Water Quality

Lungs of the Sea

As a diver and marine biologist for EPA, I spend a fair amount of time underwater. My area of expertise is in the study and conservation of seagrass. These underwater meadows can cover vast swaths of the seafloor and they serve as important nurseries for many fish and shellfish species.

Recently, I had the great fortune of taking a family trip to France and spending some time along the southern coast. It was my first visit to the Mediterranean Sea and I was looking forward to exploring the underwater realm. We stopped in the small town of Cassis, which reminded us of Gloucester, Mass. Cassis has its own fisherman’s statue. It does not have a greasy pole to climb like Gloucester, but it does have its own unique tradition. Local fishermen mount planks on the back of two dories. Boys of about 10 years old are lifted up onto the planks wearing pads on their chests and are given lances. The boats then drive directly at each other and the boys joust until one or both fall into the water.

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The local culture was interesting, but Cassis is also known for “les calanques.” Calanques are inlets surrounded on three sides by steep cliffs; they also are known as mini-fjords. Within these inlets, seagrass flourishes in the clean, calm protected waters. The French refer to seagrass as “les poumons de la mer,” which translates to the lungs of the sea. Like all plants, seagrasses produce oxygen through photosynthesis. On sunny days, it is common to see bubbles of oxygen being released from the leaves of seagrass into the water.

In Cassis, protecting seagrass is taken very seriously with a variety of rules. Boaters are not allowed to anchor or place a mooring in seagrass meadows. Boaters are required to stay in the marked navigation channels and when in shallow water reduce their speed so no wakes are produced. In our three days in Cassis, we watched many boats come and go, and not one of them broke the rules.

I approached one of the local fishermen and with my limited French asked him about the local seagrass meadows. He spoke little English. I spied a shoot of seagrass floating near his boat. He scooped it up and held it close to his heart and said “les poumons de la mer.” Posidonia

We didn’t speak the same language, but our common love of the ocean easily transcended the language barrier.

More information on EPA Seagrass research: http://www2.epa.gov/sciencematters/epa-science-matters-newsletter-how-deep-are-seagrasses

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About the author: Phil Colarusso is a marine biologist in the Coastal and Ocean Protection Section of EPA’s New England office, and is an avid diver.

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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Providing Clean Water to an African Village: Not a Simple Turn of the Tap

By Emily Nusz

EPA brings in students every summer to work, learn practical environmental skills, and enhance their educational experience through our Pathways Intern Program. The Big Blue Thread is proud to feature several blogs written by these interns, focusing on what motivates them to work in the environmental sector and what attracted them to EPA. We’ve already posted blogs by Andrew Speckin, Sara Lamprise and Kelly Overstreet. Our fourth blog is by Emily Nusz, who continues to intern with our Environmental Data and Assessment staff.

How far away is the nearest water source from where you are sitting now? An arm’s length across your desk? A few feet? Right outside the window?

Villagers carry water jug and food basket

Villagers carry water jug and food basket

Next time you get the urge to take a drink of fresh, ice cold water, take a moment to think about places that may not have the same laws and regulations.

Perhaps you’ve heard about the global water crisis. Many communities in developing countries don’t have easy access to clean drinking water. They must walk miles each day with heavy jugs on their heads, just to collect muddy water from puddles or rivers. This water is then used to drink, wash dishes, and sanitize their bodies. The water is filled with bacteria, parasites, and waste that can cause a variety of debilitating diseases including malaria and cholera. As a result, thousands of people die every day from avoidable diseases caused by contaminated water.

Little do they know, the water they so desperately need is often right beneath their feet.

Emily Nusz (center) with group of Kenyan children

Emily Nusz (center) with group of Kenyan children

A few hot summers ago, members of my church and I traveled to Nairobi, Kenya. Our mission was not only to provide care for children in orphanages, but to provide a village with clean water. We decided the best way to accomplish this task was to build the community a water well in the heart of the village for easy accessibility. Our team raised money for the well, and then we were ready to make a large time and energy commitment to a long-term solution for the people. The excitement of our arrival was very powerful. I remember every face in the village beaming with joy.

Water wells can provide clean water for hundreds of villagers. A pump or a tap built in the center of the community can save an entire day of walking to the nearest muddy puddle, and save hundreds of lives by preventing exposure to harmful or even deadly diseases.

