air research

Particulate Matter in a Changing World: Grants to Combat the Impacts of Climate Change

By Christina Burchette

There are certain things that are always changing: the weather, fashion trends, and technology (which iPhone are we on again?) are a few that come to mind. I can always count on the fact that these things won’t stay the same for long. But there are other things that I typically expect to remain the same: I expect to get hungry around lunchtime, I expect the bus to come every morning, and I expect to be able to breathe clean air. I don’t even think about the possibility of these things not happening—until something changes.

I definitely don’t think about air quality often or expect it to change. As long as I’m breathing and well, why would I? But in reality, air quality changes every day, and over time it may change a lot depending on how we treat our environment—and we need to be ready for these changes. This is why EPA recently awarded research grants to 12 universities to protect air quality from current and future challenges associated with climate change impacts.

Climate change is affecting air quality by influencing the type and amount of pollutants in the air. One type of pollutant present in our air is particulate matter, or PM. Long-term exposure to PM is linked to various health effects, including heart disease and lung function, and it doesn’t take a high concentration to affect our bodies. The more PM there is in the air, the more likely we are to be affected by health conditions.

landscape of Death Valley National Park with dust storm

A dust storm in Death Valley National Park

With EPA Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grants, university researchers are approaching the future of air quality from multiple angles with a focus on learning more about the PM-climate change relationship. They will study the impacts of increased wildfire activity that generates PM, often called soot, in the Rocky Mountains. They will look at the impacts that climate change and land use change have on the development of dust storms in the West and Southwest; and they will evaluate the best means of energy production in California where air quality is among the worst in the nation to reduce health care costs and lower levels of PM and greenhouse gases.

Over the next few decades, climate change will be the catalyst for various environmental trends, so finding a way to manage the impacts of these trends is essential to protecting our health. The work these grantees do will help to inform air quality managers and others to make sustainable and cost-effective decisions that keep our air quality at healthy levels and protect public health and the environment. That way, future generations will think of good air quality as something we can expect.

To learn more about these grants and read the abstracts, visit the Particulate Matter and Related Pollutants in a Changing World results page.

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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Air Quality Awareness: A New Generation of Research

By Dan Costa, Sc.D.

Graphic of clouds and buildings in a silhouette cityscape. It’s Air Quality Awareness Week! This week, EPA is showing how we care about the air by announcing grants to three institutions to create air research centers. We now understand more than ever about the threats of air pollution to environmental and human health, but there is still more to learn. EPA has a history of supporting research and development that complements the work of our own staff scientists to bolster scientific knowledge about the effects of air pollution. EPA uses this knowledge to address many pressing questions and understand connections between our changing environment and human health.

Since 1999, EPA has funded three rounds of research centers through a competitive grant process. The scientific experts at these centers have contributed to a more complete understanding of the persistent air quality challenges that continue to face our nation. The first round of EPA funded air research centers focused on particulate matter and examined the link between particulate matter and cardiovascular disease. In 2005, the next round of centers focused on whether differing health effects could be linked to specific sources of air pollution. By 2010, it was clear that to get an accurate understanding of real life exposures, we needed to examine the health effects of exposure to multiple pollutants at once instead of just one or two at a time. The third round of centers took on this complex challenge. The next step is to delve into questions regarding how the health effects of air pollution may vary in different cities and regions across our country – each with its own unique characteristics and set of pollution sources.

This leads us to today and our exciting announcement–EPA is awarding $30 million through its Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program to fund the establishment of Air, Climate, and Energy (ACE) Research Centers at Yale University, Harvard University and Carnegie Mellon University. These Centers will consider changing energy production methods and local climate, while investigating the effects of global climate change, technology, and societal choices on local air quality and health.

I am eagerly anticipating the many new tools and ideas that will be produced by this next generation of EPA funded air research centers.

About the Author: Dan Costa is the national program director for EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy Research Program.

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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Olive Oil and Fish Oil: Possible Protectors against Air Pollution

By Rose Keane

My grandmother is 97, and last year she chopped down an orange tree in her backyard with an axe. Recently I asked her how she was still able to live and move around so independently, and she says to me in her thick Austrian accent, “I take fish oil tablets – they’re very good.” Many people have said that fish oil will improve your health, but when you ask them they have no idea how or why. EPA scientist Dr. Samantha J. Snow is working to answer some questions about what fish oil may do by investigating the potential link between fish oil and how the body handles air pollution exposure.

