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DISCOVER-AQ: Tracking Pollution from the Skies (and Space) Above Denver

NASA four-engine turboprop P-38 takes to the sky

NASA four-engine turboprop takes to the sky for clean air science.

 

EPA scientists have teamed up with colleagues from NASA to advance clean air research. Below is the latest update about that work. 

Denver is the last of four cities in a study by EPA and partners that will give scientists a clearer picture of how to better measure air pollution with instruments positioned on the earth’s surface, flying in the air, and from satellites in space.

The NASA-led study is known as DISCOVER-AQ, and is being conducted July 14 to August 12 in Denver.  The research began in 2011 with air quality measuring conducted in the Baltimore-Washington, DC, area followed by a field campaign in California’s San Joaquin Valley and Houston in 2013.

Right now, monitoring for pollutants such as sulfur dioxides, nitrogen oxides, particulates and ozone is done by ground-based systems strategically located across the U.S. to measure air quality in metropolitan areas and on a regional basis. Researchers want to tap satellite capabilities to look at pollution trends across wide swaths of the country.

“The advantage of using satellites is you can cover a wider area,” said Russell Long, an EPA project scientist.  “But right now, it’s hard for satellites to determine what air pollutants are close to the ground.”

Satellites could be an important tool for monitoring air quality given the large gaps in ground-based pollution sensors across the country and around the world. Improved satellite measurements should lead to better air quality forecasts and more accurate assessments of pollution sources and fluctuations.

However one of the fundamental challenges for space-based instruments that monitor air quality is to distinguish between pollution high in the atmosphere and pollution near the surface where people live.

Ground-based air sensor station

Ground-based air sensor station from the study’s previous Baltimore and Washington area component.

The ground-based sensor readings taken by EPA and other partners in DISCOVER-AQ will be compared to air samples taken by NASA aircraft flown between 1,000 and 15,000 feet in the skies above the Denver metropolitan area. EPA scientists are using the opportunity during the DISCOVER-AQ study to also test various types of low-cost and portable ground-based sensors to determine which ones work the best.

“Our goal is to evaluate the sensors to see how well they perform,” Long said. “By including more sensors it increases our understanding of how they perform in normal monitoring applications and how they compare to the gold standard (for measuring air quality) of reference instrumentation.”

New sensors could augment existing monitoring technology to help air quality managers implement the nation’s air quality standards.

Another big part of EPA’s involvement in DISCOVER-AQ is working with schools and academic institutions to develop a robust citizen science component for pollution monitoring. In Houston, hundreds of student-led research teams all worked to test the air pollution technology by taking regular readings at their schools when NASA aircraft flew overhead.

In Denver, most schools are out for the summer, but EPA researchers will be partnering with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to share what they are doing in DISCOVER-AQ with the general public.

Long says he is also working with University of Colorado Boulder to look at a unique three-dimensional model of air pollution in the great Denver area. The end result of DISCOVER-AQ will be a   global view of pollution problems, from the ground to space, so that decision makers have better data and communities can better protect public health.

Learn More

EPA DISCOVER-AQ

NASA Discover-AQ Mission

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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How Many Breaths Do You Take Each Day?

By Ann Brown

Map of U.S. with color-coded air quality index

It’s Air Quality Awareness Week!

Watching the news and the problems that some countries are having with high levels of air pollution makes me appreciate the Clean Air Act, which calls on EPA and the states to protect air quality through programs based on the latest science and technology. I am especially appreciative today, the first day of Air Quality Awareness Week.

When I joined EPA’s Office of Research and Development 16 years ago, I didn’t think much about the quality of the air I breathe. I took it for granted. It is an unlimited supply. I don’t have to pay a monthly bill for it. It is just there for the benefit of my body.

Then as I began to work with scientists and engineers conducting air research at EPA, I gained an appreciation for this precious resource.  Their research showed me why it is important to know what is in the air, how you can be exposed to any pollutants it contains, and what the related risks and health effects might be. I’ve also learned about their work on advancing control technologies to reduce air pollution. EPA scientists are working in all these areas to provide the science that can be used to protect air quality.