Water can be found in underground, permeable rock layers called aquifers, from which the water can be pumped. An aquifer fills with water from rain or melted snow that drains into the ground. Aquifers are natural filters that trap bacteria and provide natural purification of the groundwater flowing through them. Wells can be dug or drilled, depending on the time and cost of the project. They can be dug using a low-cost, hand-dug method, or built using either a high-cost, deep well method or a shallow well, low-cost method. Safe drinking water can usually be found within 100 feet of the surface.

Kenyan countryside in summer

Kenyan countryside in summer

Although I was not physically involved in building the village well, we all contributed to the mission we set out to accomplish. A well was built by drilling a hole that reached down far enough to reach an aquifer, and even lined with steel to keep out pollutants. Our team put together pipes and hand pumps that enabled the villagers to pull the water out of the well and use it safely. Our team was very gratified to know that the well we built will provide clean water for a community of up to 500 people for many years to come!

Learn more about water wells. The best way to keep our water clean is to stay informed of ways to help reduce the risks and protect the source. Learn how you can help. To learn more about global water statistics, visit Global WASH Fast Facts.

About the Author: Emily Nusz is a Student Intern at EPA Region 7, who worked full-time this summer and will continue part-time during the school year. She is a graduate student at the University of Kansas, studying environmental assessment. Emily is SCUBA certified, and one of her life goals is to scuba dive the Great Barrier Reefs off the coast of Australia.

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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Triathletes get an assist from the Clean Water Act

 

by Elizabeth Gaige

Ohio River IRONMAN swimmers

Ohio River IRONMAN swimmers

My husband’s passion for the sport of triathlon began in the Schuylkill River, when we both competed – swimming, biking, and running – in the 2012 Philly Triathlon. Part of the draw of triathlon is the opportunity to swim in lakes and rivers – like the Schuylkill – that aren’t usually open to recreational swimmers for safety reasons.

Although our family and friends didn’t understand why we enjoyed our Schuylkill swim, it was simple – this part of the race was calm and beautiful, with a small current providing some free speed. And, we had peace of mind even in the middle of a grueling race, because the Philadelphia Water Department RiverCast website gave us vital information about river conditions.

The author and her husband, an IRONMAN

The author and her husband, an IRONMAN

After the Philly Tri, my husband chose to make IRONMAN Louisville his first full distance IRONMAN race – 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of cycling and a 26.2 mile marathon run. But, as we packed the car for his race, advisories from the Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection appeared on social media and we realized the race that might only include two of three parts that the athletes had trained for.

A harmful algal bloom had formed on the Ohio River between Ohio and West Virginia weeks earlier and the effects of elevated toxins produced by the algae were being evaluated hundreds of miles downstream. Elevated nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, warm sunny days and slower-moving water fuel algal growth.  Fortunately, October’s cooler temperatures and precipitation began to flush algae and toxins from the Ohio River. To the relief of many hopeful triathletes, the recreational advisory for the swim course was lifted days before the race as multiple water quality test results showed toxins falling below Kentucky’s threshold.

On race day, 2,300 triathletes experienced first-hand the “swimmable” part of the Clean Water Act’s goals. I welcomed my Ironman at the finish line 13 hours and 52 minutes after he jumped into the Ohio River, thankful that the Clean Water Act is there to protect the nearly half-million triathletes that count on safe water for swimming at thousands of events each year.

 

About the Author: Elizabeth Gaige works in EPA’s Air Protection Division in Philadelphia.  She has completed 88 races since 2003, 16 of which involved open water swimming!

 

 

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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Safety First!

by Virginia Thompson

Stay safe in your local pool.

Stay safe at your local pool.

Swimming at our local pool is one of my favorite summer activities.  As I recently reflected on the accomplishment of logging 1,000 laps annually for nearly a decade, it dawned on me we often don’t give a second thought to the water we’re swimming in.

Ironically, many of us have read the book Safety First to our preschoolers, but we may not think about safety when it comes to ourselves as adults.  This year, my fellow swimmers and I got an unexpected refresher lesson in pool safety.  After a horrific storm in June, our pool was closed for four days because there was no electricity to power the pumps that mix the chemicals to  keep our pool in compliance with our state’s safety standards for swimming pools.

