It All Starts with Science

EPA’s MESA Air Study Confirms that Air Pollution Contributes to the #1 Cause of Death in the U.S.

By Dr. Wayne Cascio

This week we took a giant leap forward in our understanding of the relationship between air pollution and heart disease with the publication of results from the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis Air Pollution Study (MESA Air) in the leading medical journal The Lancet.

medical graphic of a coronary artery

Fat accumulation in the wall of a coronary artery

For more than two decades, scientific evidence has shown fine particle pollution (PM2.5) in the outside air is a cause of cardiovascular illness and death, and has justified improving the PM2.5 annual National Ambient Air Quality Standard to protect public health.  Yet, MESA Air was the first U.S. research study to examine a group of people over a period of 10 years and measured directly how long-term exposure to air pollution contributes to the development of heart disease and can lead to heart attacks, abnormal heart rhythms, heart failure, and death.  MESA Air did just that, and Dr. Joel Kaufman, the leader of MESA Air at the University of Washington and his colleagues should be commended for their accomplishment.

MESA Air was funded by EPA and made possible by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, which supports  a larger study on atherosclerosis called MESA. The additional air pollution study had the ambitious goal of seeking an answer to the question of whether long-term exposure to PM2.5 and nitrogen oxides (NOx) was associated with the development and progression of cardiovascular disease.  A total of 6,800 people with diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds and residing in six locations throughout the country agreed to participate in the decade-long study by researchers at the University of Washington who received the grant.  And the results are in!

The researchers used computerized tomography imaging to measure coronary artery calcium content in the same person repeatedly during the study as an indication of coronary artery disease. The results showed that long-term exposure to PM2.5 and NOx increased coronary artery calcium. The increase observed is at a rate that, over the period of the study, would change the risk of heart attack in some.

This study is extraordinary in many ways. First it provides the strongest evidence yet that air pollution can and does contribute to cardiovascular disease–the number one killer of Americans and people in developed countries throughout the world.  Secondly, the results define the relationship between air pollutants and the progression of coronary artery disease over time.  This relationship will help estimate the long-term health impacts and economic burden of air pollution within our population.   And, third the study shows the power of intra-agency cooperation to conduct valuable and cost-effective science.

The findings of MESA Air will continue to reverberate throughout the environmental science and public health communities for some time, but it’s time for healthcare providers, air quality managers and state and local planners to take note and to begin to consider long-term exposure to air pollution as having long-term health implications, even at levels near the National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

About the Author: Dr. Wayne Cascio spent more than 25 years as a cardiologist before joining EPA’s Office of Research and Development where he now leads research on the links between exposures to air pollution and public health, and how people can use that information to maintain healthy hearts.

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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This Week in EPA Science

By Kacey FitzpatrickBike with Recap wheels

It’s National Bike to Work Day! Did you ride your bike to work? Way to go! Now you can sit back, relax, and catch up on the latest in EPA science.

And if you didn’t bike to work—that’s okay, I didn’t either. But you can still enjoy the Recap.

Supporting Undergraduate Research
For more than 30 years, EPA has been supporting and encouraging undergraduates in environmental-related fields through the Greater Research Opportunities (GRO) Fellowship program. EPA just announced that GRO fellowships were awarded to 34 students who are majoring in environmental science, engineering, mathematics, and technology all across the nation. Read more about the fellowships in the blog GROing Above and Beyond.

Chemical Safety Research
EPA researchers are using new technology to improve computational exposure science, which helps create a more complete picture of how and in what amounts chemicals enter our bodies. Learn more about this research in the Science Matters article Improved Methods for Estimating Chemical Exposure.

Science to Achieve Results
Do you want to study how air pollution contributes to the development of cardiovascular disease? Then check out our latest Science to Achieve Results funding opportunity. You can learn more by looking at the Long-term Exposure to Air Pollution and Development of Cardiovascular Disease research grants page.

