beautiful our world could be if we all took the time to tend and care for her like she does for us. Maybe by picking up trash in a neighborhood park, or snagging a few plastic bags from the branches of one of her trees, or taking the few extra minutes it takes to recycle the oil from that Saturday afternoon oil change. It’s amazing to me that such a little time investment can make such a difference in this old world of ours.

Have you ever made a discovery like this that has made you rethink how you do things? Tell us about it.

About the author: Kelly Dulka works in the Office of Web Communications. She lives in Southern Maryland.

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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