Local social media was abuzz about the pool’s status. Once the electricity came back, pool staff continued pumping the water, and adding appropriate levels of chlorine and other chemicals to ensure the safety of swimmers. When the staff was certain the water could maintain the health standards for a full day and beyond, they allowed us back in the pool.

It was an unfortunate break for those of us trying to earn that recreational swimmer’s badge of honor – the 1,000 lap t-shirt – but no one objected to putting safety first.

Swimming pool staff add chlorine and other chemicals like algicides, to the water to kill bacteria, control algae, and clean the walls and bottom of the pool.  These antimicrobial pesticides, need to be added in Goldilocks quantities  that are “just right” –  with too little chlorine tankstreatment, swimmers can get sick; too much can cause harmful reactions to our skin or lungs from touching, breathing, or drinking the water.

Ever wonder about those chemicals? And, where and how pools keep them?  Because storing chlorine and other potentially dangerous chemicals is a serious concern for communities, EPA has resources to help people in our communities such as Local Emergency Planning Committees to make sure that the chemicals are handled, used, and stored safely, and that local responders are well prepared if an emergency occurs.

As I make it a point to get to the pool as often as possible as summer winds down, I know I’ll be thinking about everything that goes into keeping our water safe.

 

About the author:  Virginia Thompson works for EPA’s mid-Atlantic Region and is an avid swimmer.

 

 

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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Net Zero Heroes

by Jennie Saxe

Net Zero_GFXAt your local wastewater treatment plant,  professional  operators not only use precisely-dosed treatment chemicals, but they also utilize mother nature – a diverse community of microorganisms – to successfully treat the wastewater that’s collected.  While wastewater treatment plants have always been on the front lines of protecting public health and the environment,  some treatment plants, like the one we blogged about in York, Pennsylvania, are now also investigating technologies to become resource recovery facilities, pulling phosphorus out of wastewater for fertilizer and capturing natural gas to produce energy.

EPA’s recent progress report on Promoting Innovation for a Sustainable Water Future highlights many examples of innovation in the wastewater sector, including three wastewater treatment plants in the mid-Atlantic:

  • The Philadelphia Water Department is using the heat from wastewater to warm its facilities and save money on energy bills.
  • In our nation’s capitol, DC Water is using a Cambi process to create biogas and generate energy.
  • The town of Crisfield, Maryland, is planning to use the coastal location of its wastewater treatment plant to generate wind energy, a project that is anticipated to power the treatment plant and save the town up to $200,000 each year in energy costs.

And just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority (CCMUA) is taking steps to produce enough energy to “get off the grid” entirely.

Still not sold on the wonder of wastewater treatment? Check out this new video featuring CCMUA’s “net zero” energy approach. It just may open your eyes to some innovative things that wastewater treatment plants can do for the communities they serve – leading the way to a more sustainable future by becoming “net zero heroes.”

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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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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Talking Clean Water With My Kids … on Vacation (Yeah, They Loved It)

By Jeffery Robichaud

A couple of years ago, I wrote that we took a staycation and probably would not be able to get away with that again. I was right. We visited my folks in North Carolina this year, but at least we got a place within walking distance from the beach. So even though we flew, I was able to cut down on all the car rides from the usual condo where we stay, reducing our carbon footprint. Since the weather was perfect the entire time, we also took no extra trips down to Myrtle Beach, S.C., to kill a day.

While I was gone those few weeks, there were quite a few blog articles about the Clean Water Rule, both in our region and across the nation. Honestly, I felt bad leaving work with so much going on, but I couldn’t get away from water even if I wanted to.


We spent a week at the beach, where my kids romped in the surf, collected shells, and dug holes in the sand. Sunset Beach, N.C., is located partly on Bird Island. Its pristine shoreline, dunes, and marshland provide important habitat and nesting for species that are threatened and endangered, including two types of turtles (Loggerhead and Kemp’s Ridley).

It was easy to explain to my kiddos why protecting the backwaters and marshes of the island was so important. I think I lost them to the allure of the ocean, when I started saying that one of the things we’re working on back at EPA is a rule that more clearly explains which waters were protected by the Clean Water Act. (Some kids don’t like to hear their dad talk about work at the beach.)

