Human Health

Right on track

by Jennie Saxe

Take a drink on Amtrak!

Take a drink on Amtrak!

I love traveling by train. Here in the Northeast, I’m a little spoiled by the many rail transit systems that spider-web across the region. But with family in New England, my office in Philadelphia, and friends in Washington, DC, one of my favorite modes of transportation is Amtrak.

Here’s a fun water-related fact about traveling on Amtrak: every passenger rail car that has a café, restroom, or drinking fountain is considered its own public water system. Amtrak has about 1,500 of these mobile water systems, each of which must be monitored for water quality. Detailed maintenance procedures and monitoring plans are key to protecting public health, as trains roll from coast to coast.

Amtrak has been randomly sampling drinking water for over 20 years, and has been following a more detailed schedule and reporting results to EPA since 2012. Recently, EPA and Amtrak amended the 2012 agreement to extend the monitoring requirements and modify sampling schedules based on the results from all 1,500 cars to date: very few samples from 2013 and 2014 were positive for coliform bacteria (an indicator that something could potentially be wrong with the water) and no samples were positive for E. coli (a bacteria that signals contamination, and could make passengers sick).

Some additional protections are part of the agreement between EPA and Amtrak. Trains do not fill at stations that have a problem with their water supply, and passengers and crew would be notified if water testing showed a problem.

Riding the rails this summer? Grab your reusable water bottle and fill up! When it comes to protecting the health of rail passengers, Amtrak is right on track.

 

About the author: Dr. Jennie Saxe joined EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Region in 2003 and works in the Water Protection Division on sustainability programs.

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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Topping Off Asthma Awareness Month with Health Advice for Those You Care About

By Becky Weber

Imagine that you’re spending a quiet day at the beach. You get warm and the crystal clear, blue water looks so inviting, you decide to go for a swim. You venture out into the calm water, but before you know it, waves start rolling over your head. You push up from the sandy ocean bottom and take a big gulp of air before another wave knocks you back over. You finally make it to shore and now you’re exhausted, but your heart is racing like you just ran the Boston Marathon and you can’t make it slow down no matter how many deep breaths you take…

Becky Weber

Becky Weber

This is eerily similar to an asthma attack that adults can experience. An attack can come out of the blue and before it’s over, they might spend time in an emergency room with doctors getting the attack and the resulting rapid pulse under control with asthma medication.

May is Asthma Awareness Month, and I’d like to cap off the month by reminding everyone that adults have asthma, too. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are just under one million adults in the Heartland living with asthma, or seven percent of the population. These asthma sufferers are moms, dads, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, employees, etc. When they have an attack, it takes time away from their families, jobs, and activities. In EPA Region 7’s Air Program, we work closely with our state and local partners to educate the public about asthma and the common triggers for asthma attacks.

The most common triggers for asthma in both adults and children are:

  • Secondhand smoke
  • Dust mites
  • Molds
  • Cockroaches and pests
  • Pets
  • Nitrogen dioxide
  • Chemical irritants
  • Outdoor air pollution
  • Wood smoke

Having healthy indoor and outdoor air is important for every citizen, but it can mean life or death for people with asthma. Our Air Program is doing its part to protect air quality in the Heartland via the regional indoor and outdoor air programs, closely working with our Public Affairs and Environmental Justice experts on education campaigns and with our state and local partners. We hope our efforts result in fewer missed school and work days, less missed time with families, fewer hospital visits – and most of all, a better quality of life for our citizens living with asthma every day.

You may be thinking to yourself, “Is there anything I can do?” Yes, there are several things you can do to help those with asthma around you. Carpool more or take public transportation to reduce air pollution. Use green products when cleaning your home or office space. Buy Energy Star or energy-efficient products. And educate yourself on asthma trigger prevention. We can all do our part to help prevent asthma attacks!

For more information on asthma, triggers, and prevention, please visit EPA’s Asthma page.

About the Author: Becky Weber serves as the Director of EPA Region 7’s Air and Waste Management Division, and has worked over 20 years at EPA managing a variety of programs. She has a Bachelor of Science in meteorology from Texas A&M University. Becky enjoys cooking, reading, walking, and spending time with her family and friends.

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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Rain Barrels of Savings

by Jennie Saxe

As I spent a recent weekend doing springtime yard work, I noticed that the side yard of my house seems to have washed away over the past few years. After a short investigation, I realized that three downspouts on my home pointed at this exact location. I wondered…could I use green infrastructure to help slow the flow of rainwater?

