health

My Air, My Health, My Future

The best innovations rely on disruption, a catalyst for change in a world of status quo.

Disruptive innovation is the theory behind the My Air, My Health Challenge, sponsored by EPA and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The challenge encouraged Americans to consider the future of air quality and human health by developing small, wearable air quality sensors that also detect how our bodies respond to the air we breathe.

Two major ideas drive the effort to combine air sensor technologies and health data. First, sensors mirror the rise of computers and smartphones – more power in less space at lower prices. Second, the air we breathe affects our health, but that data changes constantly as we move.

All four finalist teams in the challenge received $15,000, and the teams continue to transform their designs into portable sensor systems that measure air quality and corresponding physiological responses to that air quality.

Below, leaders of the four teams talk about how they’re pursuing the priorities of sensor portability, data accuracy, and low cost for the final design.

  • Aaron Hechmer and his team chose to focus their challenge efforts on the aspects of air sensor data and cost.  “This project, it really is sharing health information. To make [sensors] statistically robust, they’ve got to be in a lot of hands. To be in a lot of hands they’ve got to be cheap, particularly if you’re trying to serve communities. People don’t want to pay $5,000.”
  • Michael Heimbinder leads a team designing an air sensor that measures fine particulate matter and carbon monoxide. The team uses a chest strap sensor to look for connections between air pollutant exposure and heart rate variability, the interval between heart beats.  The team completed a first prototype air monitor and will build five more for volunteers to wear and collect data. Heimbinder says the next hurdle is visualizing the data by “displaying thousands and thousands of measurement points as dots on a map.”
  • Guy Shechter and his team view the long-term scientific prospects of the challenge. The team’s sensor will tease out links between ultrafine particulate pollution and obstructive respiratory diseases such as COPD and asthma. “The exciting thing for us is this lack of science in this area and our belief that with the technology we have, with the scientific minds we have thinking about this, that we can actually do something interesting and new.”
  • David Kuller’s team has created T-shirts sewn with sensors. Owners can wash the shirts as long as they remove the battery and the air sensor, about the size of a matchbox, prior to washing.  To measure health indicators, the shirts use an elastic strip of silver yarn that was originally designed for monitoring newborn babies. “We knew about the existence of these stretch sensors but hadn’t put them to test in any laboratory way.”

Stay tuned for an update this summer. The challenge winner will receive an award of $100,000 to be announced in June 2013 at Health Datapalooza IV.

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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Science Matters: Closing the Asthma Gap

To observe October as Children’s Health Month, we will periodically post Science Matters feature articles about EPA’s children’s health research here on the blog. Learn more about EPA’s efforts to protect children’s health by going to www.epa.gov/ochp.

Nearly 26 million Americans, including seven million children, are affected by asthma. But when emergency room doors burst open for someone with an asthma attack, chances are the patient will be a poor, minority child.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), minority children living in poor socioeconomic conditions are at greatest risk. For instance, 16% of African American children had asthma in 2010 compared to 8.2% of white children, and they are twice as likely to be hospitalized with an asthma attack and four times more likely to die than white children. The asthma rate among children living in poverty was 12.2% in 2010, compared to 8.2% among children living above the poverty line.

“Across America we see low-income and minority children and families at a disproportionately higher risk for asthma and respiratory illnesses. Air pollution and other challenges are having serious health effects, which compound economic challenges through medical bills and missed school and work days,” said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. “As the mother of a child with asthma, I know what it means for our children to have clean and healthy air to breathe.”

Administrator Jackson made those remarks during the unveiling of the Coordinated Federal Action Plan to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Asthma Disparities, a blueprint for how EPA and other federal agencies can team up to reduce asthma disparities.

A major part of that effort is the work conducted by EPA scientists and their partners exploring environmental causes and triggers of asthma, including how socioeconomic factors contribute to childhood asthma. The overall goal is to illuminate the underlying factors of asthma to support work on prevention and intervention strategies.

What increases the risk of developing asthma? While part of the answer certainly lies with genetics, as more than half of all children with asthma also have close relatives with the illness, the environment also plays a key role. Air pollutants, allergens, mold, and other environmental agents trigger asthma attacks.

EPA researchers and their partners are leading the effort to develop new scientific methods, models, and data for assessing how such triggers increase the risk for asthma and asthma attacks. The impact of this research has already contributed to current regulatory standards for two priority air pollutants regulated under the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS): ozone and particulate matter. EPA’s asthma research has also been factored into health assessments for diesel emissions.

