Emerging Contaminants

A Decade of Partnership for the Nation’s River

: A view of the Potomac River at Great Falls. Photo credit: C&O Canal NHP via Flickr.

A view of the Potomac River at Great Falls. Photo credit: C&O Canal NHP via Flickr.

by Vicky Binetti

This year, members of the Potomac River Drinking Water Source Protection Partnership are marking the tenth anniversary of their 2004 partnership resolution. I recall the excitement as water utilities from the middle Potomac, and federal, interstate and state government representatives signed a giant version of the partnership’s framework document at Little Seneca Reservoir in Maryland, pledging to work together to protect the quality of the Nation’s River, the source of drinking water for more than 5 million people.

On that September day, our aspirations were high: to develop a unified voice for the protection of drinking water sources, provide a forum to enhance understanding of important water quality issues, and build a team to coordinate action on priority concerns. Over the past 10 years, partnership members have joined forces to conduct unique sampling studies for pathogens and emerging contaminants. We’ve conducted workshops on runoff of salt-laden stormwater from winter storms; on the potential risks posed by newly recognized contaminants, and ways to reduce their presence in water supplies; and on the potential for nutrient pollution from agricultural and urban sources to contribute to harmful algal blooms. We’ve developed coordinated early warning systems and emergency response strategies; conducted exercises to simulate real disasters; and shared lessons learned and contingencies planned in dealing with floods, droughts and power failures. We’ve examined the success and value of land conservation efforts in the basin, and probed the simple elegance of how forested lands protect downstream water quality.

After a decade in partnership, our experience tells us that even as our understanding has increased, challenges remain. As our population has grown, and land and water use have become more intense, the need for safeguarding sources of our water supply remains a priority. Whatever challenges lie ahead, this partnership will build upon a foundation of strong science and collaboration.

So, in this same year that we’re celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Safe Drinking Water Act, let’s also raise a toast – with tap water, of course – to 10 years of protecting the Potomac River.

 

About the author: Vicky Binetti is Associate Director of EPA Region 3’s Water Protection Division, with responsibilities including public drinking water system compliance, source water protection and underground injection control in the mid-Atlantic states. At home in southern New Jersey, Vicky is a member of the Environmental Commission and Open Space Advisory Committee.

 

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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One Man’s Trash…

Trash often ends up in our waterways, as it does in this location at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, PA.

Trash often ends up in our waterways, as it does in this location at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, PA.

by Sherilyn Morgan

One man’s trash is not necessarily another man’s treasure, especially when it ends up on your lawn, in a neighboring stream or ultimately in our rivers and oceans. 

I was taking a walk in my neighborhood when I noticed plastic bags dancing with the wind, a confetti of cigarette butts and a mosaic of plastic bottles on the sidewalk.   I have certainly seen trash in other neighborhoods, but usually not mine, and usually not this much.  Although it seems almost normal to see trash in some areas, these issues can affect any community because trash travels.  Trash is a local problem that transitions into a global issue.

Single-use items, like plastic bottles, straws, cans and food wrappers, are all on the list of top ten items found as trash. Consider bottled water: it’s convenient, but the bottles and caps often end up as trash. Although not in the “trash top ten”, balloons, which often wind up as trash that ends up in storm drains and nearby creeks, and on our coastlines,  can have detrimental impacts on marine life. Think about when a balloon is released at a party…where does it go? If it deflates and lands where it was released, maybe someone would pick it up and dispose of it properly. But because trash does tend to travel, that deflated balloon may be destined for a waterway where turtles and other aquatic animals can confuse it with food.

With simple, proactive practices, you can keep your neighborhood clean and eliminate single-use plastic products that show up as pollution in aquatic habitats. For example, wouldn’t it be better to have a reusable bottle that you pay for once and simply refill?  I regularly carry a refillable bottle and carry reusable bags wherever I go.  I did not always do this because it certainly takes practice, but now I feel personally responsible with a sense of pride when I say “no” to plastic. And you can do the same! Since most trash in our waterways actually begins on land, we have the power to prevent it and control the impacts.

Though there are many opportunities to support local volunteer cleanups, the most effective option is prevention.  Remember to dispose of trash properly. Ditch those plastic bags at local stores with plastic collection bins and start using sturdy, reusable bags and recycled and recyclable plastic bottles.  EPA’s Trash Free Waters website is a one-stop shop on how to prevent marine pollution. The Marine Debris Prevention Toolkit has outreach materials that you can use to help curb pollution in your neighborhood. Tell us in the comments about ways you have reduced trash, and helped prevent water pollution, in your community.

