air research

Reposted: How EPA Research Supports Taking Action on Climate Change

Reposted from EPA’s Connect blog, the official blog of EPA’s leadership.

By Lek Kadeli

As my EPA colleagues and I prepare to join millions of people from across the nation and around the globe to celebrate the environment on April 22, it’s a good time to remember how much we’ve accomplished together since the first Earth Day in 1970.

Forty-four years ago, it wasn’t hard to find direct evidence that our environment was in trouble. Examples of air pollution could be seen at the end of every tailpipe, and in the thick, soot-laden plumes of black smoke flowing from industrial smokestacks and local incinerators. Litter and pollution-choked streams were the norm, and disposing of raw sewage and effluent directly into waterways was standard practice. A major mid-western river famously ignited, sparking both awareness and action. The central theme of EPA’s Earth Day activities this year is Taking Action on Climate Change, echoing our commitment to meeting today’s greatest environmental challenge. And just like our predecessors did decades ago, we are supporting those actions with the best available science.

Dr. Chris Weaver, an EPA scientist currently on leave to serve as the Deputy Executive Director of U.S. Global Climate Change Research Program, explains: “EPA has a major role to play in preparing the nation for change, through its critical responsibilities for ensuring clean air, clean water, and healthy communities and ecosystems. And EPA researchers, working in partnership with their colleagues in other Federal agencies and in the broader scientific community, are at the forefront of advancing understanding of the impacts of—and responses to—climate and related global change.”

Examples of that work include:

I invite you to read more about these and other examples in the 2014 Earth Day edition of our EPA Science Matters newsletter. It features stories on how EPA researchers and their partners are supporting Agency strategies and President Obama’s Climate Action Plan.

Our amazing scientists and engineers are providing the science that decision makers, communities, and individuals need for developing strategies to protect public human health and the environment in the face of a changing climate. Thanks to them, I am confident that future Earth Day events will celebrate how we were able to take action and meet the challenges of a changing climate.

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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My Air, My Health – My Experience at Health Datapalooza

Dot Kelly, a member of the winning team in the My Air, My Health challenge, recently shared a blog post on “Health Datapalooza.” It is reposted below. 

My Air, My Health graphic identifierIt was about this time last year that my colleagues and I were in the thick of preparing for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Human Health Services (HHS) My Air, My Health Challenge. The Challenge called upon innovators nationwide to design a small, low-cost sensor that integrated air quality measurements with health data such as heart rate and breathing. This was to help inform the EPA and HHS’ collective work to better understand the impacts of harmful air pollution on people’s health.

In other words, the competition called for a solution that would move us all toward a future in which powerful, affordable and portable sensors provide a rich awareness of environmental quality, moment-to-moment physiological changes, and long-term health outcomes.

Read the rest of the post.

 

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 Your Genes Making You Susceptible to Air Pollution?

 

Healthy Heart graphic identifier

 

By Ann Brown

Smoking, high-fat diets and a couch potato lifestyle are risk factors for heart disease.  Kicking the habit, changing your diet and exercising are ways to reduce those risks and enhance quality of life.

But there may be a risk factor for heart disease that is more complicated to address: our genes. Our genetic makeup that we inherit from our parents may contribute to the development of heart disease, but our genes may also play a role in how our cardiovascular system responds to air pollution.  

We all have the same set of genes, but there are subtle differences in the makeup of those genes that vary from one person to another.  These individual variations are called polymorphisms and have been shown to make some people more susceptible to things like breast cancer or diabetes. 

Research has shown that high levels of air pollution, particularly fine particles emitted by cars, trucks, factories and wildfires, can trigger heart attacks and worsen heart symptoms in people who have heart disease. But are some people with heart disease more responsive to high levels of air pollution than others because of their genes?  

EPA researchers and collaborators are investigating the contributions genes may have in the way individuals respond to air pollution exposure. The study is made possible by tapping into a unique database of genetic and clinical information called CATHGEN, developed by Duke University Medical Center. The database contains health information from nearly 10,000 volunteers, most who have been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease. 