The next step is to learn ways to better protect those most at risk.

“Now we’re digging into the disparities side of the asthma problem,” said Martha Carraway, MD, a researcher at EPA. “Kids with poorly controlled asthma are more likely to be treated in the emergency room than kids with controlled asthma. So for public health reasons we need to understand how environmental factors, including air pollution, affect asthma control in vulnerable populations.”

To advance that work, EPA researchers and their partners took advantage of a 2008 lightning strike that occurred in Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina. The 40,000-acre (16,000-hectare), smoldering peat fire sparked by the lightning sent thick, billowing clouds of smoke wafting into the air.

In collaboration with scientists at the University of North Carolina Center for Environmental Medicine, Asthma, and Lung Biology, a team of EPA researchers led by David Diaz-Sanchez, PhD compared emergency room visits for asthma with air quality reports. Looking at the results geographically, they found that low income counties had significantly more visits than more affluent counties, even though air quality and exposure levels were the same.

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“EPA studies suggest that children and others living in low-income counties could be less resilient to air pollution, possibly because of social factors such as inadequate nutrition. For example, if you’re poor and you’re not eating well, your asthma may be more severe,” said Nsedu Obot Witherspoon, MPH, Executive Director of the Children’s Environmental Health Network, a national multi-disciplinary organization whose mission is to protect developing children from environmental health hazards and promote a healthier environment. “Of course, other factors may also be involved, such as whether kids take medications correctly and whether they have access to good medical care.”

EPA’s research on asthma disparities can help guide newer and better interventions for reducing exposure to asthma triggers and limiting the impacts of the ailment, helping to close the gap for minority and poor children and improving the health of children everywhere.

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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On the way to wonderful…

By Maryann Helferty

Front of the Overbrook Environmental Education Center

Front of the Overbrook Environmental Education Center

During a summer drive along a busy commercial corridor in Philadelphia’s historic Overbrook section, I was transfixed by a vibrant mural lining the cinder block wall of a former cable manufacturing plant. The wall had been painted to show bees and flowers emerging over the cityscape just as the property’s new occupant, the Overbrook Environmental Education Center, has grown into a community asset from a former brownfields site.

Interpretive signs explained how stormwater systems in older cities are often routed in tandem with the sanitary sewer.  During heavy rainfall, raw sewage can be discharged into waterways, causing a health concern.   At this site, however, stormwater is managed with bio-retention basins, swales, green roof systems and pervious pavement.  These techniques allow an amazing 90 percent of rainwater to be harvested on the 45,000 square foot site.  Developers and contractors frequently visit to see these innovations in action.

The Center director, Mr. Jerome Shabazz, shared his vision for community-based urban outreach centers.  “We create a third place beyond home and work, where everyone can meet and feel welcome.”   How does creation like this happen?  First, one listens to the home-owners and businesses to understand what strengths make Overbrook stable and connected.  Then educational offerings build from the needs expressed by the community.

Overbrook Environmental Arts Orchard Planting

Overbrook Environmental Arts Orchard Planting

Today, like the bees on its mural, the former brownfields site hums with energy, offering environmental education initiatives, as well as nutrition, fitness, and literacy.   Rising over the parking lot was the Penn State Extension High Tunnel Greenhouse; children are climbing a gym set under the trees; and a vibrant tile mosaic shows the creativity of residents from a Summer Youth project who designed the entrance that says:  “On the way to wonderful find a place called alright.”

What are the strengths that make your neighborhood an alright place to be?  How do you work in your community to make it wonderful?  I’d love to hear from you.

About the Author: Maryann Helferty is a water quality scientist with the Mid-Atlantic Regional office of the EPA.  She has worked on groundwater and watershed protection in both the rural Pacific Northwest and the urban corridors of the Atlantic.  One of her passions is teaching urban youth about water through the poetry curriculum: River of Words.

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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Sister Blog: EPA Seeking Feedback on Beta Tool to Address Community Environmental Issues

(Reposted from EPA’s Environmental Justice in Action Blog.)

By Dr. Valerie Zartarian and Dr. Andrew Geller

Communities and individuals are faced with exposure to many different kinds of pollution, like lead, air pollution, water pollution, and toxics in fish. People want to understand their health risks and how to prevent them. As communities move to protect their neighborhoods, the issues can seem too numerous, with too few experts and limited access to information that can limit meaningful involvement.