National Wetland Condition Assessment
This month EPA released the National Wetland Condition Assessment, a collaborative survey of our Nation’s wetlands. The survey examined the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of wetlands through a set of commonly used and widely accepted indicators. Learn more about the assessment here.

Stormwater Management in Response to Climate Change Impact
EPA and NOAA have led workshops and other community efforts across the Chesapeake Bay and Great Lakes regions to discuss how projected land use and climate change could impact local water conditions. This week EPA released a final report containing findings from these workshops. Read more in the report Stormwater Management in Response to Climate Change Impacts: Lessons from the Chesapeake Bay and Great Lakes Regions.

About the Author: Kacey Fitzpatrick is a student contractor and writer working with the science communication team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. She is a regular contributor to It All Starts with Science and the founding writer of “The Research Recap.”

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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GROing Above and Beyond

By Michaela Burns

Having recently graduated university, I still have early morning classes, long research paper assignments, and three to five hour finals very fresh in my mind. So fresh in fact that some days I find myself still preparing to walk across campus even though I now live a state away. I have to shake the thought off with an exaggerated shudder. When I think about how I made it through those dark times, one thing leaps to the front of my mind—I had a lot of help. If I tried to count the teachers, friends, and employers that inspired and supported me throughout my four year trek in academia I’d run out of fingers and toes. Sometimes it was just a two minute conversation in the hall, other times it was a very scathing paper critique. To use an African proverb commonly quoted today, “It took a village,” a network of people and organizations, to get me emotionally, physically and academically to the finish line.

plant growing out of bookFor more than 30 years, EPA has been supporting and encouraging undergraduates in environmental-related fields through the Greater Research Opportunities (GRO) Fellowship program. Winners of this fellowship receive up to $50,000 for their last 2 years of college and the chance to intern at an EPA facility during the summer. Sponsorship and hands-on-research experience can be invaluable to prospective environmental scientists, giving them the tools and the contacts they need to pursue careers in federal government, academia, the private sector, and other non-government organizations.

EPA just announced that  GRO fellowships were awarded to 34 students who are majoring in environmental science, engineering, mathematics, and technology all across the nation. Just like me, these GRO fellows will now have the opportunity to fulfill their ambitions like finding sustainable solutions to protect freshwater resources, contributing to environmental policy, and exploring the interaction between pollution and the environment. Congratulations to the next generation of environmental scientists!

You can learn more about some of our fellowship opportunities here.

About the Author: Michaela Burns is an Oak Ridge Associated Universities contractor and writer for the science communication team in 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.

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This Week in EPA Science

By Kacey Fitzpatrickresearch_recap_250

Rain got you stuck inside all weekend? Well here’s something to pass the time until those May flowers finally show up. Check out the latest in EPA science.

EPA’s P3 Student Design Competition
Did you miss our P3 (People, Prosperity and the Planet) student design competition at this year’s USA National Science & Engineering Festival? Well don’t worry—EPA’s Christina Burchette recapped the event and some of the innovative projects on display in her blog EPA’s P3 Student Design Competition: Where Science and Creative Genius Meet.

Supporting the Next Generation of Scientists
EPA announced the winner of its Patrick H. Hurd Sustainability Award today at the Intel International Science & Engineering festival. High School Student Alexis D’Alessandro was honored with the award for her project that is providing clean drinking water affordably to a community in Kenya. Learn more in this press release.

EPA Researchers at Work
Meet EPA Ecologist Steve Paulsen! Steve works on National Aquatic Resource Surveys –a collaborative program designed to assess the quality of the nation’s coastal waters, lakes and reservoirs, rivers and streams, and wetlands. Read his profile to learn why he thinks of his science as a combination of accounting and exploration.

Meet EPA IT Specialist Linda Harwell! Linda’s love for the ocean started at a very early age. As a Navy brat, Linda moved around a lot but she never lived far from a coast. Even now, working at EPA’s research laboratory in Gulf Breeze, Linda gets to see the ocean right outside her office every day.