When our beach time ended, we headed back up the coastline to Wilmington, N.C. The city is near the mouth of the Cape Fear River, which circuitously winds its way west, then north, then west again and finally past my folk’s house south of Raleigh.

I tried to break up the long drive by pointing out how each of the different rivers and creeks we crossed connected to each other and the ocean (Burgaw Creek to the Northeast Cape Fear River to the Cape Fear River to the Atlantic Ocean). Basically, I made a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game out of the system of tributaries. I’m pretty sure I only amused myself, since both boys’ heads never seemed to rise from their devices.

We rounded out our trip by heading up into the mountains just as the temperature was climbing into the triple digits. My dad took great pleasure in showing the boys that we were coming up upon the Eastern Continental Divide, quizzing them on what that meant. When they gave him the right answer, he looked a little sad that he wasn’t able to impart that bit of wisdom on them. I realized I was more like my father than I thought.


We had a great time in the Appalachians wading through some streams, skipping rocks, and enjoying the cooler weather. This was on the spur of the moment, so we weren’t able to take advantage of the rafting excursions that dotted the valleys between the peaks. However, it was pretty clear that these thriving businesses relied on the cool, clean and clear water that sprang from the mountains. I tried to point this out, but by that time, my boys were rolling their eyes and saying, “We get it, Dad. Protecting water is important!”

So even though I left for vacation as EPA announced the Clean Water Rule, I actually spent my entire summer vacation talking about it anyway – if only to an 11- and 13-year-old. From my home in the Heartland to the mountains and beyond to the ocean, clean water is a blessing we have here in the United States. It is something I am proud to be working to protect, and something that we need to be sure to safeguard for our children – if only so I can ask my grandkids someday, “Hey guys, do you know what the Eastern Continental Divide is?”

About the Author: Jeffery Robichaud is a second-generation EPA scientist who has worked for the Agency since 1998. He currently serves as Deputy Director of EPA Region 7′s Water, Wetlands, and Pesticides Division. His summer trips to the beach as a youth were at the decidedly colder Long Sands Beach in York, Maine.

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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Clean Water for Everyone!

by Matt Colip

EPA Regional Administrator Shawn M. Garvin with staff and volunteers from Environment Maryland showing their support of the Clean Water Rule at the National Aquarium, Baltimore, MD.

EPA Regional Administrator Shawn M. Garvin with staff and volunteers from Environment Maryland showing their support of the Clean Water Rule at the National Aquarium, Baltimore, MD.

Last Tuesday, I woke up to a screaming alarm clock and the aroma of brewed coffee…yes, it was a typical weekday morning for me. However, today, rather than jumping on my bike to go to work downtown, I was traveling to Baltimore, Maryland with EPA Regional Administrator Shawn M. Garvin for an event to raise public awareness about the Clean Water Rule (CWR).

Working for EPA, which partnered with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to develop the CWR, I already knew the rule’s purpose: to make sure that waters protected under the Clean Water Act (CWA) are more precisely defined. Clearly defining our nation’s protected waters is not only a benefit for regulators, it also helps businesses and industry understand their role under the CWA.

With the sunlit water of the Chesapeake Bay as the backdrop for this event, each of the speakers spoke passionately about the need for clean water and how the CWR protects the water they rely on.  It wasn’t until this moment that I fully understood what the CWR means to so many different groups. In addition to EPA Regional Administrator Shawn M. Garvin, the event featured speakers from such varied groups as Environment Maryland, Baltimore Boating Center, Jailbreak Brewing Company, and the National Aquarium.

The benefits of the CWR add up quickly! For example, think about someone who travels to Baltimore to fish on the Chesapeake Bay from a chartered boat, and enjoys the catch-of-the-day with a cold beer from Jailbreak Brewing Company. That one person benefits from the CWR in four ways!

During the event, I began to count the ways I personally benefit from the rule.  My morning routine alone benefitted in several ways, and over the weekend, I thought of even more benefits: hiking by a protected surface water, using tap water to brush my teeth, brewing coffee, fishing, and turning on a light in my home (power plants need clean water for steam production in the electricity generation process).