In EPA’s Office of Research and Development we are designing the Community-Focused Exposure and Risk Screening Tool (C-FERST) and related research to address these challenges. C-FERST is being developed to increase the availability and accessibility of science and data for evaluating impacts of pollutants and local conditions, ranking risks, and understanding the environmental health consequences of your community. (Keep reading at Environmental Justice in Action.)

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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You Don’t Need Oz to Give You a Healthy Heart

By Christina Motilall

When the Tin Man went to the Wizard of Oz to get a heart, I am sure he assumed it was a healthy one. But as we all know, hearts are tricky things, affected by any number of stressors—including, EPA scientists are starting to learn, pollutants.

Everything from what we eat to what we breathe influences our heart in some way. That is why the research of EPA’s Dr. Mehdi Hazari analyzing air pollution effects on cardiovascular health is so important.

By researching and developing new methods to assess cardiopulmonary effects of air pollution, Dr. Hazari is working to ensure that we understand all of the cardiovascular effects our air may have on us. Dr. Hazari calls the effects he is studying ‘latent effects’—ones we cannot see the symptoms of right away, but can lead to subsequent adverse responses triggered down the road.

Dr. Hazari stated that his research has “demonstrated that two health-compromised groups might be more susceptible than healthy individuals: those with hypertension and those with heart disease.” It seems these days we all know someone struggling with heart-related problems, and Dr. Hazari’s research is working to understand what long-term role air pollution may play in this.

The big difference between Dr. Hazari’s research and others I have heard of is that he is not necessarily examining air pollution (specifically ground-level ozone and particulate matter) as a toxicant, but rather as a stressor. “Even though we are sometimes faced with these stressors on a daily basis, our bodies compensate for the insult and continue functioning normally. But have we considered the long-term implications? Because as the effects of these stressors accumulate in the body over time, our ability to compensate decreases and we run the risk of something adverse happening,” Dr. Hazari explains.

And the big picture of Dr. Hazari’s work also means he gets a picture with the President. That’s right. This week he was one of two EPA scientists named as recipients of the 2011 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). Next week, Dr. Hazari gets to travel to Washington, DC to meet the Commander-in-Chief and accept this prestigious award for innovative and internationally-recognized research. When asked how he felt about meeting the President, Dr. Hazari stated “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a total honor!”

Along with President Obama, I value Dr. Hazari’s future-focused research illuminating risks to protect the heart health of myself and my loved ones. And you know what? I bet if the Tin Man were here, he would wholeheartedly agree.

About the author: Christina Motilall is an intern for the Office of Research and Development’s Science Communications 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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A Better Approach to a Clogged Drain?

By Laura Janson

It happens every so often. One of the drains in my house gets clogged. It is usually the drain in my shower stall or the drain in my bathroom sink. They tend to collect hair.

Being a health-conscious environmentalist, I try not to use harsh chemicals — you know — the ones that contain an irritant that can burn your skin or the inside of your nose? I’ve tried a drain snake, but that requires some elbow grease and sometimes I can’t seem to reach the clog. Why don’t I just use a drain sieve or filter on top of the drains? The bathroom sink is angled so that one will not lay flat. I did find one for the shower that’s easy to clean—stainless steel—and is fine enough to catch hair, but it doesn’t fit in the kids’ tub. What about an environmentally friendly drain cleaner? Good approach, but let’s think outside of the box.

An idea hit me when my brother showed me the filter in my dishwasher that catches large food particles and “foreign objects” like fancy plastic toothpicks. Who knew? Not me, but then I never read the entire manual.

Why not have the same gizmos, those traps they have in many dishwashers, in bathroom drains? Then I could just unscrew the cover on the drain, pull out the trap, remove the hair, put back the cover, and voila, an unclogged drain! It would just take a minute and it would be environmentally friendly.

Calling all faucet manufacturers or entrepreneurs. Find a way to incorporate a filter into every faucet’s design. Then everyone can clean their own drain filters. . . they just have to read the manual to know it’s there.

While you’re thinking about eco-friendly bathroom fixtures, check out all the water efficient appliances from the Water Sense program. Will you be giving your bathroom an eco-makeover?

