In early 1970, as a result of heightened public concerns about deteriorating city air, natural areas littered with debris, and urban water supplies contaminated with dangerous impurities, President Richard Nixon created a council to consider how to organize federal government programs designed to reduce pollution. The President sent to Congress a plan to consolidate many environmental responsibilities of the federal government under one agency: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Headquartered in Washington, DC, the EPA this year marks 50 years of preparing for, responding to, preventing, and mitigating natural and manmade disasters.

The Office of Research and Development (ORD) is the scientific research arm of the EPA. Its research provides the foundation for credible decision-making to safeguard human health and ecosystems from environmental pollutants. ORD's work is organized into six research programs that identify the most pressing environmental health research needs.

Research Programs

Testing water for salinity, temperature, and pH. (USEPA photo by Eric Vance)

Air and Energy Research Program – EPA's Air and Energy Research Program examines the interplay among air pollution, climate change, and the dynamic energy sector to develop innovative and sustainable solutions for improving air quality and taking action on climate change. The results of the research efforts support policies that have far-reaching and positive impact across the nation.

EPA develops and improves instruments, methods, techniques, and other tools to measure and monitor air quality and evaluate air emissions to protect public health and the environment from air pollution. Measurement research is advancing the ability to determine the composition of sources of air pollution, conduct exposure assessments, improve monitoring capabilities, and support public health research. Scientists provide sophisticated models and tools widely used across the nation to provide a forecast of air quality under different regulatory scenarios or strategies to control emissions and characterize exposures for input into health studies.

These models include the Community Multiscale Air Quality (CMAQ) model — a numerical model that relies on scientific first principles to predict the concentration of airborne gases and particles and the deposition of these pollutants back to Earth's surface. CMAQ can also inform users about the chemical composition of a mixture of pollutants, which is particularly useful when measurements only give insight into aggregate details, like total particulate mass.

The purpose of CMAQ is to provide fast, technically sound estimates of ozone, particulates, toxins, and acid deposition. It combines current knowledge in atmospheric science and air quality modeling, multi-processor computing techniques, and an open-source framework into a single modeling system.

This technology is a treatment system for drinking water with elevated levels of ammonia. It combines aeration and biological filtration to oxidize excessive levels of ammonia in the water.

An EPA and U.S. Forest Service pilot project provides people with additional information on air quality during wildfires. Public use of low-cost sensors is increasing; however, data from these sensors is not comparable to regulatory-grade monitors. The project “corrects” the sensor data, so users can compare sensor information and monitor information side by side. The map may be updated several times during the pilot, as the two agencies work to have an upgraded version available for the 2021 fire season.

Chemical Safety for Sustainability Research Program – Improving the safe production, use, and disposal of chemicals is a major priority in support of actions to protect human health and the environment. This research program provides the decision-support tools needed to meet that priority, while advancing ways to evaluate chemicals, conduct risk management, and prioritize time-critical research. EPA scientists and their partners embrace the principles of green chemistry to produce safer chemicals. They also integrate diverse scientific disciplines to develop new prediction techniques, pioneering the use of innovative technologies for chemical toxicity testing and designing tools to advance the management of chemical risks.

Chemical safety for sustainability includes research in computational toxicology, nanotechnology, endocrine-disrupting chemicals, human health, and pesticides. EPA's safer chemicals research characterizes real-world exposures and early indicators of harm, allowing proactive decision-making on existing chemicals. Safer chemicals research evaluates the potential impacts of emerging materials as well, enabling safer and more sustainable use of new chemicals.

Manufactured nanomaterials are in more than 1,300 commercial products including medical equipment, textiles, fuel additives, cosmetics, plastics, and more. EPA scientists research the most prevalent nanomaterials that may have human and environmental health implications. The research is developing a scientific foundation to better understand, predict, and manage the challenges of nanomaterials.

Health and Environmental Risk Assessment Program – The HERA Program focuses on advancing the understanding of the effects that exposure to pollutants have on key biological, chemical, and physical processes that affect human health. What EPA scientists and their partners learn provides the foundation for the Agency's actions to protect public health and the environment.

Numerous health problems in the United States are associated with mold (i.e., fungal) exposures in indoor environments. With a technology developed by EPA researchers, mold problems can be identified quickly and accurately, allowing illnesses to be diagnosed and treated more effectively; use of this technology also may prevent disease occurrence.

The DNA-based technology can identify and quantify more than 130 species of molds that can be allergenic, toxic, or potentially pathogenic. It can determine if an environment is abnormally mold-contaminated, test for potentially pathogenic molds in the water and/or air of hospitals and nursing homes, diagnose mold infections so that treatment can begin earlier, monitor food and drugs for mold contamination, and measure the risk for molds associated with allergies and asthma.