The database is providing an opportunity for EPA and other environmental health researchers to ask whether specific genetic variations make people more susceptible to the damaging effects of air pollution on the heart. While people cannot change their genetic make-up, it is hoped that the knowledge gained from this research can one day be used by health care providers to educate their patients with heart disease. Heart patients don’t have to wait for more research to take action, however.

EPA recommends people who are more sensitive to air pollution, such as those with heart disease, take steps to reduce their exposure during times when pollution levels are higher. You can check current and forecasted air quality conditions at www.airnow.gov.

Learn more at: epa.gov/healthyheart

About the author: Ann Brown is the communications lead 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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Healthy Hearts and Clean Air: An EPA Science Story

 

Healthy Heart graphic identifier

 

Reposted from EPA Connect, the Official Blog of EPA Leadership

By Lek Kadeli

This month is American Heart Health Month. I invite you to join me in understanding how EPA scientists and their partners are learning how to better protect a group of citizens who are among the most at risk from poor air quality: those who suffer from heart and other cardiovascular diseases.

Our researchers have made important discoveries linking the impact of poor air quality on cardiovascular health. For example, EPA scientists Robert Devlin, Ph.D., and David Diaz-Sanchez and their colleagues published one of the first studies looking at the effects of ozone exposure on heart health. They discovered a link between breathing ozone and inflammation, and changes in heart rate variability, and proteins that dissolve blood clots that could be risk factors for people with heart disease.

Drs. Devlin and Diaz-Sanchez, along with EPA cardiologist Dr. Wayne Cascio, are part of an Agency effort to spread the word about the results of EPA clean air research. We will be highlighting those efforts on the Agency’s science blog, It All Starts with Science, on our science Twitter feed @EPAresearch, and elsewhere as part of our Healthy Heart Month activities.

Read the rest of the post. 

 

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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Something to Be Thankful For

By Kathleen Stewart

Kathleen Stewart examines a stove.

Kathleen Stewart examines a stove.

On Thanksgiving, stuffed with turkey and pie, I can summon just enough creativity to be thankful for the usual stuff—a roof over my head, food on the table, and my family’s health and happiness. I don’t tend to remember to be thankful for the modern conveniences that make all of the above possible.

This year, I am officially giving thanks for my natural gas heater. Whenever a slip of chill creeps into my drafty old house, warm nights are just a flip of a switch away. With heat so instantaneously available, it’s easy to forget that 3 billion people worldwide rely on wood, dung, charcoal, coal, and biomass (fuel derived from organic matter, usually plants) to cook for their families and warm their homes.

Even on the Navajo Nation, where high voltage transmission lines crisscross the land to bring electricity to Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles, approximately 60% of families use coal, coke, or wood to heat their homes. About 30% of families use coal as their primary heating fuel.

In 2010, researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey and Dine College (the Navajo Nation’s institute of higher education) surveyed 137 homes in the Navajo town of Shiprock, NM. In this town, with average December/January lows of 19 degrees Fahrenheit, the researchers found that 77% of the homes used stoves primarily for heating, and 25% of families burned coal for heat in stoves that were not specifically designed for coal. They also found that 26% of the stoves were ten or more years old.

Navajo town of Shiprock, NM

Navajo town of Shiprock, NM

The researchers noted that many of the stoves were improperly vented, with visible cracks in the chimneys, or no chimney at all.

The indoor smoke poses serious health risks, particularly for children and the elderly, but there is no easy solution. There are no EPA certified coal stoves, and most newer coal stoves are designed to burn cleaner-burning anthracite coal, not the types (bituminous and subbituminous) available—cheap or free—on the Navajo Nation. With a median household income of $20,000 and limited existing infrastructure, gas and electricity are generally too costly.

That’s why we and our EPA colleagues have teamed up with partners at Dine College to identify and research heating options that will reduce exposure to coal smoke from home heating on the Navajo Nation. The end result will help provide stakeholders with an understanding of the best alternatives to reduce health and environmental impacts from home heating—alternatives that are technically, economically, and culturally feasible.

Last night I fell asleep curled around my home’s heater vent after the kids went to bed. I crave being warm like a snail craves its shell. In fact, I am actually allergic to being cold. Look that allergy up and then be thankful for two new things this Thanksgiving.

