environmental monitoring

Air Sensors Citizen Science Toolbox

airsensorid

By Amanda Kaufman

There is a growing interest by citizens to learn more about what’s going on in their community: What’s in the air I breathe? What does it mean for my health and the health of my family? How can I learn more about these things and even be involved in the process? Is there a way for me to measure, learn, and share information about my local air quality?

Researchers at EPA have developed the virtual Air Sensors Citizen Science Toolbox to help citizens answer these types of questions and more. With the recent release of the Toolbox web page, citizens can now visit http://go.usa.gov/NnR4 and find many different resources at this one simple location. As a citizen scientist myself, I am very excited to learn that there are funding opportunities for individuals and communities to conduct their own air monitoring research projects. The Funding Sources for Citizen Science Database is just one of the many resources on the Toolbox webpage.

One of the resources available as part of the Toolbox is the Air Sensors Guidebook, which explores low-cost and portable air sensor technologies, provides general guidelines on what to look for in obtaining a sensor, and examines important data quality features.

Compact air sensor that could be used by citizen scientists to monitor local air quality.

Compact air sensor that could be used by citizen scientists to monitor local air quality.

To understand the current state of the science, the Toolbox webpage also includes the Sensor Evaluation Report, which summarizes performance trials of low-cost air quality sensors that measure ozone and nitrogen dioxide. Future reports to be posted on the webpage will summarize findings on particulate matter (PM) and volatile organic compound (VOC) sensor performance evaluations.

As they are developed, more tools will be posted on the webpage, including easy-to-understand operating procedures for select low-cost sensors; basic ideas for data analysis, interpretation, and communication; and other helpful information.

I believe the Toolbox is a great resource for citizens to learn more about air sensor technology at a practical level. It will provide guidance and instructions to citizens to allow them to effectively collect, analyze, interpret, and communicate air quality data. The ultimate goal is to give citizens like you and me the power to collect data about the air we breathe.

About the author: Amanda Kaufman is an Environmental Health Fellow from the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH). She is 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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Changing Times: EPA’s Report on National Trends

By Gaelle Gourmelon

Some things in my childhood memories look different when I revisit them as an adult. That tall slide in the playground? It’s really only four feet high. The endless summer bike rides to the beach? They now take ten minutes. Sometimes, however, things seem different because they’ve actually changed. I recently went to a favorite childhood beach and saw that the dock was now stranded in the water, no longer reachable from the beach. Undeniable evidence of the changing coast.

But what evidence do we have to observe real changes over time when it comes to our national environment? What data can we use to determine if our environment has meaningfully changed?

To help answer these questions, EPA released the draft Report on the Environment 2014 (ROE 2014) for public comment in March, and it will undergo external peer review on July 30-31, 2014.

The ROE 2014 is not an intimidating, technical tome; it is an interactive website, full of national-level environmental and health indicators and is designed to make it easier to find information on national environmental trends. It’s not a giant, unwieldy database. Rather, it’s a summary of important indicators that paints a picture of how our environment is changing.

Why use indicators?

Just like having a high temperature indicates you are sick, environmental indicators help us understand the health of the environment. ROE indicators are simple measures that track the state of the environment and human health over time.

For example, if we want to understand the nation’s air quality, we can measure indicators such as lead emissions, acid deposition, and particulate matter concentrations to give us clues about overall changes. These indicators can help us make informed decisions about conditions that may otherwise be difficult to measure.

Report on the Environment

An exhibit for the acid deposition indicator gives us a clue about the changes in the quality of outdoor air in the US.

 

What’s included in the Report on the Environment?

Data for the ROE indicators come from many sources, including federal and state agencies as well as non-governmental organizations. EPA brought together scientists and other experts to determine what data are accurate, representative, and reliable enough to be included. With feedback from the public and our partners, we selected 86 indicators that help to answer questions about air, water, land, human health and exposure, and ecological condition. The ROE 2014 also includes new indicators on aspects of sustainability.

