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EPA Research: May 24, 2017

Teaming Up to Respond When Disaster Strikes

When a crisis hits, you must be prepared to act. That’s why EPA is participating in the multi-agency Gotham Shield Exercise 2017. This exercise will evaluate how to prepare for different phases of an improvised nuclear attack, including prevention, protection, response, and initial recovery. The exercise will expand our ability to coordinate at the local and national levels, which will support effective response and recovery operations during disaster situations, including during nuclear related incidents.

“Response to large disasters must be practiced to minimize their impact,” says Dr. Gregory Sayles, Director of EPA’s National Homeland Security Research Program. “Large-scale exercises like Gotham Shield give us realistic situations in which responders can practice their real-time response, including using ORD’s tools and technical support. The use of ORD tools during the exercise can show where improvements are needed in the tools. These experiences greatly enhance the nation’s ability to respond to real disasters when they come.”

EPA emergency response professionals and researchers are participating in the response phase of the exercise, which includes requests for waste estimations including how to handle, treat, and dispose of large amounts of contaminated waste in preparation for recovery. The request also includes tapping subject matter experts who can pull together information on the fate and transport of the radiological contamination and resulting exposure due to precipitation. EPA will conduct several critical recovery support functions during the exercise to be prepared for an actual event.

EPA researcher, Dr. Sang Don Lee, who was called upon to help the Japanese Ministry of the Environment following the Fukushima event, will be a key participant in the exercise.

“Most of challenges from this hypothetical incident are similar to what I have observed from Fukushima such as evacuation, remediation, waste management, economic recovery, says Dr. Lee. “However, I think the magnitude might be much greater than the Fukushima incident in many aspects such as number of casualties, economic loss, psychological and social impact since the incident is an attack using a nuclear device with malicious intent to devastate our community.”

He will provide his expertise in monitoring, decontamination, waste management, fate and transport, communication, and repopulation of decontaminated areas for the Gotham Shield Exercise.

The month-long national exercise is a collaborative effort, led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).


Discovering Causes of Feminized Fish

Since the 1990s there have been widespread reports throughout the world of male fish from different water bodies that exhibit female traits. This "feminization", which includes changes to the appearance and reproductive ability of the males, has often been associated with exposure of the fish to chemicals in runoff from animal feedlots and discharges from wastewater treatment plants. Chemicals responsible for feminization are collectively referred to as endocrine disruptors, because of their ability to "mimic" the effects of estradiol, a natural estrogenic hormone that controls endocrine systems involved in reproduction in female animals and humans.

A significant amount of research has been focused on the identity of the estrogenic chemicals causing endocrine disruption, so that their release to the environment might be controlled. A recent paper authored by EPA researchers, "Re-evaluating the Significance of Estrone as an Environmental Estrogen", showed that the hormone estrone may be a very important cause of feminization of male fish. Estrone is produced naturally by livestock and humans, and is excreted from the body in waste. It has been known for some time that estrone can be present at high concentrations in wastewater discharges, but it has not been thought to be particularly important in causing feminization because it is a weak estrogenic chemical. However, the EPA scientists found that estrone can be changed by male fish to the much stronger estradiol, to a degree sufficient to cause their feminization. This indicates that estrone could be a much more important estrogenic endocrine disruptor than previously supposed.  

The paper describing this work is featured on the cover of the May 16th issue of Environmental Science & Technology and was recently selected by The American Chemical Society as an Editor’s Choice article. 


Driving Toward A Healthier Future

Exposure to pollution from cars can cause serious lung and heart problems and people living in neighborhoods close to major highways face elevated risks. 

That’s why EPA researchers are studying the impacts of roadway pollution and how we can best mitigate them. Recently, EPA researcher Jeffrey Yang and collaborators looked at fine-tuning the algorithms behind the latest group of high-tech automobile safety warning systems. Known as “Advanced Driver Assistance Systems,” these are the flashing lights, audible “beeps,” and other features of new cars that make changing lanes, accelerating, braking, and following the car ahead of you while speeding down the highway safer.

Yang and his co-authors investigated ways to optimize safety and mobility while reducing emissions that put drivers and communities at risk from the effects of air pollution. Their goal was to see how ADAS might be adapted to optimize traffic flow, particularly for the anticipated “connected vehicle environment,” where cars will communicate wirelessly with one another and the surrounding infrastructure.

Using what they learned from reviewing existing literature and examining the inner workings of each ADAS system, the research team combined their knowledge of ADAS-affected driving behavior with what they knew about traffic flow. That allowed them to propose ways to build ADAS that could help individual drivers avoid collisions while collectively reducing traffic jams.

Then they hit the road.

Researchers headed to the often congested stretch of northbound Interstate 71 in the northeast suburb of the Greater Cincinnati area. They conducted a traffic count to feed their models numbers based on known conditions, especially for the critical peak demand hours that trigger congestion. They then used GPS-equipped vehicles to calibrate and validate their multi-objective model of increasing safety and improving traffic flow.

The final results reveal an optimal ADAS algorithm that could reduce vehicle conflicts and increase mobility performance at the same time. One of their key findings is that because drivers tend to change how they drive when they get cars with ADAS, the multiple benefits aren’t released until a higher percentage of cars on the road are equipped with the newer, high-tech safety systems. But once they do, not only will everyone on the road begin to the gain advantages of fewer tie-ups, but air quality for communities near major roadways will benefit, too.