Category: Environment

EPA awards $7 million in grants to reduce health risks of wildland fire smoke exposures

As part of its Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program, EPA awarded $7 million in grant funding for researchers to address behavioral, technical, and practical aspects of interventions and communication strategies to reduce exposures and health risks of wildland fire smoke.

Larger and more intense wildfires are creating the potential for greater smoke production and chronic exposures in the United States. To reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires, the use of prescribed burns as a land manage tool is also increasing. Smoke released from wildland fires (wildfires and prescribed burns) is made up of a complex mixture of gases and fine particles produced when wood and other organic materials burn. The biggest health threat from smoke is from fine particles. These microscopic particles can get into your eyes and respiratory system – whether you are outdoors or indoors, and cause health problems such as burning eyes, runny nose, and illnesses such as bronchitis. Fine particles also can aggravate chronic heart and lung diseases – and even are linked to premature deaths in people with these conditions. In addition to particle pollution, smoke also contains air toxics that can cause cancer or other serious health effects.

To improve public health, the institutions receiving these grants will conduct research to understand what actions might be effective for reducing exposures to wildland fire smoke and how best to communicate these actions to various groups.

The grants will fund the following research projects:

Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Georgia

Award: $1,000,000

Project Title: Integrated Communication and Intervention Strategies to Reduce Exposure to Prescribed Wildland Fire Emissions in Schools, Schoolchildren and Communities

Principal Investigator: Armistead (Ted) Russell

Study Locations: Southern Georgia and Alabama

The goal of the project is to employ and assess the effectiveness of air quality forecasting, on-site low-cost monitoring and air cleaning, along with coordinated communication approaches, at reducing exposures of schoolchildren in southern Georgia and Alabama to elevated levels of PM2.5 and other air pollutants from prescribed burns. The project will address three hypotheses: 1) An integrated strategy containing both interventions and communications can reduce wildland fire pollution exposure in children and youth; 2) Targeted intervention, e.g., classroom-based air cleaning, can be used to effectively reduce exposures of school community members to prescribed burn emissions; and 3) Prescribed burn air quality impact forecasting can be used to reduce smoke exposures, both by adjusting the timing of burn activities that would lead to large population exposures and by alerting and providing guidance to potentially impacted areas in advance.

More information.

Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio

Award: $999,995

Project Title: Enhancing Communication to Reduce Health Risks of Wildland Fire Smoke Exposure Due to Prescribed Burns

Principle Investigator: Olorunfemi Adetona

Study Locations: Ohio, South Carolina, Virginia

Although prescribed burning is an essential land management tool, it contributes to air pollution in the United States. The goal of this project is to decrease smoke exposures and associated health impacts from prescribed burn events. The research team is using robust and innovative qualitative and quantitative methods to conduct formative research on health risk communication messaging, materials, and mechanisms related to prescribed bum events, which will inform the development and dissemination of a Risk Communication ToolKit that can be used to plan for and conduct health risk communication in communities surrounding prescribed burn events.

More information.

University of Colorado-Boulder, Boulder, Colorado

Award: $549,919

Project Title: Informing School Decision-Making During Wildfire Events: Evaluation of Indoor PM2.5 Exposures and Associated Health Impacts in Children

Principal Investigator: Colleen Reid

Study Location: Denver, Colorado

When wildfire smoke impacts a community, schools must determine whether to close and send students home based on whether schools or children’s homes are likely to have better indoor air quality. Many schools and communities, however, do not have information on PM2.5 levels inside and outside of their schools and homes to inform decisions about where students should shelter. The team will use low-cost air sensors to compare indoor school-day PM2.5 concentrations at homes and schools in the Denver area during wildfire season. The goal of this research project is to collect data to inform whether schools should stay open or closed during wildfire air pollution events.

More information.

University of Colorado-Boulder, Boulder, Colorado

Award: $549,000

Project Title: Assessing the Transport of Wildfire-Generated Particulate Matter into Homes and Developing Practical Interventions to Reduce Human Exposure (WildPM)

Principal Investigator: Marina Vance

Study Locations: Western U.S.

During a wildfire, some of the smoke from outdoors can enter homes and make it unhealthy to breathe indoor air, too. To protect people sheltering in homes during wildfire smoke events, the research team is assessing the transport of wildfire-generated particulate matter into single-family housing in the Western U.S. and developing practical interventions to help people reduce their indoor exposure to particulate matter from wildfires. The research team will evaluate the effectiveness of sustainable and practical interventions, including strategies in air cleaning, ventilation, and building sealing, in reducing indoor concentrations of particulate matter from wildfires.

More information.