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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Ozone Exposure and Your Heart

By Jing Zhang

Illustration of heart and lungsI couldn’t imagine living in a world where buildings are filled with thick cigarette smoke, but smokeless buildings haven’t always been the norm. Many things today, such as washing hands to avoid spreading germs, were previously not the norm and are the result of scientific findings uncovered years ago.

EPA researchers and scientists are constantly conducting studies to make important advances in improving human health and the environment. One such EPA study was recently published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation. (Read the press release.)

According to the study, breathing in ozone can be harmful to both your lungs and your heart.

For years, air pollutants, including ozone, have been known to harm the lungs. The EPA ozone study shows that breathing in ozone can cause inflammation of the vascular system, a change in heart rate variability, and a reduction in the ability of blood clots to dissolve, which are risk factors for heart disease.  The study also confirmed the ability of ozone to impact lung inflammation and function.

It amazes me how a seemingly simple molecule composed of three tiny oxygen atoms can impact lung and heart health! Where does this tiny yet harmful air pollutant come from?

As it turns out, ozone is in two areas of the earth’s atmosphere. Ozone exists naturally in the upper regions of the atmosphere, where it protects the earth from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. Ozone found at the ground level is created from the mixture of nitrogen oxides (NOx), volatile organic compounds (VOC), and sunlight. The NOx and VOC emissions come from sources including industrial facilities, electric utilities, and vehicle exhausts.

Because sunlight is a key factor in creating ground-level ozone, sunny days can create unhealthy levels of ozone in urban areas. Some people, including children, older adults, and those with preexisting heart or lung conditions, are at greatest risk from exposure to ozone.

In order to protect your health, use EPA’s Air Quality Index, which forecasts air quality on a daily basis, and minimize time spent outside on high ozone days.

The recently-released EPA study paves the way for further research on the health effects of exposure to ozone. With more discoveries, the impacts of ozone on health may become as widely known as the impacts of cigarette smoke on health. In the meantime, EPA scientists are continuously conducting cutting-edge research to protect your heart from outdoor air pollution and environmental effects.

To learn more about EPA air research, vistit: www.epa.gov/airscience

About the author: Jing Zhang is a student services contractor working on the Science Communications Team in EPA’s the 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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Attention Innovators: The My Air, My Health HHS/EPA Challenge is Open!

By Ruthanna Gordon

y Air, My Health illustrationWhen I came to work for EPA as an American Association for the Advancement of Science fellow, I hoped to connect my social science background with my passion for the environment.  In my time on EPA’s Innovation Team, I’ve found such connections in places I never expected.  I’ve grown particularly excited about our work on portable air quality sensors.

As a psychologist, I have learned that people care about a problem more, and come up with better solutions, when they see how it affects them personally.  Air pollution is a great example—when people can measure particulates on their jogging route, it’s far more meaningful than just hearing about the issue on the news.

The My Air, My Health Challenge, announced today by EPA’s Science Advisor Dr. Glenn Paulson and Dr. Linda Birnbaum of the National Institute of Environmental Health Science, aims to gather the best work in this area, and bring it to the next level.

The challenge calls on academics, industry researchers, and garage-lab do-it-yourselfers to connect wearable air and health sensors, allowing citizens and communities to collect highly localized data and create a meaningful picture of how the environment affects their well-being.

The data integration and analysis component of the challenge is particularly exciting.

A few weeks ago, I was privileged to attend the Apps and Sensors for Air Pollution workshop in Research Triangle Park, NC.  There, I listened to cutting edge sensor developers talk about their work.  They had some fascinating projects, ranging from cheap ozone monitors carried by students to a community initiative measuring black carbon in the homes of elders.  Our challenge took its final shape from these experts’ input.

Portable sensor development is flourishing, but everyone agreed that integrating data from different types of sensors was a tough problem that needed an extra push to move forward.  My Air, My Health is intended to be that push.  It spotlights the problem—and gives researchers an extra incentive for focusing on it.  The four top ideas will receive $15,000 apiece, and be invited to carry out a proof-of-concept project in the 2nd phase.  The best of these projects will receive a grand prize of $100,000.

If you’d like to hear more about the My Air, My Health challenge, or if you know an innovative thinker who might be interested in participating, we’re holding a webinar on June 19th at 4 PM.  We’re looking forward to seeing what everyone comes up with!

