All Hands Needed to Control Nutrient Pollution

by Tom Damm

blue-green-algaeWhen a harmful algal bloom in western Lake Erie contaminated the Toledo area water supply two years ago, my first thoughts turned to my niece Jen and her family.

They were among the hundreds of thousands warned not to drink their water, cook with it, give it to their pets or ingest it any way after tests found the toxin, microcystin, above the standard for consumption.

Jen found out about the water ban when she turned on the TV at around 8 a.m.  By then, there were scenes of panicky residents buying out cases of water from store shelves.

Two days later the water was declared safe to drink again.  But the weekend incident served as a wake-up call for many, including members of the Toledo Rotary Club.

The 400-member club – the world’s 11th largest – is putting its considerable people power and resources behind the challenge of preventing another nutrient-driven outbreak of blue-green algae in the lake.

The club invited EPA to its signature event – the second annual Rotary Lake Erie Watershed Conference – to explain to the 300 attendees how excess nutrients – nitrogen and phosphorus – are being reduced in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Jon Capacasa, our EPA Mid-Atlantic Region Water Protection Division director, relayed the history and progress of the Bay partnership, emphasizing the importance of sound science and collaboration.

He reminded them that they’re not alone – that nutrient pollution is a national problem, a threat to public health, aquatic life and the economy, and to solve it we need “all hands on deck,” including civic groups.

Jon offered some websites where Rotarians and others could find projects and activities to get involved, including watershed projects, volunteer water quality monitoring, and outreach campaigns.

All 50 states have reported harmful algal blooms, and recent research suggests the problem is getting worse as a result of climate change.

Check out this site for more information and for additional ways to help reduce nutrient pollution in your area.


About the Author
: Tom Damm has been with EPA since 2002 and now serves as communications coordinator for the region’s Water Protection Division.

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.

Linking Up: Making Every Day Earth Day

By Tom Burke, Ph.D.

Today marks my first Earth Day as the Deputy Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Research and Development. This is the one day of the year when people around the world unite to celebrate our planet, and I’m thrilled to be at a place where strengthening the links between a healthy environment and healthy communities are at the forefront of everything we do.

Eagle parents tend to their eaglets.

Eagle parents tend to their eaglets.

I began my day today checking in on the month-old eaglets up near Codorus State Park in Pennsylvania. The chicks are flourishing and provide a wonderful metaphor for the remarkable progress that has been made since the first Earth Day 45 years ago. What started as a collective unease about the state of local waterways, polluted lands, and haze-obscured views across urban neighborhoods was soon amplified in screaming national headlines about rivers on fire, and Rachel Carson’s best-selling book Silent Spring outlining the dangers of the indiscriminant use of the chemical pesticide DDT.

Such events helped spark the realization that when it comes to our environment, we are all in this together. And it was science—much of it led or conducted by EPA researchers—that taught us how to turn environmental concerns into action.

By understanding how particulate matter and other pollutants in the air relate to asthma rates and longevity, between lead exposure and childhood development, and between disease and contaminated water, local public health officials know what steps they can take to better protect people.

That track record for responsive science is why EPA labs are always among the first called when environmental emergencies strike, such as the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or when harmful algal blooms threatened Toledo’s drinking water supply. EPA expertise is counted on to help local officials identify hazards, know what tests to conduct, and when to issue or lift health advisories.

And what’s more, that same expertise is also driving innovative research that is not only helping communities become more resilient today, but developing the tools, models, and solutions to lower risks and advance sustainability for the future. Just a small sampling of examples include:

  • Our researchers have teamed up with colleagues at NASA, NOAA, and the U.S. Geological Survey to develop ways to tap satellite data to monitor water quality and better predict harmful algal blooms.
  • Empowering scientists and communities alike to tap a new generation of small, inexpensive, and portable air sensors to track air quality through The Village Green Project and others.
  • Our Healthy Heart campaign helps cardiac healthcare professionals use existing and emerging research to educate their patients about the link between air quality and their health—and to take action to avoid exposures during “ozone alert” days.
  • Advancing sophisticated computational toxicology methods and technologies through partnerships such as Tox21 to usher in a new paradigm of faster and far less expensive chemical screening techniques.
  • Providing data and mapping tools such as EPA’s EnviroAtlas that help community planners and other citizens identify, quantify, and sustain the many benefits they get from the natural ecosystems that surround them.

I started my own career conducting environmental investigations and epidemiological studies, and working closely with county and city health officials. These officials are on the front lines of environmental health and our communities depend upon them. Providing support by linking them to the data, tools, and innovative solutions mentioned above is one of my top priorities as EPA’s Deputy Assistant Administrator for our Office of Research and Development.