About the author: Sherilyn Morgan is an Environmental Scientist with EPA’s Oceans and Dredge Disposal Program that focuses on the protection of coastal and ocean environments including the elimination of trash from waterways.  She enjoys gardening and participating in restoration opportunities that include the care and maintenance of native plants.

 

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Recovering from a heavy dose of winter

By Jennie Saxe

Mounds of salt ready to be spread on roads

Mounds of salt ready to be spread on roads

Is this winter over yet? Fortunately, we’ve had a few days in the mid-Atlantic that make me think spring could be just around the corner. Even as we prepare to turn the page weather-wise, some remnants of winter will stick around. This year, one of those remnants is salt…lots of salt.

A couple of years ago, we brought you some information on smart ways to apply salt to keep the roads safe in winter weather and protect water resources at the same time. While that winter was relatively mild, winter 2014 has been another story. Municipal salt supplies are running low, and recently it’s been tough to find “snow melt” of any kind in neighborhood hardware stores.

With the snow now melting, the leftover salt is headed right toward our water supplies. Here are some of the impacts that increased salt can have:

  • Road salt runoff can increase levels of conductivity (a substitute measure of “saltiness”) in streams and cause stress to aquatic life like fish and macroinvertebrates – in high enough concentrations, salt runoff can be toxic to sensitive organisms
  • Salt increases the density of water which impacts the normal turnover processes in waterbodies – this can also affect aquatic life through depleting oxygen levels in deeper water and nutrient supplies in the upper part of the water column
  • Salt has more of an impact on freshwater systems than on those that are brackish or saline already
  • Salty runoff that enters drinking water supplies could cause elevated sodium levels that can have health consequences

If you’d like to see how one of our local waters, the Schuylkill River, responds to road salt runoff, the US Geological Survey (USGS) has some interesting data. Salt runoff from roadways or salt blown by the wind could be responsible for that conductivity spike in mid-February.  Since the chloride from road salt (sodium chloride) is not removed or transformed by natural processes, the only way to bring levels down is through dilution, usually by way of rainfall. Toward the end of February, you can see the conductivity levels decrease.

I’ve used some of our recent spring-like weather to sweep up the salt around our house. This will prevent even more salt from washing down the drain and into the creek near my house. Cities and towns can use street sweeping as a mechanism to remove excess salt from their streets at the end of the winter season.

Did you have any low-salt methods for handling the snow this winter? How are you keeping the left-over salt from getting into our waterways?

Dr. Jennie Saxe joined EPA in 2003 and is currently a Water Policy Analyst in the Water Protection Division of EPA Region 3 in Philadelphia. When not in the office, Jennie enjoys spending time with her husband and 2 children and cheering for the University of North Carolina Tar Heels.

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Celebrating EPA’s Wheeling Office, 50 years of Pioneering Environmental Protection

Cross posted on EPA Connect, EPA’s leadership blog

By Shawn M. Garvin

In the midst of a season of many celebrations, I’m reminded of the rich environmental history we have in Region III as we get ready to celebrate another important occasion:  The 50th anniversary of our Wheeling, W. Va. Field Office.  As a pioneer of many environmental controls and methods, the Wheeling Field Office is one of the places where environmental protection began in this country.

Before the EPA was established in 1970, environmental protection was taking hold in various pockets across the nation, including in the Ohio River area.  During the late 1950s, the U. S. Public Health Service (U.S. PHS) collected extensive data on declining fish populations in the Ohio River and its tributaries, and concluded that there was a serious human health threat from rivers full of untreated sewage and castoff industrial chemicals.

To address this threat, the U.S. PHS, supported in large measure by the efforts of U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, formed the Ohio River Basin Project and in 1963, the Wheeling Field Office opened as part of this project.  The office’s original goal was to evaluate water quality across 72,000 square miles in six states in the upper Ohio River valley.

In 1966, the Wheeling Field Office was assigned added responsibility under the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Federal Water Pollution Control Administration to determine water usage and to oversee water storage needs in reservoirs in response to water quality and extensive acid mine drainage problems.  In the late 1960s, the Wheeling Field Office recorded the most acidic rain ever documented in the United States.

In 1970, the Wheeling Field Office was incorporated into the newly formed EPA under the Mid-Atlantic Region.  Emphasizing inspections and enforcement, the office was instrumental in EPA’s early charge to help local governments and industry comply with new laws governing air and water pollution.