About the Author: Ruthanna Gordon is a behavioral scientist, and a AAAS science and technology fellow working with the EPA Innovation 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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The More You Know… About Your Drinking Water

By Christina Catanese

Delivering safe drinking water is a process many of us take for granted when we turn on the tap, but one that requires careful and constant management.

When you get mail from your water provider, it probably doesn’t seem any more exciting than any of the other bills in the mail pile.  But soon, you’ll be receiving something from your water system that you might want to take a closer look at.  It will certainly be more interesting than writing a check, and you’ll get some valuable information about your drinking water.

Each year by July 1st, you should receive a short report (called a consumer confidence report or drinking water quality report) in the mail from your water supplier that tells you two main things: where your water comes from and what’s in it.

These annual reports provide tons of useful information in an overview of the quality of the water that comes out of your tap.  It will tell you the river, aquifer, or other source of drinking water that your water comes from, and the main threats to the source water in your area.  Your report will list any regulated contaminants that were detected in treated water in the last calendar year, whether there were any violations of EPA standards, and the possible risks to your health.

Besides providing a wealth of information, reports point you in the direction of places to learn even more, like EPA’s safe drinking water hotline, information about your local water system, and source water assessments.  Still thirsty for information about your drinking water?  Find information for your state here. Some state agencies also post information on the systems they regulate on Drinking Water Watch.

If you don’t get your annual report in the mail (or if it somehow gets eaten by the mail pile monster), you might be able to find it online.  Any community water system that serves more than 100,000 people is required to make its report available on the web.  Some smaller systems also post their reports online.  See if your water system’s report is posted here. You can always contact your water system if you can’t find your report or have questions about your drinking water supply.

Have you gotten your annual report yet?  Do you usually read them when you get them?  What information would you like to see that isn’t included in your annual report?  Tell us what you learned from your report in the comments section.

National Drinking Water Week is next week, May 6-12! Celebrate by taking some time to get to know your drinking water.

About the Author: Christina Catanese has worked at EPA since 2010, and her work focuses on data analysis and management, GIS mapping and tools, communications, and other tasks that support the work of Regional water programs. Originally from Pittsburgh, Christina has lived in Philadelphia since attending the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned a B.A. in Environmental Studies and Political Science and an M.S. in Applied Geosciences with a Hydrogeology concentration. Trained in dance (ballet, modern, and other styles) from a young age, Christina continues to perform, choreograph and teach in the Philadelphia area.

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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99 Days to Prom

Did you know that between 16 and 33% of teens in the U.S. are considered obese? Part of the reason is not enough physical activity. How do I know?  I’m one of them.

My mom and I moved from the city to a subdivision in the suburbs a few years ago so she could be closer to work and we could live in a nicer neighborhood, an environment created for families. Growing up, I realized it wasn’t kid friendly like my grandmother’s house in the city –where I could walk or had access to the “green limousine” (what everyone else calls public transportation) to get around in the city.   In the suburbs, my mom has to drive me to get to school, practice or the mall. This is called sprawl because everything is so spread out that there isn’t much choice but to use an automobile to get around.

The combination of un-pedestrian friendly towns or neighborhoods and less physical activity contributed to the rise in obesity, diabetes and asthma.  We’re living “large” but it’s taking a toll! Some of us are struggling to fit into prom dresses this spring!  Let’s face it; we build our communities in ways that discourage daily physical activity like walking and bicycling. I didn’t think I had much of a choice and neither did many of my friends. 

But we do.

Town governments and planners call it smart growth.  Growth is “smart” when new development gives us great communities, with more choices, personal freedom and diversity. When communities choose smart growth, they can create new neighborhoods and maintain existing ones that are convenient and healthy. Public transportation is more readily available to use, but walking is also convenient. When a community is designed to be easier to get around, people can more easily incorporate and encourage social and physical activity. It also reduces air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions because people can choose to walk, bike, or take public transportation instead of drive.  Most of all, we can create more choices for kids, families, and older adults. These choices include where to live, how to interact with the people around them and how to get around!  

If it was easier to walk to school or travel to the mall instead of having my mom drive me, we’d save on gas and I wouldn’t have to think about fitting into my prom dress.  Smart growth is good for our health and our carbon footprint. 

Gabriella is a senior at Wheaton Warrenville High School in Illinois.  She’ll be attending SIU next fall to major in environmental forensics science.

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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