National Ambient Air Quality Standards

EPA Study Shows Poverty Is a Risk Factor for Heart Disease

Every day EPA researchers are advancing our understanding of how air pollution threatens heart health. We will be sharing some of the important studies under way and research discoveries during February in recognition of American Heart Month.

Healthy Heart graphic identifier

By Ann Brown

In 2008, lightening started a peat bog wildfire in eastern North Carolina. Dry peat is an organic material that makes a perfect fuel for fire. For weeks the fire smoldered, blanketing communities in 44 rural counties with toxic air pollutants that exceeded EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards at times. As a result, many people went to the emergency department with congestive heart failure, asthma and other health problems from smoke exposure as documented in an EPA study.

The wildfire provided a unique opportunity for researchers to evaluate the reasons behind the heart and respiratory problems caused from smoke exposure. They were interested in whether there are community characteristics than can be used to identify residents whose health might be at risk from wildfires or other sources of air pollution. What exactly did the communities along the Coastal Plain of North Carolina have in common?

Researchers analyzed daily rates of visits to the emergency departments during the fire event and community health factors such as access and quality of clinical care, health behaviors, socioeconomic factors and the characteristics of the physical environment. The findings, published in Environmental Health, indicate low socio-economic status alone can be used to determine if a community is at risk for congestive heart failure or other health problems observed. Low socio-economic status is a term used to describe a group of factors such as low income, inadequate education and safety concerns.

While the knowledge that people in poverty are at greater health risk from air pollution is not new, this study provides scientific evidence that a community’s socio-economic status can be used to identify those at greatest risk from air pollution. This is good news for the public health community and others interested in reaching people with heart or lung diseases who may be at risk of air pollution. This study and others being conducted across the country by epidemiologists are helping to find ways to address health problems in communities. 

About the Author: Ann Brown is the communications lead for EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy Research Program.

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Remember to join us for a Twitter Chat with EPA research cardiologist Dr. Wayne Cascio tomorrow, February 20, at 2:30 pm. Follow #HealthyHeart or @EPAlive.

Be Smart, Protect Your Heart from Air Pollution

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Air Quality Awareness Week: EPA Clean Air Science

By Maggie Sauerhage

Recess at last!

Impatiently, you watch the second hand tick, tick, tick around the clock. Is it possible that it’s slowing down? Finally, it hits the 12 and you hear that magical sound: RRRRING! It’s time for recess! You jump out of your seat, knocking over your chair, and run to freedom alongside your classmates. Throwing the doors open, you’re welcomed by the warm glow of sunshine and the scent of grass, flowers, and blacktop. Taking a deep breath, you fill your lungs with air before running off to join friends in a game of kickball, tag, or to see who can swing highest.

Recess was one of the best parts of my day when I was younger. I was lucky. As reported recently in The New York Times, many kids in China’s cities often have to stay indoors because of high levels of air pollution. Teachers there check the U.S. Consulate’s website or their own government’s website for an air quality reading, to make sure it’s safe for children to go outside.

While air pollution levels in the United States are significantly lower, many cities still have days when the air pollution exceeds what is considered healthy, especially for certain at-risk populations such as those already dealing with asthma or cardiovascular problems (also see EPA’s Green Heart initiative). That’s why EPA scientists are conducting air research and learning how to keep us healthy.

EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards—for six principal pollutants—were developed to help protect human health and the environment. EPA scientists study how the six pollutants are formed, the ways they interact in the atmosphere, and their impacts.

The Clean Air Act requires EPA researchers to periodically review the science behind these standards to ensure the latest findings are used to inform efforts to protect human health and the einvironment. These reviews include scientific assessments of all the existing research on each pollutant.

Scientists must also closely monitor daily levels of pollutants in the air to make sure they aren’t unhealthy. They’ve developed models that are used by the National Weather Service to give daily U.S. ozone forecasts, and states use them to make sure they are complying with clean air standards.

All of this research helps EPA calculate the Air Quality Index (AQI) each day to inform the public of air quality in their neighborhood. The AQI is an easy-to-use table that’s color-coded to match levels of air pollution. The scale goes from 0-500, and the higher the value, the more harmful the level of pollution. To check your air quality forecast, all you have to do is enter your zip code. You can also download an app for your phone to check air quality on the go.