Learn more about what it’s like to be a scientist at EPA in our Researchers at Work profiles.

Upcoming Events
Need more science? Here are some public meetings and webinars EPA is hosting this month.

About the Author: Kacey Fitzpatrick is a student contractor and writer working with the science communication team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. She is a regular contributor to It All Starts with Science and the founding writer of “The Research Recap.”

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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Events to Watch for in May

By Michaela Burns

May is the best month—yes I said it. It’s the month before summer vacation, it’s the month where the weather gets warmer, and it’s the month of my birthday. Here are some public meetings and webinars EPA is hosting this month.

Look out for these events!

Children’s Center Monthly Webinar
Wednesday, May 11th 1:00 p.m. ET

paper cutouts of kids and a houseUp first is the EPA and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) Children’s Center Webinar series. This month’s topic is on the exposome, the measure of exposures in an individual lifetime and how those exposures affect their health. This webinar is bringing together leading experts in this field—Dr. Elaine Faustman from University of Washington, Dr. Roy Gerona from University of California, San Francisco, and Dr. Stephen Rappaport from University of California, Berkeley. After the presentations, Dr. Yuxia Cui of NIEHS will moderate a discussion.
Register now to be a part of the conversation.

Harmful Algal Blooms
Wednesday, May 18th 3:00 p.m. ET

harmful algal bloomsMost algae species are not harmful, but sometimes certain types can bloom in excessive amounts and cause severe damage to human health, aquatic ecosystems, and local economies. Harmful algal blooms (HABs), algae that produce unhealthy toxins, cause problems across the nation. EPA researchers are looking for ways to eliminate or reduce the negative effects of HABs.
Register to get up to speed.

iCSS Chemistry Dashboard
Thursday, May 26th 11:00 a.m. ET

screen shot of chemistry dashboardCurious about chemistry data for over 700,000 chemicals? Then you can’t miss this month’s Computational Toxicology Communities of Practice webinar. Tune in to learn more about our Interactive Chemical Safety for Sustainability Chemistry Dashboard. This online tool provides access to chemical structures, experimental and predicted data, and additional links to relevant websites and applications. Chemistry information on thousands of chemicals will now be more publicly accessible!
Contact Monica Linnenbrink (linnenbrink.monica@epa.gov) to register.

Responding to Harmful Algal Blooms
Tuesday, May 31st, 2:00 p.m. ET

Lake ErieHarmful algal blooms pose particular challenges for small drinking water systems. In this month’s small systems webinar, EPA Environmental Engineer Nicholas Dugan will review the removal capacities of common processes used in drinking water treatment, present a strategy for evaluating an existing treatment facility, and discuss how to use this information to improve a facility’s performance. Heather Raymond of Ohio EPA’s Division of Drinking and Ground Waters will cover source and finished water monitoring options and their limitations and benefits. Bonus—Attendees have the option of receiving a certificate for one continuing education contact hour for each webinar. Register now!

For more events check out the EPA Research Events page.

About the Author: Michaela Burns is an Oak Ridge Associated Universities contractor and writer for the science communication team in 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.

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EPA’s P3 Student Design Competition: Where Science and Creative Genius Meet

By Christina Burchette

This year’s USA National Science & Engineering Festival was a huge event. The convention center in downtown Washington, DC was buzzing all weekend long with thousands of people coming to see the fascinating gizmos and gadgets on display by various companies and organizations (and to learn about science, of course).

While many of the exhibits boasted flashy set-ups and hi-tech gadgets that could awe anyone, our P3 (People, Prosperity and the Planet) student design competition participants were impressing passersby with the innovative genius of their simple, sustainable, and cost-effective projects. The EPA P3 design program invites college students to design environmental solutions that move us towards a sustainable future by benefiting people, promoting prosperity, and protecting the planet.

P3 participant shows project to little kid

P3 participant explains air filter project

Students share their P3 projects at the festival.