Desert Research Institute

Award: $544,763

Project Title: Development, Implementation and Evaluation of Stakeholder-Driven Wildfire Smoke Monitoring and Messaging in Rural Nevada

Principal Investigator: Kristen Vander Mollen

Study Location: Northern Nevada

The goal of this project is to increase wildfire smoke risk mitigation in rural communities through the development, implementation, and evaluation of stakeholder-driven monitoring and messaging in Northern Nevada. The research team will evaluate the performance of selected portable air quality sensors; identify wildfire smoke risk knowledge gaps of emergency managers and the public; develop education materials for emergency mangers; and evaluate the effectiveness of in situ monitoring and messaging to mitigate wildfire smoke risk.

More information.

Stanford University, Stanford, California

Award: $999,846

Project Title: Evaluating the Effectiveness of Interventions on Reducing Wildfire Smoke Exposure and Health Risks in Low-Income Hard-to-Reach Communities in California

Principal Investigator: Gabrielle Wong-Parodi

Study Locations:  San Mateo County and Santa Clara County, California

In the western United States, wildfire smoke exposure increasingly threatens the health of low-income and non-English speaking communities. The team is researching affordable technology-and native language messaging-based interventions to decrease exposure to smoke and health risks among these communities during wildfires. Data will be collected and communicated through an innovative combination of a smartphone app (Stanford Smoke Study App, built from EPA’s Smoke Sense Platform) and air pollution exposure and health sensing devices. The goal of this project is to identify affordable and actionable intervention steps to reduce health impacts from smoke exposure for low-income, non-English speaking individuals and communities in northern California.

More information.

University of California – Berkeley, Berkeley, California

Award: $988,740

Project Title: Participatory Design of Effective Risk Communication About Wildfire Smoke for Hard-to-Reach Populations

Principal Investigator: Linda Neuhauser

Study Location: California

This project focuses on improving communication on the risks of wildfire smoke exposure to harder-to-reach populations including farmworkers, Tribal Nations, the deaf community and non-native English speakers in California. The research team is analyzing existing resources on the dangers of wildfire smoke exposure. Researchers are also working with these communities to develop high-quality risk communication resources and tested, sustainable strategies for large-scale and locally targeted dissemination strategies that can be used by communities and healthcare providers to protect people from the health impacts of wildfire smoke exposure.

More information.

Public Health Institute, Oakland, California

Award: $994,407

Project Title: Filtration for Respiratory Exposure to wildfire Smoke from Swamp Cooler Air (FRESSCA)

Principal Investigator: Gina Solomon

Study Locations: Fresno County and Kern County, California

In California’s San Joaquin Valley, the topography of the region traps smoke plumes from wildfires in both northern and southern California, resulting in extremely high particulate matter concentrations for many weeks each wildfire season. Agricultural workers may be disproportionately exposed to wildfire smoke because they work outdoors, and this exposure can continue after the workday ends if wildfire smoke infiltrates their homes. For this project, the research team is designing and field testing an affordable and effective filtration system for rooftop evaporative coolers, which are often used to cool homes without air conditioning in the region. The goal of the project is to create an affordable and effective filter that cleans the air and could be mass-produced for use in homes with evaporative coolers throughout the western U.S.

More information.

Portland State University, Portland, Oregon

Award: $547,899

Project Title: Household Atmospheric Dynamics under Elevated Smoke (HADES): Holistic Evaluation of Interventions for Reducing Indoor Levels of Wildland Fire Emissions

Principal Investigator: Elliott Gall

Study Location: Portland, Oregon

For this project, researchers are conducting field and laboratory measurements to holistically evaluate the effectiveness of recommended strategies to reduce indoor exposures to wildfire smoke. The research team is creating an Indoor Woodsmoke Dynamics (IWOOD) test facility to take measurements of airtightness, air exchange rate, and pollutant infiltration and penetration factors in homes. This will help improve the understanding of outdoor to indoor transport of gas and particle phase woodsmoke constituents in single-family detached homes. The team is also measuring the abundance and retention of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) on interior walls and evaluating the effectiveness of cleaning procedures. These chemicals can stick to indoor surfaces and slowly re-emit for months after a wildfire.

More information.

University of Washington, Seattle, Washington

Award: $548,537

Project Title: School Resilience to Wildland Smoke and Outdoor sources of Fine & Ultrafine Particles

Principal Investigator: Elena Austin

Study Locations: King County and Yakima County, Washington

The goal of the research is to enhance existing efforts taking place in Washington state to identify evidence-based solutions utilizing portable air cleaners (PACs) to improve indoor air quality in schools. Researchers are partnering with both urban and rural schools in Washington to implement a classroom-based Portable Air Cleaner (PAC) to reduce exposure to wildland fire smoke. The team will also work with schools to adapt an existing, hands-on air quality curriculum aimed at increasing environmental health literacy on the topic of ambient smoke, air quality and health.