Learn more about EPA research and programs on how to heat your home while minimizing the health impacts:

 

About the Author: Environmental scientist Kathleen Stewart helps concerned communities understand risks from indoor and outdoor air pollution. For this project, she is working with Agency research scientist Paul Solomon, who has extensive experience developing ways to measure particulate matter in the air, and to better understand the relationships between air pollution sources and exposure risks.

 

 

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 Continuing Effort to Reduce Lead Exposure

Three images in a line: child and adult hands together, lake shore, lead from periodic table.By Ellen Kirrane

As a kid growing up in the 1970s, I can remember my mom pulling up to the filling station and asking for “regular” gasoline.  At the time, I didn’t realize what this meant, but as I got older I found out that “regular” gasoline had lead in it; the other option – “unleaded” gas – did not.

Now, as a scientist working for EPA, I have a true appreciation for what lead is and how the next generation of kids can benefit from living in an environment that is cleaner because “regular” gasoline is no longer the norm.

By removing lead from gasoline and tightening industrial emissions standards, EPA has drastically reduced lead air emissions in the U.S.; they declined by more than two orders of magnitude (100 times) between 1970 and 2008.  But even with such important progress, by 2008 scientists realized that it was not enough, and that a young child’s cognitive function could be impacted by much lower lead exposures than previously understood. Supported with such science, EPA lowered its National Ambient Air Quality Standard for lead tenfold.

In June 2013, EPA released its most recent review of the science on the health and ecological effects of lead. Scientists who study lead consider it one of the “dirtiest” chemicals because it affects so many different systems in the body.  It does this by interfering with molecules called “ions.” When lead exposure affects ion status in the cells, it disrupts how calcium is regulated and how proteins are used for essential bodily functions.  This can lead to a wide array of health and ecological effects.

In children, lead exposure can cause IQ reductions and decreased academic performance. Lead can also cause behavioral changes in children, have harmful effects on blood cells and blood producing organs, and may cause decreased auditory and motor function, as well as immune effects.  Some of these effects may be irreversible and there is no evidence of a threshold below which scientists can be confident that there are no harmful cognitive effects from lead exposure. In adults, long-term lead exposure can cause increased blood pressure and hypertension, lead to coronary heart disease and affect many other organ systems. Just as lead can harm humans, it can also harm animals and other organisms that live on land and in the water by reducing survival, growth and reproduction, as well as affecting behavior, development and blood producing organs.

In addition to setting standards for lead in air, EPA continues to protect human health and the environment from the harmful effects of lead through a variety of programs.  EPA’s assessment of the science on the health and ecological effects of lead underpins these efforts. I am proud to be part of an agency that’s been working for four decades to keep lead out of our air, water, and soil.

To find out more about what EPA is doing to protect the American public from lead exposure, visit the Agency’s lead website at http://www2.epa.gov/lead.

About the Author:  Ellen Kirrane is an epidemiologist in EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment. She works on Integrated Science Assessments, which form the scientific basis for the National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

 

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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To Your Good Health: Climate Action May Yield Significant Health “Co-Benefits”

By John Dawson

our_changing_planet_2008_166_20090708_2071842232 (1)Everyone likes a two-for-one deal, and a study published in Nature Climate Change shows we get such a bargain when we reduce carbon dioxide, an air pollutant also known as a greenhouse gas. Carbon dioxide emissions from cars, trucks, coal-fired power plants and other fossil-fuel-burning sources are causing a threat to our health because of the pollutant’s role in warming the atmosphere and causing climate change.

Scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, EPA, and several other institutions identified co-benefits of reducing greenhouse gases. The study was funded by EPA’s Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program.

The team used computer models to simulate global air quality under two scenarios. One depicted a world with no global policy to limit greenhouse gases, allowing carbon dioxide concentrations to increase from present levels of just under 400 parts per million (ppm) to 760 ppm in 2100. A second scenario simulated global carbon emission reductions to achieve concentrations of 525 ppm in 2100. Scientists then calculated how these two disparate policies would affect other air pollutants, or “co-pollutants,” that are emitted along with carbon dioxide.

