In the Lab

New Data Show Decline in Children's Exposure to Pollutants
The percentage of children living in counties that do not meet the air quality standard for fine particulate matter declined from 24 percent to 16 percent from 1999 to 2004, according to new data released in October by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The data come from an update to America's Children and the Environment, the agency's compilation of information from federal databases. The data provide Americans with information about children's exposure to environmental pollutants, which is an important instrument for EPA to gauge progress in carrying out its mission.

Other highlights indicate that the concentration of lead in young children's blood has gone down by 89 percent over a period of 25 years.

The data present measures of trends in environmental factors related to the health and well-being of children in the United States. The measures were previously published in a 2003 EPA report, and this update adds from 2 to 5 years of additional data for each of the measures.

The data reveal trends in environmental contaminant levels in air, water, food, and soil; concentrations of contaminants measured in the bodies of children and women; and childhood illnesses and health conditions such as asthma that may be influenced by exposure to environmental contaminants.

Children may be more vulnerable to environmental exposures than adults because their bodily systems are still developing; they eat more, drink more, and breathe more in proportion to their body size; and their behavior can expose them more to chemicals and organisms.

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Scientists Urge Collaboration To Address Climate Change
Immediate, collaborative action by governments is necessary to ensure sustainable development in the face of unprecedented global environmental change, according to a statement released in November 2006 by hundreds of scientists attending the Earth System Science Partnership (ESSP) Open Science Conference on Global Environmental Change: Regional Challenges in Beijing.

The scientists expressed their concern about the continuing adverse affects of human activities on the global environment and the resulting serious threats to human livelihood. In the conference statement, they resolved to mobilize their knowledge for action, in order to provide society with the scientific information needed to support sustainable development.

“Science has placed the issue of climate change in front of global leaders, assisted greatly by ESSP’s four global environmental change programs sponsoring the Open Science Conference,” said Dr. Gordon McBean, conference co-chair and a professor at the University of Western Ontario, Canada. The challenge for scientists now is to better inform governments on the actions they can be taking, he said.

The statement acknowledges the launch of two important new ESSP research initiatives on human health and Monsoon Asia to complement existing projects on carbon, food, and water systems. The Global Environmental Change and Human Health Project will identify and quantify health risks posed by global environmental change, and develop cost-effective adaptation strategies. The Monsoon Asia Integrated Regional Study addresses the interaction between humans and the environment in Monsoon Asia in order to support strategies for sustainable development in the region.

The four-day Open Science Conference focused on how regions can cope with the consequences of natural and human-driven changes to the Earth’s environment, what future changes they can expect, and what the nature of those changes and their impact on human livelihood will be.

ESSP is a joint initiative of four global environmental change research programs: DIVERSITAS, the international program of biodiversity science, the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program, the International Human Dimensions Program on Global Environmental Change, and the World Climate Research Program.

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Listening to Gunshots May Have Wildlife Application
Montana State University electrical engineering professor Rob Maher is exploring how the sound of a gunshot can be used to monitor wildlife.

Maher presented the results of two years of research into gunshots at the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) Signal Processing Society's annual meeting last fall in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

Because of its intense energy and distinctness, a gunshot is "the perfect signal" with which to explore the uses of sound, Maher said. "It produces what engineers call the 'impulse response' of the sonic environment," he explained.

Technology that sorts desired sounds from background noise could be used to monitor wildlife habitats. Microphones could record a month's worth of sound in an area and then computer software would sort that massive amount of data into useable chunks: elk bugles, aircraft noise, wolf howls, or gunshots.

"Take frogs for example," Maher said. "Frogs are very sensitive to environmental changes. You might be able to augment temperature, moisture, and other environmental data with 24/7 recordings of frog vocalizations to estimate population trends.

"You might learn all sorts of interesting things: such as there is less frog noise year-to-year, or maybe the frogs croak at different times year-to-year based on other environmental factors."

But to hear the frogs, Maher will have to spend some more time listening to gunshots.