I decided to install a rain barrel to direct some of the rain water to storage instead of letting it flow as run-off across the ground. Reducing the amount of run-off from my roof will keep the soil from washing away. As an added benefit, the stored rain water will be perfect for watering our flowers and vegetable garden.

Full disclosure: DIY is not my strong suit. Even though it’s fairly simple to build your own rain barrel, I purchased mine. All that was left was to follow the directions for connecting it to a downspout.  Here’s the finished product:

A recent, brief rain shower filled about one-third of this rain barrel.

A recent, brief rain shower filled about one-third of this rain barrel.

The rain barrel was installed in a couple of hours, but I did make some rookie mistakes. If you’re thinking about installing your first rain barrel, here are some helpful hints:

  • Location: I knew which downspout to connect to, but I also had to be sure I was able to connect a hose. I also had to consider where excess water would drain once the barrel was filled. Excess water can be directed to overflow, to another rain barrel, or to a rain garden.
  • Safety: A 60-gallon rain barrel will weigh 500 pounds when full, so it’s a good idea to make sure that little ones won’t be tempted to play around it. I used a bed of stones to make sure the base of the rain barrel was sturdy in all weather and able to support the weight of the barrel. To protect against mosquitos using your rain water as a breeding ground, be sure to have screening over all openings.
  • Level: This was the hardest part. Since you won’t want to move the rain barrel once it’s installed, take all the time you need on this step.
  • Have the right tools: If you purchase your rain barrel, follow the instructions. Common tools will include a level, a hacksaw, and a tape measure. Be sure you also have gloves and eye protection – a cut aluminum gutter can be sharp!

Now, if it would just rain! The conditions in my area have just been declared “abnormally dry” (designated “D0” on the U.S. Drought Monitor map). But with my rain barrel installed, I’ll be ready to save the rain when it does arrive.

 

About the author: Dr. Jennie Saxe joined EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Region in 2003 and works in the Water Protection Division on sustainability programs. She thanks fellow Healthy Waters bloggers Steve Donohue and Ken Hendrickson for their helpful hints on rain barrel installation.

 

 

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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Radium Girls: Unlikely Industrial Pioneers

By Trish Taylor

I grew up in a small town and the thought of someday working for the federal government never crossed my mind as a kid. And Superfund? What’s that? Superfund cleanups were something that happened other places. Not Bloomsburg, Pa. Not my hometown. But, I’ve now been with EPA’s Philadelphia office for over 10 years and I’ve learned that that’s exactly where Superfund cleanups happen. There’s even one in my hometown, about 1 ½ miles from my mother’s house, called the Safety Light Corp. Superfund Site.

It turns out, an innocent looking brick building that seems to have been part of the landscape for as long as I can remember, has quite an interesting history linked to it. Ask any nearby neighbor and they’ll tell you that the old U.S. Radium plant has been around for decades. Some of the older neighbors may have even worked there, or have relatives who worked there. It was one of many facilities owned by U.S. Radium Corporation. In Bloomsburg, U.S. Radium turned into Metreal, Inc., which eventually turned into the Safety Light Corporation. But, long-timer locals still just call it the radium plant.

Some of that interesting history was discovered during the Superfund process. Boxes and boxes of old files have been removed from the building as part of the cleanup. Files are dated from the 1940’s, with black and white photos, work products like deck markers, and other gadgets.

It turns out that U.S. Radium workers are famous, or should I say infamous. In the 1920’s, workers who painted the dials were mostly women between the ages of 18 – 30. A handful of these women from the Orange, New Jersey plant became known as the Radium Girls. These five young women changed working safety standards in America for the better. Unfortunately, the change came as a result of their ill health.

RadiumGirls1

It was customary for workers who applied the glow-in-the-dark paint (paint that glowed because it was in fact radioactive!) to use their lips to sharpen the tips of the paintbrushes to get a finer point for more precise application. The radium-activated paint was used on marine deck markers and other dials and gadgets that needed to be read in dark, unlit conditions. That’s where the radioactive component comes in. Exposure to (and in some cases, consumption of) the radium-activated paint resulted in radiation poisoning in many of the workers. Five of the women challenged their employer and filed a lawsuit. Four of the five Radium Girls died of radioactive-related illnesses before their 40th birthdays. The fifth passed away at the age of 51. The lawsuit was eventually settled out of court, but the industry was changed forever. It set precedent for workers to sue for damages caused by labor abuse and industrial safety standards were improved through federal law.

The Radium Girls have a tragic but significant legacy. Their story isn’t just a cautionary tale. It a nationwide-change-to-industry-as-we-knew-it tale. Big time. Not to mention the increased level of public awareness of the dangers associated with radium.

