Office of Research and Development
2009 EPA Research Highlights
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) relies on sound science to safeguard human health and the environment. EPA’s Office of Research and Development, the scientific research arm of the Agency, conducts and supports research on ways to prevent pollution, protect our health and ecosystems, and create a sustainable environment.
Select the links to the right to read examples of how EPA’s 2009 research accomplishments advance Administrator Lisa P. Jackson’s priorities for EPA’s future and promote a sustainable environment.
How Does Climate Change Affect Our Health?
EPA research is providing critical information for answering that question. Ten years of EPA-funded research at the nation’s top universities has led to major advances in scientists’ understanding of the impact of climate change on ozone. Ozone can be good or bad for human health and the environment, depending on where it is. The ozone layer in the upper atmosphere acts as a filter for the sun's ultraviolet rays, reducing the amount of radiation that reaches the earth's surface. However, at ground level, high concentrations of ozone can be harmful. Ozone pollution is an increase in the concentration of ozone in the air at ground level.
Science to Achieve Results (STAR) research produced six of the seven studies cited by EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson to support her declarations on the danger to public health posed by climate-change-driven changes in ozone pollution.
The STAR research includes the first major study showing how climate change affects domestic air quality. The study quantifies the nationwide health effects of possible future changes in air quality due to climate change. The research concludes that about 50 years from now the increase in unhealthy ozone and fine particle air pollution may result in a nationwide average of 4,300 additional deaths per year.
In addition, EPA scientists published research demonstrating, for the first time, evidence of the impact of climate change on ozone pollution.
EPA Endangerment Finding
Energy from Waste: Burn or Bury?
Communities across the U.S. are looking for ways to save energy and money. In 2007, Americans generated about 250 million tons of waste; 54% was buried and 13% was burned. Both options can generate energy, but which is better at maximizing energy production while minimizing greenhouse gas emissions?
This question was answered through a recent article in Environmental Science & Technology by EPA researchers. The paper was the first to present all life-cycle emission factors generated for these energy recovery options, providing important scientific information to inform solutions-oriented decisions aimed at advancing sustainability.
The research shows that burning waste produces more electricity than burying it and capturing gas in the landfill. Also, there are significant differences in emissions between the two options. Even under the best conditions, landfill gas capture and control emits two to six times more greenhouse gases compared to burning waste. Additionally, recovering energy by burning waste is, on average, six to eleven times more efficient than recovering energy from waste buried in landfills.
Can You Put Manure to Good Use?
As everyone knows, manure happens, especially on farms. Washington State has plenty of it and now Western Washington University (WWU) students are putting it to good use. Two EPA People, Prosperity, and the Planet (P3) grants to students at WWU provided funds to convert three charter buses from diesel fuel to biomethane.
The Washington students used a 2007 P3 Award as leverage to win a $500,000 grant from the US Department of Energy. With that money, they expanded their Biomethane for Transportation project, turning cow manure into clean-burning biomethane fuel.
The biomethane comes from the area’s first dairy waste digester at a local farm. The farm’s cows supply the manure, which is put into a digester to separate the solids from the gases. The gases are then run through a “scrubber” to remove contaminants from the methane, making it ready to use in a combustion engine.
The fuel produces about 95% less carbon than regular fuel. The team’s leader believes that Whatcom County, WA cows could produce enough biomethane to run every car, truck, bus, and piece of farm equipment in the county.
Clean Air Leads to Longer Lives
What difference does clean air make? EPA Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grantees have found evidence that breathing cleaner air helps people live longer. Although the relationship seems obvious to many, air quality has never before been directly linked to life expectancy. Now, in a 2009 study by Arden Pope, Majid Ezzati, and Doug Dockery published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the numbers are finally in: cleaner air in the U.S. increases life expectancy by an average of five months.
The researchers matched air monitoring data with life expectancy data covering three decades and 51 cities across the U.S. They accounted for other factors that might affect life span, such as changes in cigarette smoking, in order to see the effects of air quality alone.
Results showed that an increase in life expectancy of five months was directly linked to reducing air pollution between 1980 and 2000. The implication of the study—that EPA air regulations have led to longer human lives—is a triumph for both regulatory agencies and researchers worldwide, because it shows that air research and policy really do work.
Findings Improve Air Quality Modeling
New EPA-funded research is changing and improving the way we think about air quality modeling, or simulations of particle pollution. To protect people from air pollution, states use computer models, or representations, to predict and manage air quality. Models are constantly being updated and improved as research reflects new insights into the processes and properties of air pollution.