Their analysis showed that reductions in greenhouse gas emissions would yield major benefits by improving air quality and public health.

The researchers calculated that the second carbon emission reduction scenario (which includes expected economic growth) would prevent one-half million air-pollution-related premature deaths per year globally in 2030; these benefits would grow to 1.3 million fewer deaths in 2050, and 2.2 million in 2100.

These health benefits are estimated to be equivalent to between $50 and $380 per ton of carbon dioxide reduced globally.

The study shows that the health-related economic benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions may outweigh the costs of control—even before the benefits of reducing climate change are realized.

While a single scenario is not enough to draw definitive conclusions about the ramifications of future greenhouse gas emission reductions, the research does suggest there may be multiple benefits to reductions: limiting climate change, reducing other air pollutants at the same time and providing a safer and healthier environment.

To read the study, “Co-benefits of mitigating global greenhouse gas emissions for future air quality and human health,” go to http://bit.ly/15OY2Xr.

About the Author: John Dawson is a Physical Scientist in EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research.

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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Village Green Project Helps Library by Inspiring Young Students

By Jennifer Brannen (Guest Blogger)

 

Library Partners (left to right):  Jennifer Brannen (Teen and Adult Services Librarian),  Kathleen Hayes (Children’s Services Library Associate), and Sandra Lovely (South Regional Library Manager)

Library Partners (left to right): Jennifer Brannen (Teen and Adult Services Librarian), Kathleen Hayes (Children’s Services Library Associate), and Sandra Lovely (South Regional Library Manager)

Durham County South Regional Library and Durham County are collaborating with EPA on the Village Green Project air monitoring station.  A new sort of partnership for all, the Village Green is an air quality project that invites neighbors, students and community members of all sorts to learn and become involved.

Already, the Village Green Project is generating interest in our community and reflecting the missions of both the EPA and the library; the bench integrated into the monitoring station is being used by library patrons curious about air quality or the design of the air-monitoring station itself. It is also proving popular with families looking for a nice shady spot to sit and read to their children.

We librarians have particularly enjoyed the outreach events already associated with the Village Green and are looking forward to the future programming and outreach for the upcoming school year. Our community has demonstrated a strong interest in science and environmental topics, which isn’t a surprise given our proximity to Research Triangle Park, home to some of the nation’s top science and research and development organizations.

As the school year starts, we are looking forward to new opportunities for outreach at local schools that this project will generate, from elementary to high school, including the new Research Triangle High School with its Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) focus. Not only do we have the resources to teach students of all ages how to do research, we can offer them the opportunity to become part of new and exciting research in the making.

Hopefully, the South Regional Library’s collaboration with the EPA and other Village Green community partners is just the beginning of many fruitful and enduring partnerships that will continue to grow our community and nurture our learners.

 

About the author:  Guest blogger Jennifer Brannen is a teen and adult services librarian at Durham County’s South Regional Library and has worked with EPA and Durham County to share the Village Green Project with the local community.

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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Temperature and Violent Crime: Implications of Climate Change?

Exploring the link between outdoor temperature and violent crime in American cities.

By Janet L. Gamble, Ph.D.

Skyline of Dallas, Texas

Dallas, Texas

Has a hot and humid day ever made you cranky?  If so, you might ask this question: can hotter days lead to more human conflict?  Scientists at the U.S. EPA and the Emory University School of Medicine are investigating whether hotter temperatures affect violent crimes, such as assault, robbery, rape, and murder.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, many factors influence violent crime, including weather, age, population density, family cohesiveness and divorce rates, effectiveness of law enforcement, and others. Weather is of particular interest due to an observed association between crime and temperature. This relationship raises the question of whether the hotter temperatures that are expected to accompany climate change may contribute to increased rates of violent crime.

In our recent paper published in the Western Journal of Emergency Medicine, “Temperature and Violent Crime in Dallas, Texas: Relationships and Implications of Climate Change,” we examined the relationship between daily temperature and daily incidence of violent crime in Dallas from 1993 to 1999.