Why do we need the Report on the Environment?

EPA designed the ROE to help answer mission-relevant questions and help us track how we’re doing in meeting environmental goals. But because the ROE 2014 is an easy-to-use, interactive website, scientists, decision-makers, educators, and anyone who is curious about the environment and health can view the most up-to-date national (and sometimes regional) data, too. The ROE shows trends and sets up baselines where trend data do not yet exist. It also highlights gaps where we don’t have reliable indicators.

How can I participate in the external peer review meeting?

EPA is committed to proactively engaging stakeholders, increasing transparency, and using the best available science. By releasing the draft ROE 2014 for public comment and peer review, we benefit from stakeholder and scientific engagement to support the best conclusions possible. The draft ROE 2014 website will be reviewed by EPA’s Science Advisory Board in a public meeting on July 30-31, 2014. For additional meeting details, visit the July 11, 2014 Federal Register Notice and the SAB meeting website.

How can I stay connected with the ROE?

Everyone can use the ROE to inform their discussions of environmental conditions and related policies in the U.S. The information it provides helps you understand your environment, and encourages you to ask more questions about your environment and health. Now, it’s time to investigate. Things might have changed more than you think.

Sign up to be notified about the upcoming release of the final Report on the Environment 2014; you can also receive periodic updates and highlights.

About the author: Gaelle Gourmelon was an Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health Fellow working on EPA’s Report on the Environment project from September 2012 through May 2014. Her background in biology and environmental health has fueled her passion for reconnecting people with their natural and built environment.

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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For the Win: Benzene Challenge Yields a Solution

By Dustin Renwick

Illustration of a carbon nanotube.

EPA scientists monitor pollutants with odd names, but benzene stands out as one of most widely used chemicals in U.S. The compound ranks as a human carcinogen and an air pollutant found in sources including gasoline, vehicle exhaust and cigarette smoke.

Current commercial benzene monitors work well, but the equipment is cumbersome and expensive. On the other hand, the cheap, portable technology that could allow you to test multiple highways in a day isn’t yet accurate enough for scientific research.

EPA organized a challenge for inventors and developers to help make benzene detection easier and less costly.

“One of our jobs is to communicate to the general public and those who are involved in new technologies what our interests are,” said Ron Williams, an EPA research chemist who worked on the team that designed the challenge.

The competition’s prize was recently awarded to Doug Corrigan, who has experience in physics, biochemistry and materials sciences and now works with technology-based economic development.

He said his experiences with different fields give him a figurative toolkit with pieces that sit ripe for remixing.

“It’s always satisfying to look at something and say, I have no clue how we’re going to work through that,” Corrigan said. “These challenges force you to sit down and learn new things.”

How He Did It

Corrigan’s solution used molecularly imprinted polymers (MIPs) and the measurement sensitivity of carbon nanotubes.

What does that mean?

If you created a mold of a raspberry pressed into wet plaster, you’d have a unique indentation. Other berries without that exact size and structure wouldn’t fit — similar to how a key pairs with its matching lock.

The same thing happens in MIPs, where scientists stamp a “key” compound, such as benzene, into a polymer. After the initial template is removed, benzene is the only molecule that will match that imprint, the “lock.”

Scientists also need a way to know when the key is in the lock, indicating benzene’s presence.

Nanotubes can measure small changes in electrical current, such as when a benzene molecule attaches to the MIP. Imagine rolling a sheet of chicken wire, and you have a good proxy for a nanotube, except the wall of a nanotube is one carbon atom wide. In this form, carbon exhibits those electrical properties not found in the graphite of pencils or the 3-D structure of diamonds.

But nanotubes don’t work well by themselves in air sampling monitors because too many gases create an information overload. In Corrigan’s design, the MIPs select the specific compound scientists want the nanotubes to measure.

The sensor arrangement can return measurements within a few minutes, and it all fits in a cost-effective package about the size of a large shoebox.

