Visualizing the Invisible with the My Air, My Health Challenge Winners

By Dustin Renwick

My Air, My Health BannerWhen you win an award, it’s easy to lose sight of the small victories that brought you to a successful finish.

Members of the Conscious Clothing team – winner of the EPA/HHS My Air, My Health Challenge – almost didn’t apply for the challenge.

A friend told team leader Gabrielle Dockterman about the InnoCentive website, a crowdsourcing and open innovation platform. Dockterman said she felt there might be a challenge that would tap into the talents of people she knew. She emailed her friend Dot Kelly, a chemist, and inventor David Kuller, her boss from a previous job.

They stumbled on the My Air, My Health Challenge eight days before the deadline for proposals.

Kuller says that fortunately, all three team members were between projects and at stages in their lives when they could commit to the opportunity.

Eight days later, they submitted their entry just before midnight.

Dot Kelly, David Kuller, and Gabrielle Savage

Dot Kelly, David Kuller, and Gabrielle Dockterman

Using Skype to stay connected across the country and the world, the team explored options for building a prototype that could account for both air pollution and related health metrics, such heart rate or breathing.

On top of that, they had to create a system that could be easily worn or carried.

“It was like being a little kid with Legos,” Kuller said.

The team’s design incorporates an open-source Arduino platform microcomputer that lies against the chest and a particulate matter air sensor that hangs near the neck. The system takes advantage of the common place where men and women typically wear ties, necklaces or other fashion accessories.

Stretchy strips of silver-knitted yarn wrap around the wearer’s ribcage to measure breathing. The integrated system gives wearers an estimate of their pollution exposure by comparing the air quality to how deeply the person breathes.

The data are streamed to any Bluetooth-enabled device, such as a cellphone, and LED lights transform the sensor measurements into visual cues, what the team calls “making the invisible visible.”

Dockterman says the group will next focus on tailoring prototypes for several different applications: consumer athletics, sleep apnea research and children’s asthma research.

Built in large batches, the Conscious Clothing sensor system could cost as little as $20 and could be sewn directly into clothing. The design represents the continuing shift to next-generation sensors that cost less, are easier to use, and can be applied to many different fields.

“I’d like to think we’re going to bridge what could have been a 20-year development gap,” Kelly said.

About the author: Dustin Renwick works as part of the innovation team in the EPA Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Green Heart: Burn Wise for Your Heart

By Ann Brown

February—American Heart Month—is a time I renew my commitment to protect my heart.

I try to eat a healthier diet and exercise more. I check the local air quality before going outside to exercise since fine particle pollution in the air has been linked to heart disease. Fine particles harm the heart and blood vessels and can lead to heart attacks, stroke, and congestive heart failure, especially in people with heart disease.

I am aware of the environmental link between fine particle pollution and heart disease, but I didn’t realize until joining EPA’s Burn Wise program recently that smoke from wood stoves and wood-burning fireplaces is a significant source of fine particle pollution in many parts of the country. I was surprised to find out that there are about 12 million wood stoves and 29 million fireplaces in the U.S.

The good news is that people who burn wood can reduce fine particle pollution by following some simple steps. One way is to use a moisture meter, an inexpensive tool that you stick into wood to find out whether the wood is dry enough to burn efficiently. If the wood is wet, it creates more smoke and fine particle pollution in the air that can harm your health. Wet wood also costs you money and time since it will not produce as much heat. Find out more about how to use a moisture meter in the video Wet Wood is a Waste.

I’ve also recently learned that drying wood is easy, but requires a few steps. The best way to dry wood is to split it, stack it to allow air to circulate, and cover it or store it in a wood shed. This promotes drying and cleaner burning.  Find out more about how to properly split, stack, cover and store your wood in the video Split, Stack, Cover, Store.

These practices are a win-win for your pocketbook and your heart.  Visit EPA’s Burn Wise website to learn  more about ways to burn the right wood, the right way, in the right wood-burning appliance.

Learn more!