Until 1986, the Wheeling Field Office operated a chemistry laboratory and continues to run a freshwater biology laboratory, and engineering, inspection and enforcement sections, to keep up with the latest environmental challenges, including among others acid rain, municipal water pollution, fish kills, air emissions, oil spills, hazardous materials, and mountaintop mining. Operations in the office and lab space have continued since its early days, likely making the Wheeling Field Office the oldest functioning environmental facility in the same location in the nation.

Currently, Wheeling houses staff from eight EPA Region III programs who maintain the focus on collaboration with state governments to advance science and environmental compliance in the Mid-Atlantic Region.   Scientists, hazardous cleanup managers, inspectors, and other staff continue the fifty year legacy of protecting human health and the environment. Learn more about the Wheeling Field Office here.

So, as we enjoy all this holiday season brings, let’s also celebrate the Wheeling Field Office by looking back on the past 50 years of environmental advances and looking forward to the opportunities to continue pioneering environmental protection.

About the Author: Shawn M. Garvin is EPA’s Regional Administrator for Region 3, overseeing the Agency’s operations in Delaware, D.C., Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia. Shawn’s career in intergovernmental affairs spans more than 20 years at the federal and local levels.


Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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The Potomac Watershed – From All Sides

By Ellen Schmitt and Susan Spielberger

More often than not, watersheds cross political boundaries.  Take the Potomac River for example.  It drains an area of 14,670 square miles in four states: Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia.  As part of the larger Chesapeake Bay Watershed, the Potomac River delivers a significant amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment to the Chesapeake Bay.

Morning fog over the Potomac River. Photo courtesy of Flickr photographer jm6553 from EPA’s State of the Environment Photo Project

Morning fog over the Potomac River. Photo courtesy of Flickr photographer jm6553 from EPA’s State of the Environment Photo Project

Besides its contribution to downstream nutrient pollution, the Potomac basin itself faces a number of threats to its source water quality. One of these threats is a rapid growth in urban population which accounts for 81% of the basin’s 6.11 million residents, and is expected to grow by more than 1 million people over the next 20 years.

The environmental challenges presented by the Potomac River, as well as other mid-Atlantic waters often require the attention of different EPA programs.   Here’s what two of us do to protect “the Nation’s River” here in EPA, Region 3.

Ellen:

I work in the Drinking Water Branch and we’re working with the Potomac River Basin Drinking Water Source Protection Partnership to protect the river and its tributaries as sources of drinking water.  Protecting the source water in the first place is the best preventative step to providing safe drinking water.   Hand and glove with this are the other usual steps including treatment at water plants, a safe drinking water distribution system, and increasing the awareness of consumers of protecting drinking water sources. This approach makes sense because some substances can’t be removed at water treatment facilities and it’s often much less expensive to treat the water if contaminants are kept out in the first place.  Examples of source water protection activities are: keeping manure from farms out of streams to reduce the potential for pathogens entering the water; having a response plan in the event of a spill of hazardous materials; and working with transportation agencies to reduce the amount of salt spread on the region’s roads during the winter.

The Potomac Partnership is a unique collaboration, comprised of nearly 20 drinking water utilities and government agencies from Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and DC focusing on source water protection activities addressing agriculture, urban run-off and emerging contaminants.

Susan:

I work in the Environmental Assessment and Innovation Division.  In 2010, Congress provided EPA with two million dollars in funding to restore and protect the Potomac Highlands (a part of Appalachia), and EPA selected American Rivers to administer this grant program.  My role in this program is serve as the technical contact for the projects that have been funded – eight of them –  ranging from $150,000 to $300,000, that focus on improving natural resources and socio-economic conditions.

Projects include stream bank restoration in Staunton and Waynesboro, Virginia; land conservation projects in West Virginia and Pennsylvania where parcels with high ecological value are being protected through conservation easements; reclaiming mine land in the Monongahela National Forest by planting  native spruce trees; and constructing a green house/ shade house project in Frostburg, Maryland, on reclaimed mine land.

In selecting projects that will protect and restore the Potomac (as well as other mid-Atlantic waters), we emphasize a strategic approach to conservation – also known as the Green Infrastructure approach.   We emphasize the connectivity of forest “hubs” of high ecological value and their ability to either expand those hubs or connect the hubs together.  This is a more effective way to protect and restore natural systems because it strives to keep important areas intact and to restore ones that are degraded.

 

For more information about the Potomac watershed, check out this State of the Nation’s River Report from the Potomac Conservancy (PDF).  What kinds of activities are happening in the watershed where you live?  How else could it be approached, from all sides?