The average person takes between 17,280 and 23,040 breaths a day. That is a lot of breaths…and each one is an opportunity to put pollutants into your lungs and body and to increase health risks if you are exposed to air pollution. For example:

  • Research shows that air pollution is linked to health effects and disease, including heart disease and stroke. EPA is a partner in the Million Hearts initiative to educate the public, especially those with heart disease, about the dangers of air pollution to their health. You can learn more about air pollution and heart disease at www.epagov/healthyheart.
  • Air pollution can cause or worsen asthma. Extensive research links asthma to ozone, particle pollution and a host of common indoor environmental asthma triggers. Join EPA experts to discuss asthma and outdoor air pollution on a Twitter chat on May 1 at 2 p.m. (Eastern Time) on @EPALive. Use the hashtag #asthma.

Air quality awareness week is a good time to learn what you can do to protect your health and the health of your friends and family. Many resources are available to learn about air quality and how to protect your health. A good start is to use the Air Quality Index where you can get daily local air quality reports and information to protect your health from air pollution.

Scientists continue to investigate air quality to protect our health and the environment. I’m glad to be a small part of this effort. Learn more about what scientists are doing at www.epa.gov/airscience.

About the author: Ann Brown is the communications lead for EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy 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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The Village Green Project: Reading the Results So Far…

By Dr. Gayle Hagler and Ron Williams

The Village Green Project is up and running! The lower-cost, solar-powered equipment continuously monitors ozone and fine particles, along with meteorological measurements, and sends the data to an EPA website by the minute.

So, what is the data telling us about local environmental conditions at this point? The graphs below show a snapshot of recorded trends for ground level ozone and fine particulate matter.

Hourly ozone data from the Village Green Project.  Note: data are preliminary and intended for research and educational purposes.

Hourly ozone data from the Village Green Project. Note that the data are preliminary
and intended for research and educational purposes.

The up and down line you see above for daily ozone concentrations is a typical summer pattern. That’s because the summer sun fuels atmospheric chemical reactions throughout the day that create ground level ozone, commonly peaking in the hot afternoon. The process decreases overnight, and ozone concentrations fall.

Hourly ozone data from the Village Green Project.  Note that the data are preliminary  and intended for research and educational purposes.

Hourly PM2.5 data from the Village Green Project. Note that the data are preliminary
and intended for research and educational purposes.

A review of the particulate graph shows very low concentrations in early July. Not surprisingly, this coincided with rainy days, as rainfall usually removes particulates from the air. Once the rain ended, particulate levels started rising to levels we commonly see in the summertime.

The Village Green park bench

The Village Green park bench

So far, the air-monitoring bench survived very hot and humid weather and has operated uninterrupted during several dark and overcast days, including during back-to-back thunderstorms. We will continue to monitor the system’s performance over the remainder of the summer.

Back to School

With fall just around the corner, the school year is about to begin again. We are interested in how we can engage teachers and their students in learning about air quality science and the Village Green Project. Our outreach team is in the process of developing fun and interactive games.

Care to join the fun? Please use the comments section below if you have suggestions or questions about environmental education projects involving the Village Green Project.  And please check back regularly for future blogs!

Village Green graphic identifierAbout the Authors: Dr. Gayle Hagler is an environmental engineer who studies air pollutant emissions and measurement technologies. Ron Williams is an exposure science researcher who is studying how people are exposed to air pollutants and methods to measure personal exposure.

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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Safeguarding our Environment for Health and Fighting Climate Change


By William N. Rom M.D.

It is critical to reach a larger stage on climate change with the message of how its consequences affect our health. Climate change will cause heat waves and interactions with air pollutants, which can increase cardio respiratory mortality. Hurricanes will become more frequent and intense, but storm surges that will cause the most damage. New York University and Bellevue Hospitals, where I work, are still recovering from Hurricane Sandy’s 13-foot storm surge. The salt water damaged hospital electrical infrastructure in the basements of both hospitals, and we were forced to relocate for 3 months. This resulted in patient evacuations and required salvage of many thousands of research samples.

Through my book Environmental Policy and Public Health: Air Pollution, Global Climate Change, and Wilderness (Jossey-Bass 2012) and my teaching at New York University for 25 years, I have reached dozens of policy students and medical residents/fellows on environment and global health. I have been involved in air pollution policy for the past decade, leading the American Thoracic Society’s Environmental Health Policy Committee, presenting data to the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee and meeting with the EPA Administrator to encourage lower standards to protect human health for ozone and PM 2.5.