Dr. Snow looks at a slide

EPA scientist Dr. Samantha J. Snow

Snow is receiving the Women in Toxicology’s Postdoctoral Achievement Award, presented by the Society of Toxicology (SOT), at the annual meeting held in New Orleans this week. Her recent research uses animal models to look at how these oils in the diet might change how the body handles exposure to ozone, a common outdoor air pollutant. A large body of scientific research has shown that the lungs and heart can be affected by air pollution. Scientists like Snow are studying whether ozone pollutants in the air are damaging other organ systems and even how our bodies use and regulate energy, also known as our metabolism. Snow and her colleagues are trying to find out whether adding fish oil to a diet can help people like my grandmother ward off the damaging effects of air pollution.

What the team discovered so far is that fish oil and olive oil could potentially protect muscles in the body from breaking down due to air pollution exposure. That might explain how my Oma was able to tackle that tree! The preliminary findings also suggest that fish oil could protect against higher levels of cholesterol caused by air pollution. However, olive oil was linked to a decreased ability to regulate glucose levels in the blood after ozone exposure.

Dr. Snow using a microscopeThese results could have very interesting implications for health research in the future, and could help scientists better identify how changing our diets might actually help protect our bodies from the harmful effects of air pollution. Scientists will also be better equipped to understand how the different systems in the body react differently to exposure.

In addition to her research, Snow has been very active in leadership roles in organizations such as the Society of Toxicology Postdoctoral Assembly and the Rho Tau chapter of Graduate Women in Science.

Snow’s presentation, entitled ‘Coconut, Fish and Olive Oil- Rich Diets Modify Ozone Induced Metabolic Effects,’ is one of many by EPA scientists at the largest toxicology meeting in the U.S. For a complete list of all EPA researchers presenting at this year’s SOT event, visit us at https://epa.gov/research/sot.

About the Author: Rose Keane is an Oak Ridge Associated Universities contractor with the science communications 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 Supports the Science that Makes a Difference for Heart Health

By Dr. Wayne Cascio

By Presidential proclamation, February 2016 is American Heart Month and once again we turn our attention to keeping our hearts healthy.  In his proclamation, President Obama asks us to, “remember those we have lost to this devastating disease, promote healthy lifestyles that mitigate its impacts, and pledge to continue our fight against it.”

Here at EPA we are doing just that. In the Office of Research and Development, scientists are working to understand how our experiences with our environment interact with genetic, social and health factors to contribute to the progression of blood vessel and heart diseases like high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes and heart failure.  And we stand with our President and our partners at the CDC’s Million Hearts Initiative to promote a healthy environment and lifestyle to keep hearts healthy and prevent heart disease and stroke and eliminate health disparities.

In the U.S. the prevalence of high blood pressure is highest among African American men often leading to stroke, heart disease, and kidney failure.  So, today at 3 p.m. ET, we are joining Million Hearts and Men’s Health Network for a conversation on “What African American men need for a healthy heart” on Twitter using #HeartMonthChat.

The message is a simple one: Control risk factors for heart disease like high blood pressure, eat healthy, and stay active. Yet for some this is not an easy task.  Who we are and where we live may limit our ability to follow this simple guidance.  EPA is working to make a difference by helping communities benefit from healthier environments and enjoy healthier lives.

EPA researchers and research funded by EPA has greatly contributed to our knowledge of the connection between our environment and heart and blood vessel disease. Science shows that outdoor air particle pollution exposure increases blood pressure and increases the risk of stroke and heart attacks. And that improved air quality has translated into longer lives. Yet, it’s still the personal decisions we make about our lifestyles that have the biggest effect on our health. So taking action on lowering our risk factors for heart and blood vessel disease, making heart healthy food choices and increasing the availability of healthy environments to live and be active in can be a goal for all of us.

If you have heart or blood vessel disease the factsheet “Heart Disease, Stroke and Outdoor Air Pollution”  tells how to use the Air Quality Index and its daily forecast to reduce exposure to air pollution and protect your health.  It also includes information about risk factors and the warning symptoms of heart attacks and stroke.

You can access more information from EPA’s Healthy Heart Toolkit and learn about the science we are doing to protect heart health.Million Hearts twitter chat information

Reference:

  1. Mozaffarian D, et al; American Heart Association Statistics Committee and Stroke Statistics Subcommittee. Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics-2016 Update: A Report From the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2016 Jan 26;133(4):e38-e360.

 

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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Kid Scientists Shine at White House Event

By Amanda Kaufman

Kaufman SoSTEm

Amanda Kaufman at the SoSTEM event.