It’s interesting to see that big things can come from seemingly small places. That local plant is a piece of a much bigger story, and every day we’re working at the EPA to ensure that communities like Bloomsburg are protected and stay healthy.

About the author: Trish Taylor is a Community Involvement Coordinator, Hazardous Site Cleanup Division, in EPA’s Philadelphia office.

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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What Does Air Quality Mean for Your Exercise Routine?

By Alison Davis

We read or hear about it every day: exercise plays a critical role in keeping us healthy. So, what do you do when you want to exercise outside, but the air quality forecast is Code Orange – or higher? Does that mean you shouldn’t exert yourself outdoors?

Unless you’re looking for a reason to head for the couch, there’s good news. On most days, you can exercise outside – even if air quality isn’t the best. By using the Air Quality Index (AQI) to make simple changes to your workout plan, you can still get physical activity outdoors, while reducing the amount of pollution you take into your lungs.

If checking the AQI isn’t part of your daily routine, this is the perfect time to start. Air Quality Awareness Week is April 27 through May 1.

Join us at 1 p.m. EDT Thursday, April 30 for a Twitter chat about air quality and physical activity. EPA’s experts will be joined by experts from CDC, the National Weather Service and the National Park Service to answer your questions about how using the AQI can help you get the exercise you need to stay healthy when air quality is poor. Join the conversation: follow the #AirQualityChat hashtag @EPAlive, @CDCenvironment, @NWS, and @NPSair. If you don’t have a Twitter account, you can post your questions in the comments below and follow the #AirQualityChat hashtag during the chat. We look forward to talking with you!

About the author: Alison Davis is a Sr. Advisor for Public Affairs in EPA’s Office of Air Quality Planning & Standards.

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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Acid rain, toxic leaded gas, and widespread air pollution? Not anymore. Thanks to EPA.

Acid rain. Dangerous DDT. Toxic leaded gas fumes. Rampant air pollution. These environmental challenges once seemed impossible to meet, and they put our nation’s air, water, and land at risk—not to mention our families’ health. The dangers they posed were real, but you probably haven’t heard about them in a while. There’s a good reason for that.

We put smart policies in place to fix them.

So this Earth Day, here’s a reminder of a few of the environmental challenges our nation has conquered with EPA leading the way, and where we’re headed next.

Acid Rain

Caused by air pollution mixing with water vapor in the atmosphere, acid rain was once poisoning our rivers and lakes, killing fish, forests, and wildlife, and even eroding our buildings.

The 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act gave EPA the authority to regulate sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, the pollutants causing acid rain, from power plants. The EPA developed the first market-based cap-and-trade pollution reduction program, and guess what—it worked.

Despite the doomsday warnings from some in the power industry that the regulations would cause electricity prices to spike and lead to blackouts, over the last 25 years, acid rain levels are down 60%—while electricity prices have stayed stable, and the lights have stayed on. Thanks to hard work by EPA, states, and industry, our nation has put policies in place to solve the problem over the long haul.

Leaded Gasoline

For decades, leaded gasoline threatened the air our kids breathed. Lead from polluted air was absorbed into their bloodstreams, endangering their brain development and risking consequences like permanent nerve damage, anemia, and mental retardation. So EPA phased out leaded gas. Back in the late 1970s, 88 percent of American children had elevated levels of lead in their blood. By the mid-2000s, that number had dropped to less than 1 percent.

DDT

The bald eagle once faced extinction. The culprit was DDT, a powerful pesticide that made birds’ eggshells too weak for the chicks to survive, and also caused liver cancer and reproductive problems in humans. EPA banned the use of DDT in 1972, and since then, bald eagles have made a huge comeback—they were removed from the Endangered Species List in 2007—and our families are safer from harmful chemicals.

Air Pollution

A newspaper headline once called the smog shrouding Los Angeles “a dirty gray blanket flung across the city.” L.A. and many other cities like this one were choked by severe air pollution—leading to asthma, respiratory illness, and certain cancers. But over the last 45 years, we’ve cut air pollution 70 percent, while our nation’s economy has tripled. It goes to show that a strong economy and a safe environment go hand in hand.

Breathing Easier

Every day, EPA works toward cleaner air. One recent study found that thanks to the strides we’ve made in cutting air pollution in just the last 2 decades, children’s lungs in Southern California are 10% bigger and stronger today than they were in children 20 years ago.