 

About the Authors: Susan Spielberger and Ellen Schmitt both work out of EPA’s Mid-Atlantic office in Philadelphia, PA.  Susan works in the Environment and Innovation Division in the Office of Environmental Information and Assessment, and Ellen works in the Water Protection Division’s Drinking Water Branch.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Good Time to De-Clutter the Medicine Cabinet

Cross posted on It’s Our Environment

By Andrea Bennett

Click here to serach for a collection site near you.

For many of us, fall can be a good time to de-clutter things around the house, such as the garage, that closet in the guest room, and the medicine cabinet. While going through that medicine cabinet, it’s not uncommon to find expired and never-used medications sitting on a shelf, just taking up space. Flushing them down the toilet means they wind up in rivers, lakes, and streams, potentially hurting animals living in the water and people who drink it.

Fortunately, there are better and safer ways to get rid of these medicines. During National Drug Take-back Day on October 26th, you can drop off your unwanted drugs nearby, usually at a city or county building, police station, or senior center. Information on locations can be found online or by calling 1-800-882-9539.

You’ll also find that many communities have permanent drop-boxes. You can find information about the closest drug drop-box near you online.  Also, some pharmacies have drop-boxes or can provide mail-back containers for drug disposal.

One of my co-workers explains, “I read in our local paper that the police station had a drop-box, and then one got put up at the senior center, too. I had leftover drugs around the house, plus the doctor changed my prescriptions a few times, so it’s great to have safe places to drop off drugs whenever I want.”

There are even permanent drop-boxes for medication for pets and farm animals. For example, the Berks County Agricultural Center in Pennsylvania accepts veterinary medicines.

If you can’t participate in National Drug Take-back Day or you are unable to use a local drop-box, you still can safely dispose of your unwanted drugs at home by following the instructions on our fact sheet.

Remember, we all need to do our part in keeping drugs out of our water!

 

About the Author: Andrea Bennett works in the Water Protection Division’s Office of Drinking Water and Source Water Protection and also participates in hazardous waste recycling days.

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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It’s All in the Mindset

By Kelly Shenk

At a recent farm tour I was on, a dairy farmer in Augusta County, Virginia said:  “Pollution isn’t related to size, it’s related to mindset.”  And the mindset of many farmers is one of innovation, creativity, and a thirst to find better ways to keep their farms profitable and local waters clean for generations to come.

Farmers compare notes at the Chesapeake Bay Agriculture Networking Forum

Farmers compare notes at the Chesapeake Bay Agriculture Networking Forum

The farm tour was part of the recent Chesapeake Bay Agriculture Networking Forum sponsored by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.  It’s my favorite meeting of the year.  It’s a chance for all the grantees who receive funding from the Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund to share their successes and lessons learned from their projects to restore polluted waters.  The room was filled with over 100 of the most creative thinkers from State agricultural agencies, conservation districts, non-governmental organizations, farming groups, USDA and EPA — all with a common interest in preserving our agricultural heritage, keeping farmers farming, and having clean local and Bay waters.  We all came to the meeting with the mindset that we can have it all through creativity, innovation, and strong partnerships that help us leverage funding to get the job done.

From all the energized discussions with the grantees and farmers, it was very clear to me that farmers are true innovators and problem solvers.  They have a can-do mindset in figuring out how they can run their business efficiently in a way that is good for clean water and for long-term profitability.  As this grant program has matured, so has our approach.  We are finding that there is no better way to sell farmers on ways to reduce pollution than to have fellow farmers and trusted field experts showing how innovative solutions such as manure injectors, poultry litter-to-energy technologies, and even the tried-and-true practices such as keeping cows out of the streams can keep them viable for generations to come.  I’m confident that this mindset will catch on and that we can achieve our common goals of thriving agriculture and clean waters.

About the Author: Kelly Shenk is the Agricultural Advisor for EPA Region 3.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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After Hurricane Sandy

By Christina Catanese

Today in Philadelphia, life is beginning to return to normal after Hurricane Sandy.  Our buses, subways, and trains are up and running, most of the fallen tree branches have been cleared away from the streets and sidewalks, and the sun has even peeked through the clouds to help us all start to dry out.  But our concerns remain with those in other parts of the northeast facing a more difficult recovery.  Natural disasters are a reminder to all of us of the power of nature and the importance of being prepared.

Hurricane Sandy's approach to the Northeast United States.  Photo courtesy of NASA.

Hurricane Sandy's approach to the Northeast United States. Photo courtesy of NASA.

After a storm like Sandy, there are a number of things you can do to stay safe when it comes to water.

