What's Happening Now?

EPA offers best available science in new report

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's 2008 Report on the Environment (ROE) "doesn't paint a single picture but a complex picture of what is happening in the environment," said Peter Preuss, Ph.D., director of the National Center for Environmental Assessment in the agency's Office of Research and Development.

Preuss addressed a press briefing May 20 during the agency's Science Forum.

The director and at least three other EPA staff members coordinated the project and wrote the more than 1,366 pages of information, seeking to provide an objective, transparent report on the best available science. Several hundred people actually provided information or otherwise worked on the report. According to Preuss, more than half of the information comes from sources other than EPA. The report is actually a revised and refined document that was based on a 2003 draft. Each of the final indicators and the final draft were peer reviewed outside of EPA and subject to public review and comment.

"One important facet is that ROE is built on questions," Preuss explained. The agency developed 23 questions that relate back to its mission, such as "What are the trends in outdoor air quality and their effects on human health and the environment?" For each question, the agency identified existing indicators that actually measure some component of the question, in this case, air quality (see table).

Some questions went unanswered because not enough indicators that meet EPA criteria currently exist. For example, the agency only has two indicators -- radon and exposure to tobacco smoke  -- to answer its question about indoor air quality. EPA does not have a regulatory program for indoor air.

"There is a trend of general improvement in the environment," Preuss said, adding that other aspects, such as drinking water, are stable, and some are getting worse. To further illustrate his point, Preuss explained that ambient air quality appears to be getting better overall, but there are still parts of the country that don't meet the standard. He also said the report shows that asthma and greenhouse gas emissions are on the rise.

The agency hopes to use ROE information to try to develop indicators to fill in gaps and, over the years, identify trends. "The indicators can help us see where we are," Preuss said, "and help us plan for the future."

EPA is also producing Highlights of Conditions and Trends, which summarizes the ROE findings in an easier-to-understand format. That document is expected to be publicly available later this year.

To access the report, visit http://www.epa.gov/roe .

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