That will take a continued commitment to communications and translation of our science to action, all part of keeping the critical link between a healthy environment and healthy people at the forefront of our thinking. Sharing our work with public health professionals is one way we can work together to make every day Earth Day. And that’s something we can all celebrate.

EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator Tom Burke

EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator Tom Burke

 

About the Author: Thomas Burke, Ph.D. is the Deputy Assistant Administrator of the Office of Research and Development as well as EPA’s Science Advisor. Prior to coming to EPA, he served as the Jacob I. and Irene B. Fabrikant Professor and Chair in Health, Risk and Society and the Associate Dean for Public Health Practice and Training at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

 

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.

Research Recap: This week in EPA Science

By Kacey Fitzpatrick

Research recap graphic identifier, a microscope with the words "research recap" around it in a circleIt’s the first week of September which means it’s the end of summer, kids are going back to school, football is starting, and pumpkin-flavored everything is appearing in grocery stores and coffee shops.

September is also National Preparedness Month, and although EPA researchers work year-round to help local communities across the nation become more resilient and better prepared to respond to disasters, their efforts will be highlighted this month.

  • Yale University’s The Metric blog featured how the Agency’s Office of Homeland Security “is now taking steps to build community capacity on environmental resilience to reduce risk from both natural and manmade risks.” Read Disasters Looming, EPA Focuses on Environmental Resilience.
  • To learn more about how EPA homeland security researchers support such efforts, see the special homeland security issue of our EPA Science Matters newsletter.

Recently, we saw how toxins from harmful algal and cyanobacterial blooms can disrupt the nation’s source waters.

If you have any comments or questions about what I share or about the week’s events, please submit them below in the comments section!

About the Author: Writer Kacey Fitzpatrick recently joined the science communication team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development as a student contractor.

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.

EPA Science In Action: Keeping an Eye on Harmful Algal Blooms

By Cindy Sonich-Mullin

A half million people living in and around Toledo, Ohio recently experienced a weekend without tap water. A “harmful algal bloom” of cyanobacteria in Lake Erie, Toledo’s water source, produced unsafe levels of the toxin microcystin. The toxin is known to cause abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and at high exposure levels, liver damage.

A water advisory was issued alerting residents to avoid all contact with Toledo drinking water.

At the first sign of trouble, colleagues at the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency contacted my laboratory to provide technical assistance and water sample analysis to support the City of Toledo’s drinking water utility.

We were a natural choice to help out. Not only is EPA’s Cincinnati-based laboratory facility relatively close geographically, but our scientific staff includes a team of leading experts with analytical capabilities in drinking water treatment and cyanobacterial toxins.

Throughout the weekend, we performed tests and conducted sensitive analyses to help identify the optimal approach for controlling the toxins in Toledo’s water plant and distribution system. We shared our test results with our partners from Ohio EPA, who interpreted them along with their own results and others from the City of Toledo.

We were all greatly relieved the morning of August 6th, when the City of Toledo determined that they could lift the water advisory.

At the time, Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler released the following statement: “After exhaustive testing, analysis and discussions between Toledo water officials, the U.S. EPA and the Ohio EPA, we support the city’s decision to lift its drinking water advisory. Throughout the difficulty of the past few days everyone involved has demonstrated the utmost professionalism and commitment to solving this problem. The mayor and his team, U.S. EPA and the other scientific and academic leaders who lent us their expertise worked in a constructive way to turn the water back on for the people of Toledo.”

While many weekend plans were cancelled due to the crisis in Toledo, we were honored to be called on to help our sister city to the north. As scientists, it is gratifying to use our expertise and the tools we develop to provide solutions to communities. Of course, what would be even better than lending our expertise and rapid response and analysis capabilities would be to help prevent harmful algal blooms from threatening drinking water supplies in the first place. And that is just what we are doing. In fact, we’ve shared some of our harmful algal bloom research recently here on our blog. Below are some recent posts with more information on that work.

As the above blogs exemplify, EPA researchers are working hard to better understand the dynamics of harmful algal blooms. EPA is also working with other agencies to accelerate the development and deployment of affordable sensors that will help predict future algal blooms. This means we will be even better poised to work with cities like Toledo and other local communities to better protect precious drinking water supplies. Keep an eye here on “It All Starts with Science” to see future posts about that work, and more.

About the Author: Cindy Sonich-Mullin is the Director of EPA’s National Risk Management Research Laboratory in Cincinnati, Ohio. She has over 30 years of experience in EPA, leading research and response efforts on a wide variety of environmental issues.

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.

Monitoring Harmful Algal Blooms? There’s an App for That!

By Annie Zwerneman

Algal bloom covers a lake.

Algal bloom covers a lake.

I was recently on my favorite hiking trail, which passes by a beautiful lake. But this time hiking past it, I noticed a strange, dark scum creeping along the shoreline of the water. I learned later that this scum was actually an algal bloom: a population of algae increasing quickly over a short period of time.