Last fall, we built on that success by proposing stricter standards for ozone pollution to protect those most vulnerable—children, the elderly, and those already suffering from respiratory illnesses like asthma. For our kids, that means avoiding up to a million missed school days, thousands of cases of acute bronchitis, and nearly a million asthma attacks. Adults could avoid hundreds of emergency room visits for cardiovascular reasons, up to 180,000 missed work days, and 4 million days where people have to deal with pollution-related symptoms. Every dollar we invest in these standards would return $3 in health benefits.

Looking Ahead

And now, EPA is taking action on another major environmental challenge—climate change. The carbon pollution driving it comes packaged with other dangerous pollutants like smog and soot that can cause asthma and certain cancers, especially for those living in the shadow of polluting industries.

When we finalize our Clean Power Plan this summer, we’ll not only cut carbon pollution from power plants, our nation’s largest source, but we’ll also reduce those other dangerous pollutants and protect our families’ health. When we act, we also help safeguard communities from the impacts of climate change—like more severe droughts, storms, fires, and floods.

Time after time, when science has pointed to health risks, EPA has obeyed the law, followed the science, protected public health, and fortified a strong American economy. We’re doing the same thing today. Our track record proves that when EPA leads the way, there’s no environmental challenge our nation can’t meet.

 

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Your Input is Shaping the Clean Water Rule

Skokomish River in Olympic National Park

Water is the lifeblood of healthy people and healthy economies. We have a duty to protect it. That’s why EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are finalizing a Clean Water Rule later this spring to protect critical streams and wetlands that are currently vulnerable to pollution and destruction. On April 3 we sent the draft rule to the Office of Management and Budget for interagency review. Since it’s not final yet, we can’t speak to every detail. But the spirit of this rule boils down to three facts:

First, people depend on clean water: one in three Americans get their drinking water from streams currently lacking clear protection.

Second, our economy depends on clean water: manufacturing, farming, ranching, tourism, recreation, and other major economic sectors need clean water to function and flourish.

Third, our cherished way of life depends on clean water: healthy ecosystems support precious wildlife habitat and pristine places to hunt, fish, boat, and swim.

More

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Puerto Rico Shows the Power of Community Involvement in Protecting Waterways

Deputy Assistance Administrator Mike Shapiro talking with Harvey Minnigh, Cristina Maldonado (CEPD), and Graciela Ramirez (CECIA-InterAmericana) about the progress of the construction of a filter for the community of Mulas Jagual in Patillas, Puerto Rico.

Deputy Assistance Administrator Mike Shapiro talking with Harvey Minnigh, Cristina Maldonado (CEPD), and Graciela Ramirez (CECIA-InterAmericana) about the progress of the construction of a filter for the community of Mulas Jagual in Patillas, Puerto Rico.

By Mike Shapiro (cross-posted from It’s Our Environment)

Growing up, I remember playing along the mud flats by Newark Bay and pondering why the water nearby was so dark and sticky. I later learned that the water and mud flats were contaminated with oil and other substances. While Newark Bay is still far from clean by our current standards, today when I return to my home town I can see progress from the cleanup and restoration that is taking place.

Our work with communities to improve water quality makes a big difference. I flew to Puerto Rico in February to visit two projects that have made tremendous strides in improving the health of communities there – thanks to dedicated project leaders who empower local people and collaborate with local and federal government agencies to protect their waterways.

My first visit was to Mulas Jagual in Patillas, where the city and its residents are building a filter to treat water that will serve 200 households. This is an incredible accomplishment for a community that only a few years ago was taking water from a local river and piping it directly to their homes without any treatment. Through an EPA grant, they received training and technical assistance from a university in Puerto Rico. They learned about chlorination and formed a board to help manage their community water system.

Deputy Assistant Administrator Mike Shapiro stands with Jose Font from the EPA Caribbean Environmental Protection Division, community leaders and members of Project ENLACE, a government organization whose mission is to implement the $744 million land use and development plan for Cano Martin Pena.

Deputy Assistant Administrator Mike Shapiro stands with Jose Font from the EPA Caribbean Environmental Protection Division, community leaders and members of Project ENLACE, a government organization whose mission is to implement the $744 million land use and development plan for Cano Martin Pena.

My second visit was to the Martin Pena Channel, a 3.75-mile tidal channel located within San Juan Bay. During the early 20th century, substandard dwellings were built within the wetlands bordering the channel, using debris as fill material. Over 3,000 structures now discharge raw sewage into the remains of the channel. Poorly maintained sewer systems result in flooding, regularly exposing 27,000 residents to polluted waters. In 2014, we awarded a grant of $60,000 to design a new stormwater drainage system. We’re currently working with our federal partners on a major dredging project that would restore water flow within the channel.