President Obama’s last State of the Union address on January 12th called for giving everyone a fair shot at opportunity, including offering every student the “hands-on computer science and math classes that make them job-ready on day one.” The United States government, including EPA, is supporting this call by encouraging the next generation of scientists and engineers. There IS hope—and I experienced firsthand that hope with a group of young students at the White House just last week.

On January 13th, my colleague Joel Creswell and I demonstrated some of EPA’s emerging air sensor technologies research at a post-State of the Union event at the White House called the State of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Address (SoSTEM). SoSTEM brought in students from all over—the Bronx, Baltimore, DC, and more—to showcase innovative science and technology to excite the imaginations of the students and encourage them to follow their dreams and passions no matter how insurmountable they may seem. Over 150 students from 5th through 12th grade attended the event.

I was lucky enough to spend several hours with these kids while I exhibited a variety of portable, lower-cost citizen science air monitors. They also got to build their own air pollution sensors using LED lights, microprocessors, electrical circuitry, and particulate matter (PM) sensors using kits designed by EPA research engineer Gayle Hagler. These energetic students had lots of questions about the sensors and air pollution in general, and I was amazed by how much they already knew about both topics or just figured out as we played with the various devices.

This event also featured presentations by NASA, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the National Institutes of Health, and some words of wisdom and encouragement from White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren and U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith, as well as several others.

The day ended with a live question-and-answer video chat session with scientists working at the South Pole. The students lined up eagerly to ask questions about what it’s like to live at the South Pole and what kinds of challenges they face in such a harsh environment.

Throughout the day, I was constantly impressed by the vision and enthusiasm exhibited by each of the young people, which inspired me to think of what future discoveries they would bring. All this “controlled chaos of enthusiasm” was accompanied by inquiring student reporters making their rounds with thoughtful questions. It was great to see these kids link what they were seeing to school subjects, making the connection between the microprocessors used in the air sensors and those being used in their computer science or robotics classes.

With support from President Obama and others, these kids are a shining example of our future. The common message given to students throughout the day was to stick with their dreams, to never give up, and to never stop dreaming. Quoting John Holdren, “The spirit of discovery is in our DNA…You [the students] are at the core of President Obama’s vision for the future.”

Check out a few more resources and a video from this event, below:

EPA Air Sensor Toolbox for Citizen Scientists

Report to the President: Prepare and Inspire: K-12 Education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) For America’s Future

About the Author: Amanda Kaufman is an ORISE participant hosted by EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy national research program.

 

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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Getting an Upgrade to Protect Air Quality

CMAQ_EM_magazine

EPA scientist Havala Pye uses CMAQ to show emissions related to vegetation in the Southeast United States.

By Dina Abdulhadi

What technology upgrades matter to you? Most people I know get excited about their new phones: faster speeds, better cameras, and new traffic apps, to name a few.

You know that camera on your old phone? The images were pixelated; if you zoomed in, you could not see the details of your dog’s whiskers or the horizon on a smoggy day. Just like your new phone with a better camera, scientists have an upgrade to an important tool used to visualize the earth’s atmosphere.

With this major upgrade to an atmospheric model – the Community Multi-scale Air Quality model (CMAQv5.1) – researchers and air quality managers have improved options to understand how air pollution moves throughout the atmosphere locally, nationally, and globally. The upgrade provides air quality managers an even more powerful tool to evaluate air quality and protect the air we breathe.

For example, one new option is like the zoom feature on a cell phone camera. “Zooming out,” researchers can see how multiple air pollutants—including ozone, particulate matter (PM), and several air toxics—move across the Northern Hemisphere. This expanded scale helps to see what actions can be taken locally or nationally to improve air quality.  Researchers can also “zoom in” using the model to the city or neighborhood scale, where CMAQ can help identify pockets prone to higher air pollution. Modeling pollution at this smaller scale allows researchers to estimate pollution exposures more accurately, which can be used to determine air pollution risks to health.

While people are not standing in long lines outside of a retail store for this latest version, the model is used worldwide to conduct air quality research and to make decisions on how best to protect air quality.

CMAQ was first launched 15 years ago, and since then, air quality has improved with the use of this and other tools. More recently, CMAQ was used to determine the impact of EPA’s new standards for car emissions and fuels. The standards aim to reduce sulfur in gasoline by 60 percent starting in 2017, helping avoid up to 2,000 premature deaths per year and 50,000 cases of respiratory ailments in children.

Researchers are using the model to learn more about what air pollution can do to our health. By using CMAQ to estimate ozone levels across North Carolina, for example, researchers found that ozone concentrations may be linked with an increased risk of lower birthweights in rural and urban areas. By estimating the levels of PM and ozone exposures over time for farmers in North Carolina and Iowa, researchers also found a potential elevated risk of Parkinson’s disease.