This year, 38 student teams received P3 Phase I grants of up to $15,000 to research and test the original projects that they presented at the USA Science & Engineering Festival. In a couple of months, some of these teams will be chosen to receive up to $75,000 in additional grant money to continue developing their projects and implement them in the field or marketplace.

When I wandered into the two rows of P3 teams, I was floored by the creativity and ingenuity of the projects—and how excited these students were to share their work.

One team told me that they created a self-sustaining mini-ecosystem comprised of just fish and vegetables. The fish waste provided fertilizer for the vegetables, and the vegetables kept the water clean for the fish to thrive. The system will provide organic food to those who need it most—the team was hoping to set up these systems at elementary schools for children who don’t get enough to eat at home. To add to that, the team plans to employ homeless vets to maintain and manage the mini-ecosystems. The project design is simple, completely organic and sustainable, and considers socioeconomic issues as well as environmental ones!

Another team used what they described as “home depot technology” to solve a problem that plagues major rivers that flow into the ocean: eutrophication, an excess of nutrients clogging waterways and sparking algal growth that absorbs oxygen that aquatic creatures depend on. Their project involved installing bioreactors with naturally-occurring bacteria at the edges of crop fields so that that bacteria could eat the excess nitrate that is washed away from fields by rain, instead of allowing it to flow off into waterways. It blew my mind how simple and effective their design was, and the fact that they said anyone could build it with the right tools.

What amazed me most about listening to all of the students and faculty talk about their projects is the fact that they’ve managed to develop such creative solutions to environmental issues that seem impossible to solve. It just goes to show how much we can accomplish with science, inspiration, and a little creativity.

 

About the Author: Christina Burchette is an Oak Ridge Associated Universities contractor and writer for the science communication team in 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.

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This Week in EPA Science

By Kacey Fitzpatrick

research_recap_250It’s Air Quality Awareness Week! Did you forget to do anything for it? Well take a deep breath, we’ve got a ton of EPA air research for you to learn about right here.

Wildfire Research
EPA researchers have developed a biomass fuel system to test emissions from different fires using various types of fuel from common trees in the U.S. The goal is to determine if different fuels and the stage of fire (hot blaze versus smoldering) provide insight into potential health impacts from inhaling smoke from forest fires. Learn more about this research in the blog Simulating Wildland Fires in a Tube to Protect Public Health.

Generate! A game for all ages
EPA researcher Rebecca Dodder received a Presidential Early Career Award for Science and Engineering award this week. Her award-winning research connects the dots between climate change, energy and air quality. One of her creative approaches to sharing science with the younger generation: a game called Generate! Learn more about the game in the blog Gamify the Grid!

Grants to Combat the Impacts of Climate Change
Climate change is affecting air quality by influencing the type and amount of pollutants in the air. EPA is taking action to protect air quality by awarding grants to 12 universities to study the implications to air quality from a changing climate. Read about this research in the blog Particulate Matter in a Changing World: Grants to Combat the Impacts of Climate Change.

Air Research Centers
EPA is funding three university-based Air, Climate and Energy Research Centers through the Science to Achieve Results program. The centers will tackle pressing air quality issues for many communities across the U.S. still overburdened by air pollution. Read more about the new centers in the blog Air Quality Awareness: A New Generation of Research.

Monitoring Air Quality from Space
EPA researchers are supporting the Korea-United States Air Quality Study, a study by NASA and South Korea to improve the capabilities of satellites to monitor air quality from space and provide answers to protect air quality overseas as well as in the U.S. Learn more about the study in a fact sheet available for download at: http://go.usa.gov/cuvcF.

And here are a couple of other stories we’re highlighting this week.

National Small Business Week!
Small businesses are engines of innovation. The federal government harnesses some of this ingenuity through the Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) programs. EPA is one of eleven federal agencies that participate in SBIR. Finding SBIR funding opportunities for sensor-related research and development just became easier with the launch of Sensor Technology for the 21st Century. Read about this new resource in the blog Sensor Technology for the 21st Century.