In a 2009 paper published in Science, EPA grantees expanded on a 2007 air quality modeling framework. The new model captures the way air particles age for a more accurate reflection of real-world environments. With this new understanding modelers can group similar types of air particles together. This simplifies the models and the math included in them. Having simple yet accurate models improves air quality and climate model predictions.
Though there is more work to be done to understand various aging pathways, this is an important step toward improving existing particle models. The framework is already having a major impact on regional air quality management. Researchers are beginning to incorporate the framework into the Community Multiscale Air Quality “super model” that is used to apply, digest, and interpret data from models used throughout EPA.
Taking the Haze Out of Air Quality Models
Streamlining Risk Assessment
EPA's Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) is a human health assessment program that evaluates risk from exposure to environmental contaminants. The IRIS database contains information for more than 540 chemical substances containing information on human health effects that may result from exposure to various substances in the environment. The heart of IRIS is its searchable collection of documents that describe the health effects of individual substances.
EPA has implemented a revised IRIS process. Highlights of the new IRIS process include a streamlined review schedule, which ensures that the majority of assessments are posted on IRIS within two years of the start date. As a result, more human health assessments will be available to EPA’s programs and regions and to other users of the IRIS database.
While other federal agencies and White House offices can still provide input, the comments will be from health scientists and will focus on scientific and technical issues. Further, all written comments from other federal agencies and White House offices are made public. This makes the process more transparent.
IRIS Process (2009 Update)
Going High-Tech to Screen Chemicals
Using advances in molecular biology, chemistry, and computer science, EPA is transforming its approach to chemical toxicity testing. In 2009, EPA’s Computational Toxicology Program developed a tool called ToxCast.
This cutting-edge tool uses detailed profiles of more than 300 chemicals that have been analyzed through more than 500 tests. These tests analyze the important interactions between chemicals and biological targets. Models created from ToxCast results are then used to predict potential toxicity in humans and other species.
EPA is developing additional computational toxicology tools including ACToR, ToxRefDB, and ExpoCast. These searchable databases being created help scientists measure chemical exposure, hazard, and risk. Researchers use this information in their design of “greener” chemicals. ACToR combines data from over 400 public sources on more than 500,000 chemicals. ToxRefDB captures over 30 years and $2 billion worth of animal testing results, making the future use of animals in the lab less necessary. ExpoCast will encourage innovative exposure science research.
Responding to Biological Incidents
In August 2009, the EPA, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) published draft guidance for federal, state, local, and tribal decision makers to consider when planning and/or responding to a homeland security-related, biological incident.
The Draft Planning Guidance was developed by a subcommittee of the White House National Science and Technology Council co-chaired by EPA and DHS. It describes a general risk management framework for decision makers, in planning and executing activities required for responding to and recovering from a biological incident in a domestic, civilian setting. It provides federal, state, local, and tribal decision makers with standard federal guidance to protect the public, emergency responders, and surrounding environments, and ensures that local and federal first responders can prepare for an incident involving biological contamination.
Green Parking Lot Lets Water Soak In
In October, the Permeable Pavement Demonstration Site opened at EPA’s Edison, N.J. facility, home to offices and a laboratory. The project began as a building and facilities improvement project. When scientists saw an opportunity for real-world experiments, EPA installed instrumentation to evaluate the potential of permeable surfaces to lessen the effects of peak stormwater runoff on nearby streams, including stream bank erosion and negative effects on plant and animal life. EPA is evaluating permeable surfaces as part of a long-term research project examining a number of stormwater management practices.
Research conducted at the site will measure the water quality over the next 10 years to link the pavement’s performance with time and seasonal changes. The green technology and stormwater controls studied will show scientists whether permeable surfaces can help cities cool down faster, reduce stormwater runoff, and improve water quality by removing pollution.
The Edison lot has three different types of permeable pavement and several rain gardens, each with different kinds of plants. EPA researchers will see how well the pavement and the rain gardens remove pollutants from stormwater, and how they help filter water seeping into the ground.
Drivers will park their cars in the parking lot during the study to show how the different types of pavement handle traffic and vehicle-related pollution such as leaking motor oil.
Measuring Water Quality After Fertilizer Ban
Lawn fertilizers can kill fish and cause algal blooms and other problems when phosphorus and other chemicals wash out of the soil and into waterways. The city of Ann Arbor, facing the potential expense of more than $1.5 million to upgrade its wastewater treatment plant to meet federal phosphorus water-quality standards, banned the use of phosphorus-containing fertilizers on lawns in 2006.
A series of studies at the University of Michigan, funded by EPA Science to Achieve Results (STAR), the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and the city of Ann Arbor, showed 28% less phosphorous in water one year after the law was enacted.