Some algal blooms are merely an eyesore, but others fall into a more serious category called “harmful algal blooms” (HABs): algae and cyanobacteria (formerly known as blue-green algae) that remove oxygen from the water, crowding their way along the surface and producing toxins that are harmful to animals. The toxins that HABs produce can affect peoples’ health, too.

EPA has been working to monitor HABs, including taking water samples to see where and how algal blooms may affect you. Unfortunately, taking such water samples is time-intensive, so EPA has been working alongside scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to find new ways to monitor the quality of inland water bodies, such as lakes and reservoirs. EPA hopes to monitor estuaries and coastal waters in the future as well.

A new Android app is being developed that displays imagery of cyanobacterial cell counts in freshwater systems, which can indicate the presence of HABs. Expected to be in beta testing this fall, the app will provide information necessary for locating and monitoring HABs. It’s primarily aimed toward stakeholders like health departments and municipalities (such as water treatment plants).

The app will display data from NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) satellite. In the near future, EPA researchers hope to incorporate the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-3 and potentially the Landsat-8 satellite as well. They will work with their NOAA, USGS, and NASA partners to pull all these capabilities together once the app is ready for public use.

The way the app will work is a bit like the weather station. At the beginning of each week, the cell count will be updated based on the satellite information gathered the previous week. There may even be a prediction of the cell count for the upcoming week available. For example, you can get a cell count in Lake Erie for the current week, and then get a prediction of what the cell count may be next week.

Thanks to the collaborative effort of multiple federal agencies, those looking for information about freshwater quality and HABs won’t have to look far: there will be an app for that!

About the Author: Annie Zwerneman is a 2014 summer intern working for the EPA’s 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.

When Green Goes Bad

Flyer banner for "When Green Goes Bad" webinar

By Lahne Mattas-Curry

When you think about the environment, what color comes to mind? Green, right? Because in everything we know in the environment “Green is Good.”

And while that is very often true, in the case of lakes and ponds that suddenly go green, it is most likely the result of an algae bloom, which, increasingly, contain many harmful cyanobacteria.  Also known as “blue-green algae,” some species of these tiny, photosynthetic aquatic organisms produce toxins. The impacts of these harmful algal blooms are widespread and often not good. Not good at all.

From acute adverse human health impacts such as respiratory and gastrointestinal problems (yuck) to known deaths of animals (keep the family dog out of green water, please!!), blooms like these are becoming a more frequent occurrence and are having greater impacts.

To better understand how algal blooms impact human health, identify the toxicity of cyanobacteria, predict the probability of bloom occurrences, and share this information broadly, our researchers have been working on a research project focused this topic since 2012.

The researchers involved in the project will be sharing what they have learned during a webinar on Wednesday, June 25 from 12:00 to 1:00pm as part of EPA’s Water Research Webinar Series.

We hope you will join them to hear an overview of the breadth of their algae bloom research, and learn details about ecological modeling they conducted on cyanobacterial blooms in U.S. lakes. They will explain how they embraced the concept of “Open Science”—the movement to make scientific research and data accessible to the public.

And if that’s not enough, they will also be available for a twitter chat on June 26 from 2:00pm to 3:00pm. You can submit questions now by using #greenwater or you can wait until the day of the chat. Please follow us @EPAresearch.

To register for the webinar, please send an email to sswr@epa.org with your name, title, organization and contact information.

Meet our Scientists

Jeff Hollister, Ph.D.
EPA research ecologist Jeff Hollister received his Ph.D. in Environmental Science from the University of Rhode Island. His past experience is in applications of geospatial technologies to environmental research and broad-scale environmental monitoring, modeling, and assessment. His current research focuses on how nutrients drive the risk of cyanobacterial blooms in lakes and ponds.

Betty Kreakie, Ph.D.
EPA research ecologist Betty Kreakie earned her Ph.D. in integrative biology from the University of Texas. Her work focuses on the development of spatially-explicit landscape level models that predict how biological populations and communities will respond to human-caused influences, such as nutrient and contaminant pollution, climate change, and habitat conversion.

Bryan Milstead, Ph.D.
EPA post-doctoral research ecologist Bryan Milstead received his Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University for work on small mammal population dynamics in Chile. Before coming to EPA, he worked for the U.S. National Park Service and for the Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands. His current work focuses on understanding how nutrient over-enrichment affects the aesthetic quality and risk of cyanobacteria blooms in lakes.

About the Author: Lahne Mattas-Curry communicates the many cool things happening in water science for EPA and hates #greenwater. She urges everyone to think twice about what fertilizers they use on their lawn and encourages pet owners to “pick up the poop” to reduce nutrient pollution.

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.