More information.

Related Resources

The Re-Wind Network

Prototype tower from a decommissioned Clipper wind turbine blade at Georgia Tech (Photo credit: ReWind Network)

The goal of the Re-Wind Network is to compare sustainable end–of–life (EOL) repuposing and recycling strategies for composite material wind turbine blades.

Research is being conducted four areas:

  • Wind Energy and Society,
  • Design for the Built Environment,
  • Structural Mechanics, and
  • Geographic Information System (GIS).

The objective of this research is to develop a methodology for use by relevant stakeholders, which include national and local energy and waste management policy makers, wind energy company executives, wind turbine manufacturers, and installers and community members.

The network is a partnership between Georgia Tech, Queen’s University Belfast, The City University of New York, and University College Cork (Ireland). It’s funded by Investi/Department for the Economy, Science Foundation Ireland, and the U.S. National Science Foundation.

Webinar: An introduction to the Illinois Climate Assessment

May 17 @ noon
An introduction to the Illinois Climate Assessment
For webinar details, visit

May 17, 2021, noon-1 pm
More information

The climate in Illinois is changing rapidly. Illinois is already warmer and wetter than it was a century ago and climate change will continue to drive rapid changes across the state. A new report from The Nature Conservancy – the first-ever, comprehensive climate assessment for Illinois – details these changes and more. The report projects how temperature, precipitation, and extreme weather are expected to change and explores how the state’s key resources and sectors are likely to be affected by climate change.

Join us on Monday, May 17 to hear from leading climate experts and Illinois scientists about the results of the new report. Learn how predicted changes could affect Illinois, including impacts to water resources, agriculture, public health, and natural ecosystems.

Illinois State Climatologist Trent Ford will facilitate the panel, which includes the following presenters: 

  • Don Wuebbles, Professor of Atmospheric Science, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and co-author of the climate report
  • Jim Angel, former Illinois State Climatologist and co-author of the climate report
  • Momcilo Markus, Principal Research Scientist, Hydrology, Illinois State Water Survey
  • Ben Gramig, Associate Professor of Agricultural and Consumer Economics, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
  • Elena Grossman, Research Specialist, Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, University of Illinois Chicago School of Public Health
  • Jim Miller, Professor, Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

For more information on the report, please visit

Join Zoom Meeting (Meeting ID: 813 1897 9676; Password: 945509)

Join by Skype for Business

The Collective Effort to End Deforestation: A Pathway for Companies to Raise Their Ambition

Download the document.

In 2020, 687 companies reported through CDP on the steps they are taking to eliminate deforestation from their operations and supply chains. This report looks at data disclosed by 553 companies using or producing seven commodities responsible for the majority of agriculture-related deforestation: palm oil, timber products, cattle products, soy, natural rubber, cocoa and coffee.

These companies’ current governance, strategies and implementation measures are assessed against a series of industry-accepted measures to reduce deforestation, broken down into 15 Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and split into six categories. Based on their adoption of the KPIs, companies are also mapped onto a pathway towards deforestation-free markets and a forest-positive future, allowing companies to benchmark against peers and follow in the footsteps of pioneers.

It’s not just a social media problem – how search engines spread misinformation

Search engines often serve up a distorting blend of information and misinformation. Crispin la valiente/Moment via Getty Images, CC BY-ND

by Chirag Shah (University of Washington)

Search engines are one of society’s primary gateways to information and people, but they are also conduits for misinformation. Similar to problematic social media algorithms, search engines learn to serve you what you and others have clicked on before. Because people are drawn to the sensational, this dance between algorithms and human nature can foster the spread of misinformation.

Search engine companies, like most online services, make money not only by selling ads, but also by tracking users and selling their data through real-time bidding on it. People are often led to misinformation by their desire for sensational and entertaining news as well as information that is either controversial or confirms their views. One study found that more popular YouTube videos about diabetes are less likely to have medically valid information than less popular videos on the subject, for instance.

Ad-driven search engines, like social media platforms, are designed to reward clicking on enticing links because it helps the search companies boost their business metrics. As a researcher who studies the search and recommendation systems, I and my colleagues show that this dangerous combination of corporate profit motive and individual susceptibility makes the problem difficult to fix.

How search results go wrong

When you click on a search result, the search algorithm learns that the link you clicked is relevant for your search query. This is called relevance feedback. This feedback helps the search engine give higher weight to that link for that query in the future. If enough people click on that link enough times, thus giving strong relevance feedback, that website starts coming up higher in search results for that and related queries.