  • If you have concerns that your drinking water has been contaminated, don’t drink it.  Drink bottled water if it is available and hasn’t been exposed to floodwaters.  Otherwise, boil your water for one minute at a rolling boil to get rid of pathogens.  Learn more about emergency disinfection here.
  • Avoid contact with flood water, as it may have high levels of raw sewage or other hazardous substances.
  • If you have a private well and it has been flooded, do not turn on the pump due to danger of electric shock.  Do not drink or wash with water from the flooded well until it has been tested and deemed safe.
  • If you have a septic system and it has been flooded, do not use the sewage system until water in the soil absorption field is lower than the water level around the house.
  • For water and wastewater facilities, check out these suggested post-hurricane activities to help facilities recover.

Get more information on what you can do to protect health and the environment after severe weather and flooding.

About the Author: Christina Catanese has worked at EPA since 2010, in the Water Protection Division’s Office of Program Support. Originally from Pittsburgh, Christina has lived in Philadelphia since attending the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied Environmental Studies, Political Science, and Hydrogeology. When not in the office, Christina enjoys performing, choreographing and teaching modern dance.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Old-Time Sentiment and Sediment in Lancaster County

Legacy Sediments accumulated to 5 meters tall

Legacy Sediments accumulated to 5 meters tall

By Bonnie Turner-Lomax

I’d encourage you to take a trip through Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County to get a sense for the area’s rich culture and old-world charm, its picturesque farms, covered bridges and quaint towns and villages.  And keep an eye out for the occasional horse and buggy.

One thing you won’t be able to spot, though, is another part of the county’s past – an environmental legacy that has played out for centuries beneath area waters.

During the late 17th through 19th centuries, it was common for communities to build dams on nearby streams to provide water power for various mills that served the communities. Sediment has been accumulating behind these now defunct but still in-place dams since they were first constructed.  Centuries of sediment accumulation (referred to as legacy sediments) have resulted in numerous environmental impacts, including:

  • changes in stream structure,
  • unnaturally high stream bank walls,
  • loss of wetlands,
  • excess sediment scouring during storms,
  • and increased loading of nutrients and sediments downstream.

This historic pollution has present impacts, and affects Lancaster county as well as other communities throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.

Recently, more than 140 environmental professionals converged at Franklin & Marshall College in the heart of Lancaster County for a workshop to deal with this age-old issue.

The group, including federal, state, and local representatives, academics and environmental consultants, held discussions, considered challenges and opportunities, and did field visits to the Big Spruce Run and Banta restoration projects to highlight potential benefits of the sediment fix to water quality and wetlands.

By meeting and establishing a communication forum to share data and information, the group is taking steps to create an environmental legacy of pristine streams, waterways, and wetlands.

Find out more about legacy sediment removal and stream restoration.

About the Author: Bonnie Turner-Lomax came to EPA Region’s mid-Atlantic Region in 1987 and has held several positions throughout the Region.  She is currently the Communications Coordinator for the Environmental Assessment & Innovation Division.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Giving Pollutants the Pretreatment

By Steve Copeland

Industry needs a place to send the wastewater it produces. But, conventional wastewater treatment plants can’t handle hazardous industrial pollutants such as arsenic, mercury, and volatile organic compounds. These pollutants can pass right through wastewater treatment plants untreated and discharge to rivers and streams, which can harm aquatic life and human health.  These untreated pollutants can also interfere with the functioning of the wastewater treatment plants so that they are unable to do what they are designed for — treating sewage.

 In order to prevent these problems, the Clean Water Act requires industrial users of wastewater treatment plants to have permits requiring their discharges to be effectively pretreated. EPA works closely with state and local governments ensuring that industries treat their own wastewater before it makes its way to larger treatment plants.

 Effective pretreatment protects our waters so they are safe for swimming, fishing, and drinking.  For example, pretreatment can neutralize the acidity of the wastewater, strip out harmful metals, or dilute the wastewater before it is discharged so that it is no longer harmful. To comply with their permits, industrial users must remove these pollutants before sending their wastewater to sewer systems because wastewater treatment plants are not designed to remove these harmful compounds.

 EPA provides training to wastewater pretreatment plant operators on developing successful pretreatment programs. The operators who attend the training and conferences we sponsor have indicated these sessions enable them to implement effective treatment programs.  This is another example of EPA reaching out to industry and local governments,  and working with them to protect public health and the environment.

 Visit this link and click on the “Pretreatment” tab for more information about pretreatment in the Mid-Atlantic Region.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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