About the Author: Ann Brown is a communications specialist and is working in the Innovative Programs and Outreach Group in EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

American Heart Month: Taking Action to Protect Our 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 Wayne E. Cascio, MD

It’s February and Heart Month has arrived and with it a reminder to think about what we can all do to stay well and keep our hearts healthy. As a cardiologist, the month-long focus on the heart gives me a great opportunity to share information with my patients—and now hopefully with anyone who reads this blog—on how they can protect their hearts. It also reminds me to think about the things I do that can hurt or help my heart.

Heart disease remains the number one cause of death in the U.S. for men and women. Less than one percent of Americans have ideal heart health and about 26.5 million have some type of heart disease.

But there are things we can do both individually and collectively to help our hearts. The Global Burden of Disease 2010 study recently published in the medical journal The Lancet describes 67 key factors affecting disability and death in North America. Among the top 20 risk factors, 19 are directly related to individual behavioral or lifestyle choices such as diet, exercise or smoking; or the consequences of those choices.

The remaining risk factor in the top 20 is not associated with individual lifestyle choices, but is more a consequence of our collective actions, namely what we do as a society that leads to air pollution. Air particle pollution (also known as soot) in particular is ranked as the 14th most important.

While in general we have little personal control over air pollution where we live, work and play, there are things we have done as a society that can have lasting positive impacts. The Clean Air Act, for example.

The Act strives to ensure that all Americans are breathing healthy air.  Research by EPA and others shows that improved air quality leads to healthier and longer lives. And thanks in large part to that research, the Agency recently strengthened the annual health standard for fine particle pollution (PM2.5)  (from 15 to 12 micrograms per cubic meter) to  make our air cleaner and healthier.

While EPA continues to work to keep your air clean, there are steps you can take to reduce your personal exposure to air pollutants. For one, don’t smoke and avoid the smoke of others. Second, if you have heart disease consult the Air Quality Index (AQI) as part of your daily routine. The index provides information on air quality and how to avoid unhealthy exposures when air pollutants are high. Simple things like limiting or avoiding exercise outside during high pollution days can help to protect your health and your heart.

So keep in mind during this month of the heart, healthy lifestyle choices including a healthy diet and regular exercise, keeping an eye on your local air quality report, and supporting actions to support clean air are all things we can do for a healthy heart.

About the Author: Cardiologist Wayne E. Cascio, MD is the Director of EPA’s Environmental Public Health Division, a Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a Fellow of the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology. Dr. Cascio’s research explores the effects of air pollution on the heart and blood vessels.

For more Information:

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Criminal Enforcement: Protecting Our Nation’s Air, Land, and Water From Environmental Crime

Director-Henry-E.-BarnetBy Henry E. Barnet

When people think of EPA, they often think of Birkenstock-clad activists working to protect remote vistas. The image that doesn’t immediately pop into people’s minds is one of federal agents armed with the same power as the FBI to carry weapons, conduct search warrants, interview witnesses, and make arrests. The reason EPA has a team of federal agents? Environmental crimes aren’t petty.

Take last year’s case against a facility in Port Manatee, Fla. that receives and ships materials, like fertilizer, by railcar, truck and ship. I was in my former position as head of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s law enforcement division and we investigated the case jointly with EPA. We found that the company was illegally releasing particulate matter when they were loading and unloading materials. Particulate matter is an air pollutant regulated under the Clean Air Act because it can get deep into the lungs, causing serious respiratory problems.

We also found that the company’s local managers and supervisors falsely certified that they were operating their air emissions control equipment in accordance with regulations, when they knew that they were not being operated or maintained properly. For this knowing violation of the law, the company was fined $1 million and put on probation for two years. If the case had been against an individual (versus a company) it could have led to jail time.

Whether we are card carrying environmentalists or people who don’t entirely understand what an environmentalist is, we need to expand the conversation on environmentalism beyond the Birkenstock stereotype. The health of the environment—or lack thereof— impacts each and every one of us. And, when people knowingly violate the law and threaten the health of the environment, it is a crime that carries serious penalties.

I was honored to serve the citizens of the State of Florida and now, it is a great honor to be able to serve the country by working with EPA’s talented, dedicated, and diverse team of criminal agents, computer forensics experts, scientists, and lawyers to protect our nation’s resources, ensure that communities are healthy places to live, and make certain that would-be polluters think twice before breaking the law.