As Director of NYU’s Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Sleep Medicine and Bellevue Hospital’s Chest Service for 25 years, I have been able to witness environmental medicine first hand. When air pollution particulates and ozone increase, we admit more asthma patients and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease exacerbations on our Chest Service and ICU.

Since the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11, Bellevue has been inundated by thousands of breathless patients exposed to World Trade Center dust. We established the WTC Environmental Health Center at Bellevue where two large clinics have seen over 6,000 patients.

Since lung cancer is emerging as an environmental threat from tobacco in its many forms, I established the NYU Lung Cancer Biomarker Center in 2001 to pioneer research on the early detection of lung cancer. Several panels of blood proteins and autoantibodies are emerging for clinical use to determine if a nodule on a chest x-ray or CT-scan is malignant or benign.

My public health interests began from a leadership role in environmental and occupational health editing four editions of Environmental and Occupational Medicine with over 120 chapters. Following the Master’s in Public Health from Harvard School of Public Health in 1973, I was awarded their Alumni Award of Merit in 2011. I will continue to teach medical students and residents about climate change so they can spread the word to their patients.

About the author: William N. Rom M.D., MPH is a professor of Medicine and Environmental Medicine and the director of the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Sleep Medicine at the New York University School of Medicine.

 

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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Come Celebrate, Learn, and—Sit on the Village Green Project!

By Katie Lubinsky

Village Green graphic identifierMark your calendars, bring your kids and prepare to learn about some cool, new science! Open to the public, EPA will unveil a prototype air monitoring system on Saturday, June 22, from 10 a.m. to noon. The celebration will take place at the air monitoring system’s first home – Durham County South Regional Library, located at 4505 S. Alston Ave. in Durham, North Carolina.

It’s all part of the Village Green Project, a study to develop a self-powered, low-maintenance monitoring system to measure air quality. The system is built into a park bench made from recycled milk jugs. Testing in a community environment is being made possible through a partnership with Durham County.

EPA scientists and local officials will participate in the ribbon-cutting ceremony, which includes the raising of a flag as part of EPA’s School Flag program to increase awareness of air quality conditions.  Afterwards, booths and activities will be available for adults and children of all ages.

The Village Green park bench

The Village Green park bench

You will be able to connect with the real-time data collected from the system through your smartphone, or other internet devices, either right beside the air sensor or even at home! This nifty project will measure fine particles and ozone minute by minute, which are all known to impact human health.  It will also measure local weather stats such as wind speed and humidity.  The platform provides an opportunity to test new low maintenance air quality sensors.

Being a local resident myself, I am proud to see the Raleigh-Durham area hosting such innovative science projects and events.

With great efforts from EPA, Durham County government and Durham County Library officials, this research project will be a wonderful educational and informative experience. It will help to develop the next generation of air quality monitors for use by this and other communities interested in learning more about their air quality.

I visited the library numerous times during this collaboration and found out its theme is ‘Air,’ so Village Green will fit right in! Now after checking out books at the library, you can sit on the bench, read and check out the local air quality and weather trends with a simple scan of your smartphone!

  • What: Village Green Project Celebration
  • When:  Saturday, June 22, 2013, from 10 a.m. to noon
  • Where: Durham County South Regional Library, 4505 S. Alston Ave., Durham, N.C.

About the Author: Katie Lubinsky is a student contractor working with EPA’s Office of Research and Development on communicating new and engaging science and research topics.

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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Green Heart: Spreading the Word about Air Pollution and Your Health

By Kathy Sykes

When I moved to Washington DC from my native Madison, Wisconsin, I missed the clean air that I had taken for granted.  Summers in DC with sweltering temperatures and “Ozone Action Days” made it feel difficult to breathe just walking to work.  On those days, a song kept playing in my head, “Pollution,” by satirist Tom Lehrer.

“Pollution, pollution, Wear a gas mask and a veil. Then you can breathe, long as you don’t inhale.”