Homeland Security Research Program – The Homeland Security Research Program provides science and technology needed to effectively respond to and recover from disasters. Natural disasters and manmade disasters can result in contamination that threatens human health, the environment, and the economy. Scientific solutions improve water utilities’ abilities to prepare for and respond to incidents that threaten public health and advance capabilities to respond to wide-area chemical, biological, or radiological contamination incidents including those caused by natural disasters.

Datasonde and PARs equipment can measure dissolved oxygen (that fish and marine life need to survive) as well as turbidity, salinity, pH, and Photosynthetically Available Radiation (PARs), which is sunlight that reaches the bottom and is still usable by marine plant life for photosynthesis.

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent mailing of letters containing spores of the bacterial agent that causes anthrax, EPA was assigned its homeland security responsibilities including protecting drinking and wastewater systems and taking the lead on cleaning the environment following a contamination incident.

Research on decontaminating anthrax-contaminated areas has been applied in responding to outbreaks of diseases such as Ebola. More recent major disasters such as the Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 and increasingly severe property damage from severe weather showed that the health of communities requires resiliency to all types of disasters.

Researchers are developing and applying methods for measuring SARS-CoV-2 levels in wastewater. Once developed, the methods will be used to determine infectivity, persistence, and treatment efficacies related to SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater.

With an infectious disease like COVID-19, people may be contagious before they show any symptoms. Preliminary research indicates that monitoring wastewater for the presence of SARS-CoV-2 may be useful as a sensitive early indicator of low levels of infections in the community. Having an early warning system to alert public health officials about infection in a community would be helpful.

EPA and CDC are developing a simple, easy, low-cost, non-invasive antibody test using saliva samples. Antibody testing helps identify people who have been exposed to SARS-CoV-2, may not have ever developed symptoms, and who have subsequently developed an immune response. Such an antibody test could help public health officials determine the rate of infection across the country.

Safe and Sustainable Water Resources Research Program – This program provides the science and innovative technologies required to maintain drinking water resources and systems as well as to protect the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation's waters. Drinking water distribution systems are increasingly vulnerable to interruption in service from a terrorist attack, an industrial accident, extreme weather events, and aging water infrastructure. EPA seeks to improve the ability of water utilities to prevent, prepare for, respond to, and recover from water contamination incidents that threaten public health and the integrity of drinking water systems.

EPA designed and patented a technology to oxidize ammonia in drinking water before it reaches the distribution system. The two-stage aerobic treatment system enhances the natural nitrification process during which, in the presence of oxygen, ammonia is converted to nitrite and then to nitrate.

A new material was developed that can quickly, efficiently, and economically strip mercury and arsenic from industrial wastewater streams. The material — spent catalyst from a process that removes sulfur from crude oil — also can remove other metals and ions from water.

Sustainable and Healthy Communities Research Program – This program provides scientific and technical solutions needed to remediate and restore the nation's most challenging and complex contaminated sites. Waste and materials management research focuses on reducing the creation and flow of waste including managing municipal and hazardous waste landfills to reduce public health and environmental risks. Researchers also are working to identify and quantify aspects of the natural (ecosystems) and human-dominated (built) environments and how they underpin community health, prosperity, and resiliency.

Vehicle Emission Technologies

SeaBird measures conductivity of water to determine salinity, temperature, and depth. Data is transmitted and plots of variables are recorded as the device is lowered through the water column. Lids on the grey bottles are closed remotely to capture water samples from a specific depth for further testing. (Photo: Bill Richardson, EPA).

The National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory (NVFEL) designs, develops, and fabricates cost-effective technologies and components to reduce vehicle or engine emissions and increase fuel efficiency.

Clean diesel combustion (CDC) was developed and patented by EPA to maintain diesel's efficiency while making the engine run ultra-clean in a cost-effective manner. CDC produces the lowest known engine-out NOx ever achieved by any diesel engine. This engine produces less NOx through a series of design changes to the diesel engine and maintains economic fuel improvement over gasoline engines.

Ford Motor Company and International Truck and Engine Corporation have joined EPA to demonstrate the technology. CDC is one of several emerging clean diesel technologies that promise to meet EPA's tailpipe emission standards and improve fuel economy in cars, SUVs, and trucks.

Hybrid vehicle technologies have become increasingly popular as gasoline prices have escalated in recent years. EPA scientists have developed an efficient full-series hydraulic hybrid vehicle power-train and a unique hydraulic hybrid propulsion system integrated with the drive axle.

EPA is collaborating with United Parcel Service (UPS), Eaton Corporation, International Truck and Engine, and the U.S. Army National Automotive Center to build and field test the world's first full hydraulic hybrid urban delivery vehicle. The vehicle, a UPS delivery truck, exhibits significantly improved fuel economy and reduced harmful emissions.

Technology Transfer

The EPA transfers federal technologies into the marketplace and collaborates on environmental research and development projects with outside partners. The EPA's Federal Technology Transfer Act (FTTA) Program facilitates the transfer of environmental research and technologies into the marketplace.

For information on licensing EPA technologies, visit here . Learn more about the EPA by visiting here .


Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the October, 2020 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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