Science and technology constantly advances, and in turn it changes how we think about the world and our environment. Powerful tools like CMAQv5.1 are making a big difference in protecting public health and the environment and will continue to evolve, much like the technology we use every day to connect with friends and family, find out if it will rain, and even get a daily forecast of air quality using the Air Quality Index.

 

For more information: http://bit.ly/EPA-CMAQ  

About the author: Dina Abdulhadi works 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.

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Learn About Your Environment with Science Bite Podcasts

By Jocelyn Buckley

I know you’re really busy. I know that as much as you want to stay updated on the latest news, you just don’t have the time to sit down and read a newspaper. We want to make it easier for you to stay informed about some pretty cool science that is protecting your health and environment. Instead of downloading the latest Maroon 5 song, you should check out EPA’s “Science Bite” podcast. While each episode is only about three minutes long, they provide a healthy dose of research news.

Science Bite graphic identifier: illustration of globe with headphones“Science Bite” explores the research conducted by some very dedicated EPA scientists and engineers to protect air quality, prepare for climate change impacts on human health and ecosystems, and make energy decisions for a sustainable world. Researchers talk about their work and why it is important.  I had the privilege of meeting some of these researchers while helping write the most recent podcast, and I have never met such passionate, intelligent people.

I found out a lot about environmental issues and interesting facts by listening to these podcasts. Here’s a quick sampling of my three favorites (there are more):

  • July’s episode focused on the dangers of cookstoves fueled on wood, charcoal and other traditional fuels, and how they affect the health of many, many people around the world as a result of their indoor emissions.
  • In May’s “Science Bite,” EPA researchers talked about the Village Green Project, and how this state-of-the-art park bench can measure air pollution.
  • The most recent podcast discusses wildfire emissions. Who knew that there are many more things to consider besides your lungs? Researcher Ian Gilmour talked a little bit about his experience with the 2008 study of a peat fire in Eastern North Carolina.

Science-Bite1So, if you’re driving to work or eating breakfast, spare a couple of minutes to hear what’s going on in your environment. Go to www2.epa.gov/research/science-bite-podcasts for more information.

About the Author: Jocelyn Buckley was a student intern in EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy Research Program this summer. She will graduate from high school next year, and hopes to pursue environmental policy and journalism.

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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Are Some People More At Risk from Air Pollution?

By Dina Abdulhadi

Rearview mirror during an early morning commute.

A study by researchers from EPA and Duke University reflects how traffic-related air pollution can impact the health of people living in nearby communities.

I’m driving in rush hour traffic, waiting for the slow crawl of cars to reach the speed I would be moving had I biked home. My heart rate rises slightly; it’s a beautiful summer day and I’m thinking of the many things I’d rather be doing than sitting in traffic.

The congestion eventually eases though, and I’m home. I breathe deeply, and my heart rate lowers.

The stress I felt had an immediate but temporary effect on my health. For people who live in communities near these congested roadways, however, traffic can have a longer-term impact on heart health. And even then, air pollution does not affect everyone equally.

A new study suggests that women and African-Americans who live near busy roadways may have a greater risk than their white male counterparts for developing high fasting blood sugar levels, a risk factor for heart disease.

The study used a database called CATHGEN, developed by Duke University. It contains health information on nearly 10,000 people who received cardiac catheterization, a common test for heart disease. Researchers at EPA and Duke University are using the participant’s health data to see how air pollution also affects the progression of heart disease.

A large body of research has connected fine particulate matter, a common air pollutant, to health effects, including heart problems. Many studies have even found that consistent exposure to the same elevated level of air pollution can have a stronger impact on blood glucose for women than men. But the race-related disparity is a new observation, researchers conclude in the study.

This study is one in a series that aims to see how factors like age, sex, race, disease status, genetic makeup, socioeconomic status, and where a person lives can put someone at greater risk from the health effects of air pollution. The knowledge gained through CATHGEN studies can be used to develop public health strategies for protecting those at greater risk from air pollution and to support review of the Air Quality Standards under the Clean Air Act.

Ongoing EPA CATHGEN studies are expected to provide more answers to the question of whether air pollution may affect people differently. In the meantime, read this first CATHGEN study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives and titled, Association of Roadway Proximity with Fasting Plasma Glucose and Metabolic Risk Factors for Cardiovascular Disease in a Cross-Sectional Study of Cardiac Catheterization Patients.