We determined that the relationship in Dallas is not simply a linear function. Rather, while we found that daily rates of violent crime increase as temperatures rise in the low to moderate range, they begin to level off at temperatures above 80°F, and actually decrease above 90°F. In other words, we observe that as it gets very hot there are fewer violent crimes (see Figure 1).

Figure 1.  According to analyses of violent crime and temperature in Dallas TX, we found that aggravated assaults and other violent crimes decrease at high ambient temperatures.

Figure 1. According to analyses of violent crime and temperature in Dallas TX, we found that aggravated assaults and other violent crimes decrease at high ambient temperatures.

We were a bit surprised by our results, because prior studies have found linear and increasing crime rates even at very high temperatures. To explain our findings, we hypothesize that when it gets very hot people stay indoors where it is cooler. As a result, street crime and other crimes of opportunity are decreased. If this is correct, the higher temperatures expected to accompany climate change are unlikely to result in an increased rate of violent crime.

Yet, this is just one city and one study.  Would we get the same results in different cities with different ranges of daily temperatures? To answer this question, we are conducting analyses of multiple U.S. cities: Atlanta, Denver, Houston, and Chicago and re-doing the analysis for Dallas using more recent data. Stay tuned for more information as our climate change research continues.

About the Author: Dr. Gamble is a research scientist in the National Center for Environmental Assessment in the Office of Research and Development at the U.S. EPA.

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 Pollutants and the “Warming Hole” of America

By Katie Lubinsky

Warming hole area shown on U.S. map

The “warming hole.” Image courtesy NASA’s Earth Observatory (click on image for more information).

“I want to be a tornado chaser when I grow up,” was probably the last thing my parents expected to hear from their 12-year-old daughter. Yet that was my goal after being born and raised smack-dab in the middle of hurricane alley. Insane weather and a “lively climate” were commonplace on Oak Island, N.C., and I was fixated by such dynamics. I planned on being the next crazy person chasing F4 tornadoes in Kansas. (I chose the safer route of journalism in the end!)

Studying weather and climate made me not only appreciate nature, but also made me realize that such lively forces play such huge roles in influencing the environment around us.

I’ve read many EPA studies about how weather and air pollutants influence climate change, and one sparked my interest: Imagine certain air pollutants (called aerosols) affecting clouds and, in turn, influencing temperatures in the continental U.S. to rapidly rise. But there seems to be a “hole” in this warming process. The continental U.S. is warming except for the middle part (central and south central) where a pocket of cooling air resides—a “hole” inside the warming, thus a “warming hole.”

EPA researchers, along with partners in China and Japan, are trying to better understand this cooling phenomenon and are using different methods to study this so-called “warming hole” including temperature data and global climate models.

Preliminary research shows that daily summertime maximum temperatures over the region have cooled over the past century. The reason? Researchers estimate that it is the air pollutant sulfate, a derivative of sulfur dioxide. Between 1950 and about 1990, sulfate increased over most of the U.S., and especially over the “hole” area. Scientists found when sulfate particles were at their highest levels in the “warming hole” area, average temperatures were a couple of degrees cooler.

The presence of sulfate has led to an increase in cloud cover during the summertime. Clouds reflect and scatter solar radiation, called the “whitehouse” effect. When sulfate particles combine with water vapor to form clouds, however, even more solar radiation is reflected back into space, which is believed to cause the cooling.

Other air pollutants, such as carbon dioxide, absorb and trap solar radiation and cause warming, called the “greenhouse” effect, and this has a greater impact in the areas that are not affected as much by sulfates.

Understanding how our climate changes means that we need to understand more than the greenhouse effect—we also need to understand how air pollution affects the atmosphere more generally. That includes not just warming trends, but all sorts of changes, including cooling trends. EPA researchers are making discoveries about how air pollutants, such as sulfate, influence our changing climate. Discoveries such as these will help to address both air quality and climate change.

I am fascinated by EPA’s atmospheric research, and the researchers’ efforts to understand the interactions between air pollution and climate change. It is a way for me to live my childhood dream without worrying about getting too close to a tornado or flying into a hurricane!

About the AuthorKatie Lubinsky is a student contractor working with EPA’s Office of Research and Development in communications and still daydreams about being a storm chaser from time-to-time.

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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