“When you consider the potential of molecularly imprinted polymers and carbon nanotubes for benzene sensors, that’s something you can fabricate,” said Eben Thoma, an EPA research scientist. “That’s mass production with a much lower cost potential.”

The EPA is now exploring methods for building prototypes of Corrigan’s design and transferring the technology to the public sector.

About the author: Dustin Renwick works as part of the innovation team in the EPA 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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Around the Water Cooler: World Water Monitoring Day

By Lahne Mattas-Curry

Scientists collect samples and monitor waterToday is World Water Monitoring Day. With heavy storms promised from New York to Virginia, drought across the southwest and wildfires burning across the northwest, our water quality and quantity continue to face great challenges. Since the Clean Water Act (which turns 40 this year) was signed into action, the U.S. EPA has set standards for our water quality and to limit pollution affecting our waterways. But today, pollutants might not be dumped right into our waterways, sometimes the effects are from indirect or non-point sources.

Luckily, EPA scientists and engineers and their partners have stayed ahead of the game and are always developing new ways to monitor our water in order to keep it safe.

For example, our Watershed Assessment, Tracking and Environmental Results tool (WATERS ←see what we did there?) links several different water quality databases together so that information can be more easily shared.

Another example includes the Stormwater Management Model (SWMM—we are clever with the acronyms!) which looks at a variety of scenarios like rainfall or snow accumulation and melting or interflow between groundwater and drainage systems. Since its inception, SWMM has been used in thousands of sewer and stormwater studies throughout the world.

To learn more about our tools and models, please click here.

About the Author: A regular “It All Starts with Science” blogger, Lahne Mattas-Curry works with EPA’s Safe and Sustainable Water Resources team.

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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Is the Cleanup working? SPMDs Help You Find Out.

By Sean Sheldrake and Alan Humphrey

EPA scientific diver.

EPA scientific diver Brent Richmond at work.

Some of you may have followed our previous blog posts about EPA’s scientific diving program in It’s Our Environment, but we also wanted to share some of our experiences with a new kind of environmental monitoring technique here on the It All Starts with Science blog.

In the “old days” of underwater cleanup, scientific divers would use biological sampling methods, dropping a cage or bag containing live specimens of fish or mussels into the deep blue to answer that age old question, “Is there something out there that needs cleaning up?”  But these studies are expensive to implement, and issues can arise before deployment – Oh no!

  • The aeration pumps died and so did the fish! 
  • High temperatures forecast today—our fish can’t take it! 
  • Argh, the aquarium says they won’t have enough juvenile salmonids available to complete our study! And so on…
Close up of SPME

EPA divers use SPMDs, small, solid-state environmental monitoring devices.

Today, we use Solid Phase Microextraction Devices—or SPMDs.  

These new methods give us less expensive and more reliable ways to document whether there are exposure concentrations on or in the seafloor that are at or above acceptable benchmarks. These techniques have emerged as a valuable tool to find out if the cleanup is “getting the job done” of protecting human health and the environment.

How can contaminants be measured?

SPMDs can detect low level contaminants with a special absorptive matrix and are easier to deploy than live specimens.  Using proper correlations to live counterparts, project managers can use such technique to see if a cleanup is needed. If a cleanup is already underway, such as the one at the Pacific Sound Resources (PSR) Site in Puget Sound, SPMD methods can be used to determine if the cleanup is working. 

Partnering with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the University of Texas, EPA’s Environmental Response Team and EPA Region 10 divers have placed and retrieved these devices at many Superfund sites, including: PSR, Duwamish, Portland Harbor, Wyckoff, and others.

SPMD are a valuable tool in determining if cleanup is needed, and for monitoring whether containment activities are getting the job done over time.

Read more about the latest in EPA scientific diving at facebook.com/EPADivers.

About the authors:  Sean Sheldrake and Alan Humphrey both serve on the EPA diving safety board, responsible for setting EPA diving policy requirements.  In addition, they both work to share contaminated water diving expertise with first responders and others.

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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