People are more likely to click on links shown up higher on the search results list. This creates a positive feedback loop – the higher a website shows up, the more the clicks, and that in turn makes that website move higher or keep it higher. Search engine optimization techniques use this knowledge to increase the visibility of websites.

There are two aspects to this misinformation problem: how a search algorithm is evaluated and how humans react to headlines, titles and snippets. Search engines, like most online services, are judged using an array of metrics, one of which is user engagement. It is in the search engine companies’ best interest to give you things that you want to read, watch or simply click. Therefore, as a search engine or any recommendation system creates a list of items to present, it calculates the likelihood that you’ll click on the items.

Traditionally, this was meant to bring out the information that would be most relevant. However, the notion of relevance has gotten fuzzy because people have been using search to find entertaining search results as well as truly relevant information.

Imagine you are looking for a piano tuner. If someone shows you a video of a cat playing a piano, would you click on it? Many would, even if that has nothing to do with piano tuning. The search service feels validated with positive relevance feedback and learns that it is OK to show a cat playing a piano when people search for piano tuners.

In fact, it is even better than showing the relevant results in many cases. People like watching funny cat videos, and the search system gets more clicks and user engagement.

This might seem harmless. So what if people get distracted from time to time and click on results that aren’t relevant to the search query? The problem is that people are drawn to exciting images and sensational headlines. They tend to click on conspiracy theories and sensationalized news, not just cats playing piano, and do so more than clicking on real news or relevant information.

Famous but fake spiders

In 2018, searches for “new deadly spider” spiked on Google following a Facebook post that claimed a new deadly spider killed several people in multiple states. My colleagues and I analyzed the top 100 results from Google search for “new deadly spider” during the first week of this trending query.

Distribution of search results for 'new deadly spider' on Google
The first two pages of Google search results for ‘new deadly spider’ in August 2018 (shaded area) were related to the original fake news post about that subject, not debunking or otherwise factual information. Chirag Shah, CC BY-ND

It turned out this story was fake, but people searching for it were largely exposed to misinformation related to the original fake post. As people continued clicking and sharing that misinformation, Google continued serving those pages at the top of the search results.

This pattern of thrilling and unverified stories emerging and people clicking on them continues, with people apparently either being unconcerned with the truth or believing that if a trusted service such as Google Search is showing these stories to them then the stories must be true. More recently, a disproven report claiming China let the coronavirus leak from a lab gained traction on search engines because of this vicious cycle.

Spot the misinformation

To test how well people discriminate between accurate information and misinformation, we designed a simple game called “Google Or Not.” This online game shows two sets of results for the same query. The objective is simple – pick the set that is reliable, trustworthy or most relevant.

A screenshot showing two sets of Google search results side-by-side
In tests, about half the time people can’t tell the difference between Google search results containing misinformation and those with only trustworthy results. Chirag Shah, CC BY-ND

One of these two sets has one or two results that are either verified and labeled as misinformation or a debunked story. We made the game available publicly and advertised through various social media channels. Overall, we collected 2,100 responses from over 30 countries.

When we analyzed the results, we found that about half the time people mistakenly picked as trustworthy the set with one or two misinformation results. Our experiments with hundreds of other users over many iterations have resulted in similar findings. In other words, about half the time people are picking results that contain conspiracy theories and fake news. As more people pick these inaccurate and misleading results, the search engines learn that that’s what people want.

Questions of Big Tech regulation and self-regulation aside, it’s important for people to understand how these systems work and how they make money. Otherwise market economies and people’s natural inclination to be attracted to eye-catching links will keep the vicious cycle going.

Chirag Shah, Associate Professor of Information Science, University of Washington

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Top Biden Climate Advisor, Others Preview 2021 Energy and Enviro News

Read the full story from the Society of Environmental Journalists.

White House climate advisor Gina McCarthy gave an exclusive preview of the Biden administration’s Jan. 27 rollout of climate initiatives to more than 1,100 journalists, environmental experts and others watching a virtual program organized the same day by Society of Environmental Journalists. 

The SEJ’s ninth annual Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment look-ahead event, entirely online due to the pandemic, was hosted for the second year by the National Geographic Society and co-sponsored with Wilson Center think tank, SEJ’s longtime event partner.

Climate Action For Christmas? Omnibus Bill Includes Biggest Policy Shift In Years

Read the full story from NPR.