Administrator Gina McCarthy declared February to be Environmental Justice Month. It’s important to provide minority and low-income communities with access to information and an opportunity to better protect their health. Clean water is a vital piece of the puzzle for the health and safety of all Americans.

About the author: Mike Shapiro is the Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Office of Water where he performs a variety of policy and operational functions to ensure the effective implementation of the National Water Program.

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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Protecting our Drinking Water for Everyone

By Dr. Peter Grevatt

Like families in almost every city and town across the U.S., everyone in my house counts on the idea that we can just reach for the tap any time we’re thirsty or need some water to cook dinner. And, there hasn’t been a single day when safe drinking water wasn’t readily available to me or my family at a remarkably low cost.

While most Americans enjoy this same luxury every day, this past year two major drinking water systems were shut down when harmful toxins contaminated their drinking water systems. These incidents in Toledo, OH, and Charleston, WV, resulted in over 800,000 residents having to find an alternative supply of safe drinking water for as long as five days. And, in both cases, this led to National Guard deployment to provide emergency drinking water to long lines of residents.

Unfortunately, Charleston and Toledo are not the only places in the United States where this occurred in the last year, reminding us of the critical importance of protecting the sources of our drinking water.

While today’s drinking water treatment systems can remove most contaminants, in some cases, they’ve been overwhelmed by contaminants introduced upstream from the customers they serve. In these instances, many lower income residents bear the greatest burden of losing access to safe drinking water. Without effective source water protection programs, the cost of providing safe drinking water is placed solely on the downstream drinking water plants and their customers, many of whom can’t afford to shoulder this extra treatment cost, let alone the economic losses of closing businesses and schools during a drinking water emergency.

All Americans should have access to safe drinking water. We can all help to make sure this is the case by helping to protect our source waters where we live and for our downstream neighbors.

About the author: Peter Grevatt is the Director of the Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water. The Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water in collaboration with states, tribes and its many stakeholders, is responsible for safeguarding America’s drinking water.

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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You Might Know the Next Rachel Carson

flaagRachel Carson wrote a famous book called Silent Spring, which led our country to ban DDT, a harmful pesticide, and rethink the relationship between our environment and our health. Before that, she served as a scientist and editor at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, eventually becoming Editor-in-Chief of all of the agency’s publications. In those days, it was rare for a woman to serve as a scientist, and even more rare to rise to a position of leadership.

Our country has made a lot of progress since then. In 1970, only 11% of women between the ages of 25 and 64 had a college degree. By 2012, that number had climbed to 38%. And since the late 1990s, women have been awarded about half of all bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering. But in spite of all these gains, only about one in four environmental scientists or geoscientists across the country are women – so we still have a long way to go.

EPA has been lucky to have many extraordinary women launch and grow their careers here. We make up a little more than half of EPA’s workforce, and about 44% of our supervisors and managers. Women do just about every job you can imagine — from running major research efforts to analyzing data to steering our work to protect clean air and water.

That includes environmental experts like Jane Nishida, Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator in our Office of International and Tribal Affairs, and Janet McCabe, Acting Assistant Administrator for our Office of Air and Radiation, who worked to launch our international air quality monitoring effort that is helping us lead the way as we act on climate. It includes lawyers like Lorie Schmidt, who played a key role in last year’s Supreme Court win affirming our authority to regulate greenhouse gases, and who is heavily involved in finalizing our Clean Power Plan. It also includes innovative leaders like Cynthia Giles, our Assistant Administrator for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, who developed our Next-Generation Compliance program that leverages new technologies for monitoring, reporting, permitting and transparency, making it easier for companies and organizations to follow the law.

Five of our 13 Administrators since the agency was established have been women, including our current leader, Gina McCarthy. Five of our current Associate and Assistant Administrators are women, too. Three of our 10 Regional Administrators and seven of our 10 Deputy Regional Administrators are women who guide our work in different parts of the country. The women leaders here are too many to list, and for every one woman who has been in the public eye, there are dozens more driving our work forward throughout the organization.

Odds are good that you know a young woman who will soon be thinking about what she wants to study in school, and what path she wants her life to take. Encourage her to seek out a career where she can help protect the environment. That young woman you know could be the next Rachel Carson or Gina McCarthy, and she might step into a decades-long career in public service and environmental protection that changes the face of the world.

All throughout March, we’ll be highlighting women here at the EPA and at some of our sister agencies who are moving our work forward. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to join the conversation, and check out the slideshow below to meet a few of the women who work here at the EPA.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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