About the author: Henry E. Barnet is the new director of EPA’s Office of Criminal Enforcement, Forensics and Training

Help EPA fight pollution – report environmental violations

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations 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.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Science Wednesday: OnAir – Huge Datasets Pose Challenges but Hold Promise

During a recent visit to Harvard, I sat down with Francesca Dominici, a biostatistician and former director of the Johns Hopkins Particulate Matter Research Center.

Dominici confessed that she has spent much of her time at Harvard thus far figuring out how to transfer, store and manage all of the data that has accumulated over years of research.

How hard could it be to move data, I wondered?

Her projects at Hopkins included a national study showing hospital admissions and mortality associated with exposure to air pollution particles.

“We’re using all data on particulate matter and particulate matter composition for every single monitoring station in the United States from the first date it has been available up until 2007.”

This includes years’ worth of ambient air data from every zip code in the country.

To get information on human health effects, Dominici uses Medicare data, including “every hospitalization for every person older than 65,” amounting to over 48 million subjects.

In all, the data (which continue to grow) add up to seven terabytes, Dominici said.

How much is a terabyte? It would take 1,000, 1-gigabyte flash drives to hold a terabyte. Now, imagine 7,000 of those flash drives—and you can wrap your mind around how much data Dominici has on her hands.

As a way to cope with the mass of information, Dominici explained that it helps to pick and choose what data to work with at any give time. She compared the process to using a storage closet—where you can put away winter clothes during the summer months and take them out again when it gets cold.

“The good news… is that you don’t need to manage it dynamically, all at once,” she said.

Despite the challenges of handling and analyzing such a vast amount of information, Dominici thinks the efforts will be fruitful.

“I have high confidence in the national study because I can see real improvements in getting sharper results as more data becomes available,” she said.

One study using the data, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), showed that causes of death and hospitalization related to air pollution differed in different parts of the country. “Cardiovascular risks tended to be higher in counties located in the Eastern region of the United States,” the study reported.

As analysis continues, other questions about air pollution risks will be answered. For now though, Dominici is neck deep in data, and it seems she likes it that way.

“As a statistician, I really like to do this because I can have an impact,” she said.

“Going from seven terabytes of data to estimates that have an impact on policy… it’s very, very satisfying.”

About the Author: A student contractor with EPA’s Office of Research and Development, Becky Fried is a regular “Science Wednesday” contributor.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Science Wednesday: “OnAir”: News and Views on Latest Air Science Research

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

I joined the Air Team at EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research this past July. Fresh out of a dual masters program in Environmental Science and Digital Media Journalism at Columbia University, I was excited to start and, frankly, to have a job at all.

I read up on EPA extensively, but still wasn’t sure what to expect. What was EPA going to do with a science journalist?

I was thrown head first into a whirlwind of scientific papers and air quality regulations. I was stalked by a rapidly multiplying army of acronyms (Areal Locations of Hazardous Atmospheres = ALOHA) and struggled to keep the identities of all the Barbaras in our office straight (there are at least three).

But soon I began to get a clearer picture. NCER provides funding to conduct research that health care professionals and policymakers use to protect public health. While unlimited funds would be nice, the finite allowance means having to determine what science is most critical.

As it turns out, the air research funded by NCER is pretty exciting. Results have emerged showing that air pollution increases mortality risk, air pollution exposure can lead to heart attacks, the diabetes community may be more susceptible to air pollution risks than others, and air quality improvements thus far have lengthened human lives by seven months— just to name a few.

So… why am I here?

This exciting science needs to be communicated so that folks without a PhD in atmospheric chemistry can understand these groundbreaking results. We want the research to be as transparent and accessible as possible so that everyone can understand the science behind the air they breathe.

I am beginning a tour of research labs across the country. To start, I’ll be visiting the five EPA-funded Particulate Matter (PM) Research Centers, where scientists work together across disciplines to address the health risks of air pollution. I’ll also be visiting EPA’s own scientists and labs, where innovative in-house research on air pollution is taking place.

I’ll use Science Wednesday as a venue for sharing some of what I find— interesting projects, intriguing personalities, and exciting results.

I’ve recently returned from my first visit to the Southern California Particle Center; posts from the trip are coming soon.

image of authorNext stop… Harvard.

About the Author: Becky Fried is a student contractor with EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research, part of the Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.