The massive spending package just passed by Congress includes the most significant climate legislation in more than a decade, along with significant changes in energy policy.
It was easy to miss, nestled among pandemic relief payments, the annual spending bill, new Smithsonian museums and protection from surprise medical billing. But pull out the energy provisions alone, and the bill is remarkable: It includes $35 billion in funding for basic research, extensions of tax credits for renewable energy companies, and a long-delayed mandate to reduce the use of a particularly damaging greenhouse gas.

Solar Photovoltaic (PV) Recycling and Reuse Program

Download the document.

As is common with fast-growing markets, little thought has been given until recently to end-of-life disposal considerations for solar modules. Currently, solar disposal makes up only a small percentage of the number being installed, and the majority of disposal presently in the U.S. is due to damage to the panels during transportation and installation or from severe weather events.

The design life of a solar module is 30 years. In the next 5-10 years, states will begin to see a sharp spike in the number of modules that will need to be reused or recycled. Solutions include:

  • Early engagement on module takeback models with national, state, and local stakeholders
  • Feedback loops with public utilities and contractors for resource and system planning
  • Consideration for impacts on landfills, collection and transportation for reuse, recycling, and secondary material markets
  • Education and outreach to businesses & communities

Today’s dairy industry is creating tomorrow’s environmental solutions

Read the full story in GreenBiz.

The Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy has set new environmental stewardship goals to further the progress and commitment that dairy farmers and the broader dairy community have always had to responsible production. Goals to be achieved by 2050 focus on: 

  • Becoming carbon-neutral or better
  • Optimizing water use while maximizing recycling
  • Improving water quality by enhancing use of manure and nutrients

The Net Zero Initiative is an industry-wide effort that will play a key role in helping U.S. dairy continue to make progress toward greenhouse gas emissions reductions and significant improvements in water from field to farmgate through new technologies and practices in feed production, cow care, energy efficiency and manure management. In other words, Net Zero is the “how” behind the goals, especially when it comes to helping all size farms continue to adopt sustainable practices.

30 years of data show spotted turtle communities are still vulnerable

by Lisa Sheppard

A spotted turtle in water

Populations of the endangered spotted turtle in Illinois are holding up better than those in other states, based on 30 years of data at the University of Illinois. Still, only two populations remain, and the predictions are poor.

The small, semi-aquatic spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata) lives in sedge meadows, cattail marshes, and wet prairies, and in Illinois is found only in the northeast. Female turtles can live up to 110 years and reproduce all their adult lives.

Today, only two populations have survived. Researchers at the Natural History Survey (INHS) and the Forest Preserve District of Will County have collaboratively studied nearly 1,000 turtles in two communities since 1988.

In one population, population growth rates remained stable, but they declined slightly for the second, according to INHS ecologist Mike Dreslik. Despite threats from limited habitats, predators, poaching, and traffic, Illinois populations are not experiencing the steep declines occurring throughout the remainder of the turtle’s range in the United States.

Under the worst-case scenario, INHS scientists project both Illinois populations to decline in the future, with numbers bottoming out in 10 to 15 years for the more vulnerable community.

“The spotted turtle population doesn’t disappear from the landscape quickly, but when populations decline, they do take a long time to respond to conservation and recovery efforts,” Dreslik said. “You don’t want the populations to get below the threshold of no return. Our results show we have time to manage and recover the populations, but not too much time.”

The juvenile survival rate for the spotted turtle is fairly high compared to other turtle species, but management actions targeting adult survival will have the greatest impact on the population growth rate, Dreslik said. In Illinois, adult survival should be increased or at least maintained.

“If you lose one adult female, you not only lose 40 or so clutches she would have had in her lifetime, but you also lose the clutches her offspring would have produced,” Dreslik said. “The loss of just a few reproductive females could cause the population to decline.”

The positive outlook the results show is really a best-case scenario, according to Christina Feng, the primary author of the journal articles published in Diversity and in Herpetological Conservation and Biology.  

“With such high stakes for the species, we can’t assume persistence is guaranteed without intervention,” Feng said. “Conservation strategies need to be implemented immediately, if they have not been already, and they need to be ongoing.”

Some management actions involve predator control, such as controlling predator levels and increasing and restoring suitable habitat. The researchers also notch the turtles’ shells to monitor individuals over time, helping to discourage poaching.

It is highly unlikely the spotted turtle will ever fully recover in Illinois, given that only two populations remain and they are located close to each other. Local changes to the water supply or quality would affect both sites.

“Even if both existing populations were to double or triple in size, having more individuals doesn’t negate the fact only two populations have survived,” Feng said. “However, growing the populations will make the population at each site more secure against local extinction, which is a worthy goal on its own.”

Media contact: Mike Dreslik, 217-300-0970,

This post originally appeared on the Prairie Research Institute Blog. Read the original post here.

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