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EPA Research: June 6, 2017

Helping Farmers in the Atlantic Coastal Plain

Centuries of agricultural practices in the southeastern US have degraded the sandy soil of the Atlantic coastal plain. Poor soil fertility and water storage have contributed to economic challenges in the agricultural producing areas of the region. To improve soil quality, EPA researchers, working with scientists from the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, studied the use of biochar in regional soils.

Biochar, the carbon-rich solid derived by heating biomass, such as wood chips or manure, has the potential to improve the health and fertility of degraded soils. Researchers designed a biochar mixture of pine chip and poultry litter tailored specifically for the sandy soils found in the southeast. When this special biochar mixture was applied to the soil, researchers noticed significant impacts on soil characteristics such as pH, organic carbon content, and microbial composition.

As biochar research continues, farmers in the region are hopeful that this innovative technique will improve the health of the soil and increase crop yields.

Portland Student Wins EPA Sustainability Award for Work on Urban Flooding

Adam Nayak, a junior at Cleveland High School in Portland, OR, was this year’s winner of EPA’s Patrick H. Hurd Sustainability Award for his project, “Modeling the Effects of Land Use Change on Flooding in Pacific Northwest Streams to Promote Green Practices.” The project used historical flood and urban land use data, landscape imagery, geographical information systems (GIS) software, and streamflow modeling developed by the U.S. Geological Survey to project the severity of floods in four Portland urban stream basins if impervious surfaces continue to expand at the same pace as in recent years. 

Nayak was inspired at an early age when he wondered why fish weren’t coming back to the stream in his neighborhood. As he learned more about streams and what influences their health, he found that many communities don’t always have the scientific information they need to fully inform their decisions. As he put it, “A lot of research rarely gets applied in the community.”

"I feel so incredibly honored to have been selected for this award and cannot fully express my gratitude towards the EPA and all they do for our country,” said Nayak. “For the past five years, my work has been centered around my passion for empowering communities and applying research in order to promote conservation locally. I'd like to thank all of those who have offered me guidance, especially Ronda Royal, Kate Fickas, Andy Bryant, and Katie Songer and the Johnson Creek Watershed Council for all of their support.”

Nayak was selected from among 1,778 student scientists and engineers competing in the Intel Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles, California, and went on to win “Best of Category” and “First Award” in Earth & Environmental Sciences during the Grand Award Ceremony on May 19th. Hear from Adam about his project. 

Examining the Links Between Chemical Exposures and Health

EPA scientists are filling in missing pieces of the puzzle on chemical exposure. One approach is the development of Adverse Outcome Pathways (AOPs). AOPs are a way of assembling all the existing knowledge about small biological changes – to a cell, tissue, or organ– resulting from exposure to a chemical, and their connection to more serious harmful health effects detected in people and ecosystems. These powerful organizational tools use available biological data and information to predict potential effects caused by exposure to chemicals that have limited available safety data.

Findings from newly developed AOPs are exciting. However, like all science, they must be tested to determine how they can best assist regulators in their efforts to protect people and the environment from unhealthy exposures to toxic chemicals.  

In a new paper published in Environmental Science & Technology, EPA scientists developed a computer model of an AOP, called a quantitative AOP (qAOP). They tested whether the qAOP, working with the data they had about a specific estrogen disruption triggered in the fathead minnow after exposure to a chemical at a certain dose, over a specific period of time, could be used to predict a decrease in the minnow population over time.

The paper shows that the qAOP is, in-fact, able to provide regulatory decision-makers with data-based information about the amount of the chemical the fish would need to be exposed to over a specified period of time in order to eventually see the population decrease. This is an important step in providing regulators with the tools and data they need to justify regulations when traditional safety data is limited.