Today is National Nurses Day!
Today marks the start of National Nurses Week, a time to honor all nurses and increase awareness of their immeasurable contributions to the health and well-being of our nation. EPA’s Dr. Wayne Cascio thanked the nurses in federal, state, and local service who attend to the well-being of our nation through their practice of environmental health and public health in his blog EPA Celebrates National Nurses Day and Honors Our Nurses.

About the Author: Kacey Fitzpatrick is a student contractor and writer working with the science communication team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. She is a regular contributor to It All Starts with Science and the founding writer of “The Research Recap.”

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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EPA Celebrates National Nurses Day and Honors Our Nurses

By Wayne Cascio, MD

Happy National Nurses Day!

Today is National Nurses Day and marks the start of National Nurses Week, a time to honor all nurses and increase awareness of their immeasurable contributions to the health and well-being of our nation.  On this day, when our nation recognizes the largest single group of professionals within our health care workforce, I’d like to call attention to all nurses in federal, state, and local service who attend to the well-being of our nation through their practice of environmental health and public health.  Whether working for a county, a state health agency, the federal government, or the private sector, these dedicated professionals make a difference in the quality of life of the communities they serve.  They are often the health professionals on the front lines identifying and responding to the health and emotional impacts of environmental conditions affecting communities, working with at-risk populations, increasing environmental and health literacy, conducting research, fostering interdisciplinary cooperation and collaboration, and building coalitions.

The states and their departments of public health and environmental health provide the backbone of public health nursing in the US., EPA, the Environmental Council of the States, and the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, recently signed a joint Memorandum of Understanding pledging to work together and find  additional opportunities to connect with other professionals who share our common mission.

Over the last two decades, public health nursing has sought to establish a unique identity based on its distinctive contributions to public health.  This identity is now well defined in the “Cornerstones of Public Health Nursing” (Keller, et al., 2011) that describes many themes shared by our Agency.  Public health nursing practice focuses on the health of the whole population with a holistic view of health that includes its mental, physical, emotional, social, spiritual, and environmental components.  Moreover, their practice is founded on principles of social justice, compassion, and the respect and worth of all people. Their work reflects the communities’ priorities and needs and promotes health through approaches driven by epidemiological evidence.

Today EPA is again reaching out to nurses and other allied health professionals to become more aware of environmental health issues and to view such issues as a key component of keeping the communities they serve safe and healthy.  We applaud the efforts of all nurses, especially our public health nurses, and on this special day call on them to celebrate their successes and envision a healthier future.

Reference:  Keller LO, Strohschein S, Schaffer MA. Cornerstones of Public Health Nursing. Public Health Nursing 28: 249–260, 2011

Dr CascioAbout the Author: Dr. Wayne Cascio spent more than 25 years as a cardiologist before joining EPA’s Office of Research and Development where he now leads research on the links between exposures to air pollution and public health, and seeks to increase cooperation among healthcare, public health and environmental health professionals to improve public health.

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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Sensor Technology for the 21st Century

By Joel Creswell, Ph.D. 

Small businesses are engines of innovation. They have the flexibility to take risks and try new things. The federal government harnesses some of this ingenuity through the Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) programs. EPA is one of eleven federal agencies that participate in SBIR. These grant and contract programs fund research and development on federal priorities by U.S.-owned businesses with 500 or fewer employees. Since their inception in 1982, they have awarded more than $26 billion.

Before joining EPA as a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow in 2015, I worked for a small business in Seattle, WA, developing technology for analyzing trace metals in the environment. While I was there, we undertook a sensor development project made possible by an SBIR grant from the Department of Energy. One of my biggest challenges in applying for SBIR grants was finding the right funding opportunities for my area of expertise. At the time, there was no central location to browse through sensor funding opportunities – I had to read through hundreds of pages of solicitations from every SBIR-granting agency to find the right research topics. Because each agency has its own calendar for releasing solicitations and accepting proposals, staying on top of the relevant funding opportunities requires a significant time commitment.