I couldn’t see the harmful air pollution, but it weighed heavy on my chest on my daily jogs around Capitol Hill.   Even though my work at the time (for the Senate Aging Committee) included health issues, I never worked on raising awareness about air pollutants and their serious harmful effects on older adults, especially those living with heart disease.

That’s changed now that I’m at EPA, where I serve on the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics. Periodically, the Forum publishes a chart book of key indicators of well-being, including an indicator on air quality and older adults.

In 2012, the Forum released its fourth update on air quality and demonstrated progress made overtime with respect to the two most harmful air pollutants for older adults: PM 2.5 (also known as particulate matter), and ozone.  The chart book shows (click on the link for Indicator 27) the percent of people living in counties with air pollutants above the EPA health-based standards.

Each state monitors air quality and reports it to EPA.  The EPA then determines whether air pollutant measurements are above health standards.  In 2002, nearly half of the population lived in counties with poor air pollution. By 2010, about 40% of our population lived in a county with poor air quality for some period that year.

While we are making progress, more work remains to be done.

Another federal collaborative effort I devote my time to is the National Prevention Strategy (NPS) that was created as part of the Affordable Care Act.   Seventeen federal agencies work together to look at what we can do to advance health prevention.

Led by Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, each federal agency announced commitment areas as part of the NPS.  One of EPA’s is through the Green Heart initiative which strives to educate people about air pollution and how they can reduce their exposure on poor air quality days.

The Green Heart initiative complements the Million Heart Campaign, an initiative by the Department of Health and Human Services to prevent a million heart attacks over five years.  The Green Heart Initiative has a simple message for people with cardiovascular disease: check the Air Quality Index and reduce your activity on days when the air quality is not good.

There is even an app that will notify you when the air quality is unhealthy. A fact sheet, Environmental Hazards Weigh Heavy on the Heart, for older adults and their caregivers can be ordered on-line on EPA’s Aging web page.

While there are still counties where air pollution is an issue, I’m glad to know there are actions we can take to protect our heart health.

About the Author: Kathy Sykes has been working for the EPA since 1998 where she focuses on older adults and the built environment and healthy communities.  In 2012, she joined the Office of Research and Development and serves as Senior Advisor for Aging and Sustainability.

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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What can I do to Protect Myself on an Ozone Action Day?

By Bob Kelly

Hot, muggy days can make living in the city feel unbearable. When going outside, you not only need to consider the temperature and humidity, but also the air quality.  Often when a hot day is coming up, our state environmental agencies will predict that ground-level ozone may exceed unhealthful levels for people who are sensitive to ozone, and they declare an Ozone Action Day.

You might wonder: who’s in the group that is sensitive for ozone? Would you believe, construction workers? Yes, people who are outside doing strenuous work inhale more air than the average person, so they get a higher dose of ozone. They should do activities that require less exertion and save the heaviest lifting for cleaner air quality days, if possible. Other people who are sensitive to ozone include people with lung disease, asthmatics, children and older adults. Higher ozone levels can have adverse health effects for everyone. You can read more about in our EPA brochure on Ozone and Your Health.

You can participate in Ozone Action Days by doing less lawn mowing, less driving, and staying cool! Hold off on exercise until mornings and late evenings when the ozone is less and the temperature is lower. Skip painting or using cleaners and solvents with high concentrations of hydrocarbons. Defer using your gas lawn mower or trimmer until the air is cleaner. Can you wait to refuel your car until the hot spell is over?  If not, try to do it after sunset, when the sun can’t form ozone.

For more information, check out EPA’s AIRNOW site, which displays real-time air quality data for different areas in the U.S., and for more information about what you can do to reduce ozone during Ozone Action Days.

About the author:  Bob is an air pollution meteorologist with the Air Programs Branch. He enjoys taking a few minutes from reviewing state air pollution clean-up plans to pass along the air quality forecasts to help keep people informed about what is happening in the air around them. Bob’s passion for watching the skies above us includes giving people a heads up about upcoming astronomical and meteorological events.

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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Asthma Awareness Month: Part II

By Elias Rodriguez

New York City is home to 8,391,881 people, if you go by the latest U.S. Census Bureau estimates. Lately, I’ve blogged about asthma because May is Asthma Awareness Month and this chronic respiratory condition is especially tough when you live in a mega metropolis like New York City.