Image Credit: Service to America
Researcher Wins Homeland Security Medal
The Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization selected Dr. Regan Murray and EPA’s Threat Ensemble Vulnerability Assessment (TEVA) Research Team as a finalist for the Service to America Homeland Security Medal. The TEVA Program was started by EPA to study contamination threats to drinking water systems and use the information gained to design monitoring systems and other mitigation methods for preparing for, and responding to, contamination attacks on drinking water systems.
Thirty finalists were selected from a pool of more than 400 as the best examples of dedicated federal workers across America doing extraordinary work. Dr. Murray and the TEVA team were recognized for their work to improve the safety of U.S. water supplies by designing powerful software to identify risks and possible solutions to terrorist attacks.
2009 Finalist—Homeland Security Medal
Making Water Sampling Methods Safer
Some microorganisms found in drinking water can pose a significant public health threat. However, finding these microorganisms in the water supply presents serious challenges. Current testing methods require moving large volumes of potentially contaminated water samples. This is a safety concern for delivery service staff, laboratory personnel, and the public.
In response to these concerns, EPA developed a device that can rapidly concentrate microbes from 26-gallons into less than two cups of water. The smaller, concentrated sample can be moved easily and safely to a laboratory for further testing. This technology received a 2009 R&D 100 Award from R&D Magazine and was chosen as one of three Editor’s Choice awards.
Habitat Research Helps Pacific Salmon
With the goal of improving recovery efforts for Pacific salmon, the Freshwater Habitat Project studied how Coho salmon use habitats throughout coastal Oregon watersheds. In the study, EPA scientists worked with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of the Interior, and state fish and wildlife agencies to help design habitat restoration plans and to apply new research approaches to preserve at-risk fish populations.
Can Air Pollution Lower a Child’s IQ?
The answer might be yes. An EPA-funded study found that children who were exposed to high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the womb scored more than four points lower on intelligence tests at age five, as compared to children from areas with cleaner air.
This is the first study to show a link between PAH exposure and IQ scores in children. It was conducted by the Columbia University Center for Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research, one of several centers jointly funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and EPA’s Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grant program.
Image Credit: Jeremy Orlow, Greenlight Planet
Can LED Lights Improve Lives?
How long could you go without flipping a light switch or plugging something in? A People, Prosperity, and the Planet team from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign received a grant of $10,000 to design and develop affordable solar LED lights for people who do not have electricity.
The team, now a small business called Greenlight Planet, has been featured by the Wall Street Journal, Discover Magazine, and other media outlets that recognize the importance of this technology in improving the lives of people in India.
Accidents involving the use of kerosene as a light source account for 64% of the deaths among young children in India according to the Wall Street Journal. Greenlight Planet’s LEDs are cheaper and safer than kerosene, and are being sold in places where electricity is not available.
Helping Communities Manage Waste
Public officials have been making difficult decisions for more than 100 years about the proper management, environmental impacts, and costs associated with collection, transportation, recycling, and disposal of municipal solid waste. These decisions are often controversial, and officials have had limited or conflicting information on which to base their decisions.
EPA scientists developed the municipal solid waste decision support tool (MSW-DST) for local solid waste managers. It was developed with help from 80 experts including representatives from state and local government; the solid waste management industry; the aluminum, glass, paper, plastics, and steel industries; environmental interest groups; trade associations; and scholars.
The MSW-DST has been used in over 50 communities to identify better ways to manage waste by considering life-cycle environmental tradeoffs and costs. Current users include California, Delaware, Minnesota, and the World Bank. A user-friendly, Web-based version of the MSW-DST is under development and expected to be completed shortly.
Improving Local Water Quality Analysis
EPA’s Water Quality Analysis Simulation Program (WASP) is used by state and local organizations around the world for surface water quality tests. WASP allows researchers to investigate complex systems and a variety of pollutants. EPA’s 2009 updates to WASP improved how the model is used for estuaries and can now be applied to sources of rivers and streams.
The new version expands WASP’s scientific capabilities, improves its performance, and makes it more user-friendly. States and water quality mangers can better assess levels of mercury and the effects of lowered oxygen content that often lead to the extinction of life forms.
How Clean Is Clean?
How can you tell when a stream is just a shadow of its former self—when it’s so polluted that the fish, plants, and bugs you’d expect to find just aren’t there anymore?
Scientists used to believe that the effects of pollution were steady. Slowly increasing pollution was thought to slowly increase effects on fish, plants, and bugs. Over time, scientists found that streams could suddenly jump from “just a little under the weather” to “hanging on for dear life.”