How many ways do you benefit from the rule?  One hundred and seventeen million people nationwide benefit from the CWR safeguards for drinking water uses alone, and millions more benefit by having clean water for recreation (hiking, boating, fishing and more); household uses (showering, brushing teeth, and cooking); generating electricity; and meeting the many clean water needs of businesses.

Take a moment to find out more on the Clean Water Rule and leave a comment below to let us know how you benefit from clean water.

 

About the author: Matt Colip is a state and congressional liaison in the region’s Office of Communications and Government Relations. He previously worked in the region’s water programs, enforcing wastewater and stormwater regulations. In addition to SCUBA diving, Matt is an avid bicyclist and enjoys riding with friends and colleagues.

 

 

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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Be Prepared at the Beach

by Denise Hakowski

Be prepared at the beach with BEACON. Photo credit:    Robert (Gene) E. Shaner,  DNREC.  

Be prepared at the beach with BEACON.
Photo credit:
Robert (Gene) E. Shaner, DNREC.

My beach-loving husband lives by the Boy Scout motto “be prepared.”  On our trips to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, he is always the first one out the door in the morning.  He wheels his well-packed cart to the beach, finds the perfect spot and starts to set up:  two blue and green beach umbrellas, four sand chairs, sunscreen, a cooler, a beach blanket and hand sanitizer. He even checks in with the lifeguards when they arrive for the report on rip currents. Finally, he texts us back at the house (where we are all likely still asleep) with his location and the beach report,  and settles in with his book for the day.

But, before he even puts on his bathing suit, leaves the house, and slaps on his sunscreen, he checks EPA’s beach tool, BEACON.   EPA’s BEACON (Beach Advisory and Closing Online Notification) is a national database that contains links to monitoring data and notifications of beach closures or other water quality issues reported by states, territories, and tribes. BEACON shows how often beaches are monitored, and has the ability to easily map the location of over 6,000 beaches covered by the BEACH Act, and their related water quality monitoring stations.

This is a great tool for my husband, because the only thing that makes him happier than a day at the beach is being prepared!

 

About the author: Denise Hakowski is the Beach Program coordinator in the region’s Office of Standards, Assessment and TMDLs.  In her spare time, she enjoys spending time with her family, at the beach and elsewhere.

 

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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Fun on the Urban Waterfronts

by Virginia Thompson

Spruce Street Harbor Park. Photo credit: Matt Stanley/Delaware River Waterfront Corporation

Spruce Street Harbor Park, Philadelphia,  PA                                 Photo credit: Matt Stanley/Delaware River Waterfront Corporation

Just in time for summer fun and relaxation, the Delaware River in Philadelphia is again the setting for a unique riverside attraction.  Spruce Street Harbor Park, a pop-up park near the city’s historic area, reflects the attraction that rivers and water—even in an urban setting—hold for us.  The paradise-like park, in its second summer, boasts a somewhat tropical theme with hammocks, large board games, gourmet food, floating gardens with native plants, a planted meadow, and a boardwalk with even more attractions.  Visitors can hang over the river in suspended nets, dip toes in the fountains, rent kayaks and swan boats, or sail remote-controlled sailboats.  There will even be a giant “rubber” duck, weighing 11 tons and standing 6 stories high, as part of the Tall Ships Philadelphia Camden festival, scheduled for late June.

That the park is such a popular attraction and respite for residents and visitors alike serves as a testament to the success of the 1972 Clean Water Act (CWA).  The CWA established pollution control programs and water quality standards, and requires permits to discharge pollutants into rivers and streams.  Prior to the CWA, the Delaware River, like many urban rivers, failed to meet the Act’s goals of “fishable and swimmable.”  Fortunately, there are encouraging signs that the river is on the rebound.

Another popular urban park experience in Philadelphia is offered on the banks of the Schuylkill River, which now boasts a trail for thousands of walkers, bikers, and skaters.  The trail includes a segment leading from Center City to the Philadelphia Art Museum and Fairmount Water Works, even extending to Valley Forge National Historical Park and beyond.

The enthusiasm for these urban water-related recreational experiences demonstrates the value we all place on clean water.  Look for me hanging out in one of the Spruce Street Harbor Park hammocks!

 

About the Author:  Virginia Thompson has worked at EPA for nearly 29 years and enjoys gardening, swimming, and biking in her spare time.

 

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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