Unfortunately, I’ve outgrown recess. But air quality is still as important to me as it is to the millions of kids who depend on clean air to go outside and play with their friends. So don’t forget to check the AQI next time you want to enjoy the great outdoors!

About the Author: Maggie Sauerhage is a student services contractor working on the Science Communications Team in EPA’s 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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HERO: Easier Way to Retrieve Information

By Pawlos Girmay

I recently had an opportunity to speak with Gerry Gurevich, the technical lead for EPA’s Health and Environmental Research Online—or HERO—database, which serves as a central location for the scientific information EPA researchers use to develop environmental and health assessments. Gerry explained some of the benefits of the HERO database and the changes that will occur over the coming months.

For starters, HERO has greatly enhanced transparency by providing links to the references and abstracts of  the scientific literature used in two important types of Agency assessments:  (1) Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) assessments, which evaluate information on the potential health effects that may result from exposure to environmental contaminants, and (2) Integrated Science Assessments (ISAs), reports that summarize the science related to the health and ecological effects caused by the six criteria air pollutants for which EPA develops National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

With approximately 725,000 references, there is an abundance of information. If you need a scientific reference from an ISA or IRIS assessment, HERO will have it!

While HERO is already a terrific resource, EPA is still committed to making changes to improve the database. New versions of HERO are being pushed out monthly to improve performance. EPA will continue to provide updates as needed to make HERO a beneficial tool for anyone seeking scientific information about EPA’s assessment work.

Obviously, HERO could not function without the hard work and dedication of the staff that have made the database what it is today. Joining Gerry Gurevich, who has been working with HERO for the past four years, is “TeamHERO” – a group of librarians and data specialists.

During my time in the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment, I found HERO to be an extremely valuable tool to search for scientific information. As part of the Open Government Directive to conduct business with transparency, participation, and collaboration, HERO helps the public participate in EPA’s work by providing information about the data behind health assessments that inform decisions to protect public health.

With many new advances in technology taking place, I am sure HERO will continue to expand and enhance stakeholder’s experiences.  You can explore it yourself here: Health and Environmental Research Online.

About the Author: Pawlos Girmay is a student intern in EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment. He received his undergraduate degree from Howard University and his Masters of Science in Health Communications degree from Boston University.

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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American Heart Month: Air Pollution and Your Health

February is American Heart Month! To help spread the word about heart health, EPA scientists and staff will write each week about the Agency’s Green Heart effort to educate the public about of the connection between air pollution and your heart. Be sure to check back each week to learn more, and for tips on what you can do to stay healthy!

By Jason Sacks, Beth Owens, and Barbara Buckley

It’s February, which means that it’s Heart Health Month. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States. Many people associate heart disease with a poor diet or lack of exercise.  What you may not realize, though, is that exposure to air pollution, specifically small airborne particles, can impact heart health, particularly for people with cardiovascular disease. That’s why EPA has launched the “Green Heart” initiative.

Airborne particles, or particulate matter (PM), consist of a complex mixture of extremely small particles and liquid droplets that can be found in smoke and haze. Small airborne particles, known as fine PM, can be emitted from sources such as forest fires or formed when gases emitted from power plants, industries and automobiles react in the air.

Fine particles are very small—less than two and a half microns. To put it in perspective, the period at the end of this sentence measures more than 600 microns. When fine particles are breathed in, they pass through the throat and nose and enter the lungs. From there they can cause serious health problems in the rest of the body.

As EPA scientists, we make sure the most recent and scientifically sound research is used to protect the public’s health from the harmful effects of air pollution. Over the last 20 years, thousands of scientific studies have reported that breathing in fine PM can lead to harmful effects on the heart, blood, and blood vessels. These studies show that exposure to PM can cause premature death, strokes, heart attacks, and cardiac arrest for people who are already at risk.

As we celebrate Heart Health Month, take a minute to not only consider the physical and nutritional changes you can make to improve your heart health, but also the actions you can take to reduce your exposure to air pollution. For more information about what you can do please visit:

About the Author: Jason Sacks is an epidemiologist and Beth Owens and Barbara Buckley are toxicologists in EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment. They work on Integrated Science Assessments, which form the scientific basis of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS).

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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