"The next step is to do more careful calibrations on all the parameters: the gunpowder, the local geometry, the acoustical characteristics of the vicinity and then work from there," he said.

Click here for more information, or call Maher at (406) 994-7759.

Microorganisms May Be Part of Answer to Energy Problem
The answer to one of the world's largest problems – the need for clean, renewable sources of energy – might just come from some of the world's smallest inhabitants – bacteria – according to a new report, “Microbial Energy Conversion,” released by the American Academy of Microbiology late last year.

"Imagine the future of energy. The future might look like a new power plant on the edge of town – an inconspicuous bioreactor that takes in yard waste and locally-grown crops like corn and woodchips, and churns out electricity to area homes and businesses," says Judy Wall of the University of Missouri – Columbia, one of the authors of the report.

Or the future may take the form of a stylish-looking car that refills its tank at hydrogen stations. "Maybe the future of energy looks like a device on the roof of your home – a small appliance, connected to the household electric system, that uses sunlight and water to produce the electricity that warms your home, cooks your food, powers your television and washes your clothes. All these futuristic energy technologies may become reality some day, thanks to the work of the smallest living creatures on earth: microorganisms," Wall says.

The world faces a potentially crippling energy crisis in the next 30 to 50 years, according to the report. Additionally, the burning of fossil fuels and the resulting release of carbon dioxide and combustion pollutants have brought about global climate change. The means of preventing the twin catastrophes of energy scarcity and environmental ruin are unclear, but one part of the solution may lie in microbial energy conversion.

The primary method of microbial energy conversion highlighted by the report is the use of microbes to produce alternative fuels. The report describes in detail the various methods by which microorganisms can and are being used to produce numerous fuels including ethanol, hydrogen, methane, and butanol. It also discusses the advantages, disadvantages, and technical difficulties of each production methodology as well as outlining future research needs. The report focuses on the relatively new field of microbial fuel cells, in which bacteria are used to convert food sources directly to electrical energy.

The report is result of a colloquium convened by the American Academy of Microbiology in March 2006. Experts in the field were brought together to discuss the status of research into various microbial energy technologies, future research needs and education and training issues in these fields.

A full copy of the report and recommendations can be found here. To receive a printed copy of “Microbial Energy Conversion,” email the Academy.

National Exposure Lab to Review State-of-the-Science Approaches
EPA's National Exposure Research Laboratory (NERL) in the Office of Research and Development (ORD) intends to compile a set of state-of-the-science approaches for observational exposure measurement studies through recommendations from individual expert panel members, public comment, and external peer review.

The proposed document, tentatively titled “State-of-the-Science Approaches for Observational Exposure Measurement Studies,” will be developed for use in the design and implementation of NERL's observational exposure measurement studies.

For more than two decades, EPA has conducted observational exposure measurement studies to measure people's contact with chemicals in everyday environments during normal daily activities. These studies involve measurements of chemicals in environmental media (for example, air, water, food, soil, and dust); collection of information about the voluntary study participants, their homes, their work environments, and their activities; and analysis of voluntary human samples such as blood or urine to determine the amounts of contact. These observational studies do not involve any additional contact with the chemicals being studied by the people who volunteer to participate in the studies.

EPA's observational studies collect information that is critical to meeting the goal of improving public health. In these studies, the agency identifies the chemicals that people are coming in contact with; the concentrations of those chemicals; the most important sources of those chemicals in people's lives; and when, where, how often, and why people come into contact with chemicals in the environment. The information collected in observational studies can be used to better understand potential risks and health effects from chemicals in the environment and to develop risk mitigation strategies and methods.

The agency strives to follow the most current approaches in designing and performing observational studies. NERL held an expert panel workshop in November 2006 to provide recommendations on the content of the document, sources of information for the document, and an evaluation of the state-of-the-science for approaches for specific elements of the design and implementation of observational exposure measurement studies.

EPA expects, following public comment and external reviews, that the final document will be used by agency researchers and others in the scientific community to design and perform observational studies.

Click here for more information, or call Roy Fortmann at (919) 541-1021.

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

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