Man holds up small sensor

EPA is supporting small businesses and the next generation of environmental sensors.

On March 1, 2016, finding SBIR funding opportunities for sensor-related research and development became easier. SBIR.gov posted Sensor Technology for the 21st Century to provide a central web location to help sensor developers locate SBIR and/or STTR funding opportunities across federal agencies. This site significantly reduces the effort required to browse sensor topics from a wide range of agencies. It also highlights the extent to which the U.S. Government is a significant driver of sensor innovation.

The new Sensor Technology for the 21st Century resource has several ambitious goals in addition to making it easier to find sensor funding opportunities. These include encouraging agencies to collaborate to fund different phases of the same research projects to increase their chances of commercial success; making each agency more aware of what sensor topics its peer agencies are funding; and avoiding duplicative investments across the government in sensor technology. This effort was developed in coordination with the federal working group on Exposure Science in the 21st Century and the National Nanotechnology Initiative under the White House National Science and Technology Council. So far ten federal agencies have contributed to this effort, including EPA.

If you are a sensor developer, whether for medicine, industrial automation, aerospace, water quality, or another field, take a look and explore the range of agencies that would consider funding your work. What you find may surprise you.

About the Author: Joel Creswell is an environmental chemist and a AAAS Fellow on the EPA Office of Research and Development’s Innovation Team. Prior to coming to EPA, he worked on developing environmental trace metals analyzers for a scientific instrument company.

 

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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Simulating Wildland Fires in a Tube to Protect Public Health

By Dina Abdulhadi

After a long day of backpacking in the woods, I always look forward to watching the story arc of a campfire. The flames grow slowly, then leap up as the fire builds momentum. As the fire calms, the logs smolder and glow with heat.

Wildfires have similar phases. During an active fire, flames rapidly move over the landscape. The remaining embers can smolder on for days to weeks after the fire front passes, depending on what trees or other vegetation are there to fuel the fire. These two factors—what is burning and whether it’s flaming or smoldering—affect the smoke that people ultimately breathe.

To study the potential health risks of breathing wildfire smoke, a major form of air pollution, researchers at EPA are now using a technology that mimics these phases of a fire in a laboratory in Research Triangle Park, N.C. Originally developed to investigate tobacco’s health effects, this Biomass Furnace System allows researchers to study the chaotic nature of fire in a controlled setting and compare emissions from different trees during the fire and smoldering stages. Knowing these differences will provide more information to protect public health and enable air quality managers to prepare for the increased wildfires we expect in the future due to climate change and drought.

Tube used to conduct simulation

Biomass Fuel Combustion System

 

Particulate matter (PM) is one of the main pollutants created by fire. These tiny particles are produced when anything is burned—whether that’s the logs to your campfire or gasoline ignited to fuel your car’s engine. Many studies have linked it to effects on the heart and lungs.

During 2011, wildfires and controlled burns alone contributed up to 41 percent of emitted PM pollution in the U.S. This pollution can have drastic effects on the local community, but it can also affect the air breathed by those far away as the smoke drifts.

To understand the growing impact of wildfires on human health, researchers plan to look at effects on the heart, nervous system (such as headaches), and respiratory system from a variety of wood fuels by using models. They’ll also investigate if PM from wildfire smoke is more or less harmful than PM from other sources of air pollution, like car exhaust.

map of potential fires across US

Map showing distribution of potential wildfire fuels across the United States (Credit: Yongho Kim)

According to the National Fire Center, two fires are burning right now in my state of North Carolina alone. When you consider what could be happening in the other 49 states as well, this kind of research becomes that much more valuable for scientists working to protect public health.

Want to learn more about the research EPA conducts on wildfires to protect human health and the environment? Listen to our Science Bite Podcast Following the Smoke: Wildfires and Health.

About the author: Dina Abdulhadi is a student contractor working with the science communication team in 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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.