A research team at Colorado State University, funded by an EPA Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grant, is looking at ways to find thresholds—the “points of no return”—in mountain streams. They have a new model that can pinpoint the geographic location where a small increase in pollution can have a very big effect, sometimes even tipping a stream to the point of no return. Researchers have discovered that sometimes pollution must be cleaned up to levels even cleaner than those found before water quality in the stream started to deteriorate.
The model can help water-quality managers determine the second threshold, i.e., how much more to clean the stream. The team is working with the National Park Service to describe thresholds in Yellowstone National Park and has worked with EPA’s Superfund program on the Arkansas River. The work should help water-resource managers in states, tribes, and counties identify “how clean is clean” and find the best way to restore fish, plant, and insects to streams and rivers.
Looks Aren’t Everything
Guidelines Help San Luis Basin
Working with the National Park Service, EPA developed and tested a set of four science-based guidelines to define and monitor the sustainability of the San Luis Basin of south-central Colorado. The guidelines measure:
- Current and likely future health of a system
- Environmental burden of human pressure on the ecosystem
- Flow and conservation of energy resources through the system
- Regional economic health
The San Luis Basin was chosen as the pilot study site because of its natural boundaries and because much of the land is publicly owned. The goal is to foster a partnership on sustainability between the Office of Research and Development and EPA’s Region 8 Office and expand existing partnerships with land management agencies in the Region. These agencies include the National Park Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management.
The project demonstrated how a set of scientifically-based guidelines can determine the sustainability status of a particular region and how local decision makers can use these guidelines as an essential part of future environmental management decisions. Efforts are now underway to apply sustainability guidelines to a more complex ecosystem using the lessons learned from this project.
The San Luis Basin Pilot Project
Studying the Use of Biofuel
EPA researchers have begun using the MARKet ALlocation (MARKAL) computer model to better understand how more biofuel use will change energy production and consumption in the U.S. The scientists also want to know how these changes might affect the environment.
MARKAL and models like it are used in approximately 40 countries around the world. When the user sets limits on fuel price, technology performance and availability, and acceptable levels of air pollution, the model calculates the lowest-cost way to meet energy demands. MARKAL also estimates the total system cost, energy demand, greenhouse gas emissions, and energy commodity prices.
EPA’s Region 7 Office, serving Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and nine Tribal nations, is a key customer for this research because of the expansion of the biofuel industry in the Midwest. They are using this tool to understand the environmental impacts of increased biofuel production and how best to address them.
EPA developed the U.S. EPA MARKAL technology database for technology and emissions evaluations. This technology-rich database represents the major sectors in the U.S. energy system, including the commercial, industrial, residential, transportation, and electricity generation sectors.
MARKAL Technology Database and Model
Image Credit: Edward Browka, Ecovative Design, LLC
Sustainable Packaging and Insulation
Ecocradle™ is a treeless, biodegradable shipping material that can be molded into any shape. Ecovative Design, its producer, was funded by an EPA Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract to develop the product, which was cited as one of the top “100 best innovations of the year” in the December 2009 issue of Popular Science. Ecovative Design fills a reusable mold with agricultural waste like rice husks and sprays on mushroom root cells, which eat the husks and grow to form a dense network that packs the mold. After baking, the lightweight material feels like Styrofoam, but its production uses one eighth the energy.
Ecovative has also developed a sustainable insulation. Greensulate™ is a composite board made up of insulating particles suspended in a matrix of mushroom cells. This mushroom-based insulation is biodegradable, low cost, produces no pollution in the manufacturing process, and insulates as well as competing products. This sustainable, rigid-board insulation can be used for roofs, structural panels, or walls and received a 2009 Invention Award from Popular Science.
Image Credit: Micromidas, Inc.
Turning Waste into Plastic
A team of students hopes to produce plastics from sewage. The team from University of California Davis won a People, Prosperity, and the Planet (P3) grant for a laboratory-scale version of the process. The method uses waste as raw material and decreases the amount of waste that needs to be treated and disposed.
The team recently started its own company, called Micromidas, which uses microbes to digest sewage sludge and turn it into Polyhydroxyalkanoates or PHAs, a common form of plastic. "We take millions (of) bacteria out of a pond," CEO John Bissell explains. "There are certain characteristics that bacteria have to have to be PHA-producing bacteria. So we apply selective conditioning so only those bacteria can survive. So it sorts it down from a million to maybe a thousand bacteria."
Bissell demonstrated PHA's superior physical properties over those of the most produced bioplastic, polylactic acid, or PLA. He noted how one popular PLA product, a cup made of corn starch, melted when holding hot water. The PHA, he said, has a higher melting point.
PHA biodegrades quickly in compost piles and landfills, but otherwise it behaves the same or better than conventional petroleum-based plastic. It resists water and odor permeation, and it holds up under high temperature and sun exposure.