Air pollution most strongly effects those already at risk for heart disease, mainly older adults and those with high blood pressure, cholesterol, or history of heart problems. Though I’m young and healthy, days with higher pollution levels can still make me winded while exercising even if they don’t trigger a heart attack. Reading papers like this reminds me to check the Air Quality Index before planning long summer bike rides and makes me appreciate how important environmental quality is to human 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.

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Release of Community Air Monitoring Training Videos

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Community leaders and EPA presenters

By Amanda Kaufman

I have seen a fast expansion of next generation air pollution sensor technologies while working in the field of citizen science for the past three years. Small, hand-held air quality sensors are now commercially available and provide citizens the ability to plan, conduct, and understand local environmental air quality as never before. Many of these cost less than $1,000, making them more accessible for community groups and even individuals to purchase.

While the new sensor technologies generally do not provide regulatory-grade data, such devices are rapidly advancing to improve data quality and can be used to enhance monitoring efforts. They can be used in a wide range of situations including to investigate air quality concerns in local communities and to teach people about the importance of clean air to public health and the environment.

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EPA’s Kristen Benedict talks about sensor messaging

With the rapid growth of sensor technologies, there is a great demand for information on how to select the appropriate monitoring technology and use it to gather viable information. That is why I am pleased to announce the availability of six air monitoring training videos, developed to help citizen scientists conduct air quality monitoring projects. The videos feature presentations by EPA experts and a citizen science professional given at EPA’s Community Air Monitoring Training workshop on July 9, 2015.

EPA hosted the training workshop as a pilot venture to share tools used to conduct citizen science projects involving Next Generation Air Monitoring (NGAM) technology and to educate interested groups and individuals about best practices for successful air monitoring projects.

The videos are part of the Air Sensor Toolbox for Citizen Scientists and are intended to serve as resources for anyone interested in learning more about monitoring air quality. They provide short overviews (between 15-18 minutes in length) on topics that can help citizens plan and implement a successful air monitoring project. The topics and presenters are:

 

I was delighted to see the enthusiasm of the workshop attendees for the training and their desire to apply it to their local situation. It was contagious. Many who attended indicated they would go home and share key aspects of the training with their community groups to develop their own citizen science research plans.

With the availability of the training videos, more people will have access to the information provided on emerging technologies and community air monitoring. I see a bright future for citizen scientists as they become more aware of their local environment.

 

About the Author: Amanda Kaufman is an ORISE participant hosted by EPA’s National Exposure Research Laboratory.

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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When Cooking Can Harm: Cookstove Research and Human Health

By Dina Abdulhadi

Two researchers examine a clean-burning cookstove design in a lab.

EPA cookstove research

While I don’t Instagram every meal, cooking is still an important part of my life. It’s a social anchor that ties me to my family and friends. I also see the act of cooking as a major part of being healthy, since it allows me to control what goes into my food.

So when I learned that the process of cooking is one of the greatest health threats that people face globally, I felt disoriented. Cooking is an everyday task that most in the U.S. can accomplish by turning a dial on a stove. Yet three billion people throughout the world use biomass or coal-fed cookstoves to cook their meals and heat their homes, and the smoke from these fires often causes respiratory and heart disease. In fact, household air pollution is the fourth highest risk factor for disease worldwide for all genders and the second highest risk factor for women[1]. Cookstove emissions also contribute to climate change.

Recently, I attended a scientific meeting to learn about cookstove studies by researchers who received one of six grants from EPA to research cleaner technologies and fuels for cooking, lighting and heating in homes that have limited or no access to electricity or gas lines. This research into cleaner cooking options will help improve air quality and protect the health of people throughout the world, including native peoples in Alaska and others in rural areas of the U.S. who use cookstoves to make their meals.

A presentation by Dr. Tami Bond, one of the grantees and a professor at the University of Illinois, particularly stood out for me. Bond studies the climate and air quality effects of fuel combustion. She receives assistance from trained citizen scientists in the communities who help collect and assess emissions from cookstoves in their homes.

The research by Bond and other grant recipients has given me an appreciation for how science can help to provide solutions to environmental health risks, including those from simply cooking a family meal. I plan to learn more by visiting the cookstove research lab in Research Triangle Park, N.C. There, researchers are testing a wide variety of cookstoves from all over the world to measure their energy efficiency and how much they pollute. You too can get an inside look at the research by watching this recent video by Voice of America on EPA’s cookstove testing.

Interested in seeing other research presented at the meeting? Click here for a list of presentations.

About the Author: Dina Abdulhadi is a student contractor working with the science communication team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

[1] A comparative risk assessment of burden of disease and injury attributable to 67 risk factors and risk factor clusters in 21 regions, 1990–2010: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010

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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