Living, working and playing in the Big Apple is wonderful, but our combination of people, pollution, cars, trucks and 24/7 activity makes for some poor air quality.

Pollutants in the outdoor air, including particulates (soot) and ozone (smog) are major asthma triggers. When ozone levels increase, most commonly in the summer months, they can affect people’s health, especially children with asthma. Ozone can irritate the respiratory system, causing coughing, throat irritation, and aggravating asthma. When ozone levels are high, more people with asthma have attacks that require a doctor’s attention or medication. Asthma triggers include pets, pesticides, cockroaches, dust mites, mold and secondhand smoke. Ozone makes people more sensitive to allergens, which are common triggers of asthma attacks and lead to increased hospital admissions and emergency room visits.

Asthma hospitalization rates in NYC have been gradually declining since their peak in the mid-1990s. Yet, in some areas of the City, asthma rates can be found in the double digits.  It is insightful to look at asthma hospitalization rates because it is the most common cause of hospitalization for children 14 years and younger. In NYC, the asthma hospitalization rate per 1,000 (ages 0 to 14 years) is 9.2 in Bronx, 4.1 in Brooklyn, 4.0 in Manhattan, 3.9 in Queens, 2.0 in Staten Island and 5.0 for New York City. Hunts Point – Mott Haven in the Bronx has a rate of 11.5 and East Harlem in Manhattan has a rate of 11.2  Asthma is a leading cause of missed school among children and many New Yorkers suffer from poor control of their asthma.

In my next blog, I share how people who suffer from asthma can learn to control their symptoms and still maintain active lifestyles.

About the Author: Elias serves as EPA Region 2’s bilingual public information officer. Prior to joining EPA, the proud Nuyorican worked at Time Inc. conducting research for TIME, LIFE, FORTUNE and PEOPLE magazines. He is a graduate of Hunter College, Baruch College and the Theological Institute of the Assembly of Christian Churches in NYC.

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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Science Wednesday: Exercise? Oh yeah

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection.Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Susan Stone

Do I need to exercise? You bet. We all do, because exercise is so important for health. I especially need to exercise to get my weight into a healthy range. That additional weight, and my mild asthma, puts me at greater risk from air pollution. And eventually, my age will add to that risk.

People with asthma are at greater risk from exposure to ozone. It can cause difficulty breathing and make them more likely to respond to asthma triggers, like pets, that may not normally cause a reaction. Particle pollution can aggravate asthma, too. It also can trigger heart attacks, stroke and irregular heart rhythms, all of which I want to avoid. And the risk of a heart attack or stroke starts to go up at age 45 in men and 55 in women. So I want to minimize my air pollution exposure, for several reasons. But I really need that exercise at the same time.

Figuring out how to get that exercise and reduce exposure to air pollution can be a challenge. So checking the Air Quality Index (AQI) has become part of my daily routine.

Here’s what I do. I love to take walks in my neighborhood. It’s a pretty walk, with hills and a pond. My normal route is a couple of miles in the shape of a figure eight. The middle of the eight is closest to my home. On days when ozone levels are high, I’ve noticed that sometimes I get what feels like a stitch in my side that makes breathing painful. It doesn’t go away even when I get warmed up. So when ozone levels are high, I take it easier. If I get to the midpoint of the figure eight and feel good, I keep going. If the stitch in my side is there, I pack it in and go home or exercise indoors.

Ozone levels typically are lower indoors, but particle levels can be high even inside. So if the AQI indicates that particle pollution levels are in the unhealthy ranges, or if I smell smoke, I’ll go exercise at a gym, or take a walk through the buildings at work. But even though I’m indoors, I take it easier and pay attention to any symptoms.

Exercise? Oh yeah. It’s important for good health, and it’s a great stress-reliever. And with a little planning, you can exercise outdoors, even if you’re considered at greater risk from air pollution. Even if you’re not, check the AQI every day. It’s a healthy habit.

About the author: Susan Stone is an Environmental Health Scientist and likes to walk in her neighborhood every day, weather permitting. She checks the AQI on her computer, but you also can download a free app for iPhones and Android phones. Visit Airnow to find out how.

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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