The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) is pleased to submit the following testimony on the Fiscal Year (FY) 2008 appropriation for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) research and education programs. The ASM is the largest single life science organization with more than 42,000 members. The ASM mission is to enhance the science of microbiology, to gain a better understanding of life processes, and to promote the application of this knowledge for improved health and for economic and environmental well-being.
The EPA relies on sound science to safeguard both human health and the environment. The EPA Office of Research and Development (ORD) sponsors leading-edge research that provides the solid underpinning of science and technology for EPA regulatory and public outreach activities. ORD conducts research on ways to prevent pollution, protect human health, and reduce risk. The work at ORD laboratories, research centers, and offices across the country helps improve the quality of air, water, soil, and the way we use resources. Optimal EPA oversight clearly depends upon the Agency’s access to scientific expertise and its ability to respond quickly to our changing environment.
The ASM is very concerned with the diminishing budget for EPA’s research and development programs. The FY 2008 budget request for the ORD is $540 million, a 9 percent, or a $55 million, decrease from FY 2006. This cut will further erode the scientific foundation, which is critical to EPA’s abilities to make science-based decisions on regulations designed to protect human health and the environment. The ASM urges Congress to provide at least $595 million for the ORD in FY 2008, the same as the funding level provided in FY 2006.
STAR Grants and Fellowships
The proposed budget decreases for ORD include a reduced level of spending for the Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program. The ORD budget proposes only $62 million for STAR, a 4.6 percent reduction from FY 2007, cutting the program for the sixth consecutive year. The ASM urges Congress to increase funding for the STAR grants program to at least the FY 2002 level of $102 million. Reductions in the STAR program will severely limit the ability of EPA to draw upon critically needed scientific expertise from the academic community, a valuable source of research insights and personnel for EPA programs. For the third straight year, EPA’s research campus in Research Triangle Park, NC, is ranked among the top three institutions in the United States for postdoctoral fellows to work, yet the ability of EPA to support these important young scientists is diminishing.
Limited funding for STAR will diminish US competitiveness in environmental research, training, and development of new technologies for solving environmental problems. The STAR program revitalizes all areas of EPA research and fosters workforce development in environmental science and technology through fellowships. In December 2006, EPA reported results from several STAR-funded studies on biomarkers—substances or processes that can be measured in biological samples like blood and that indicate toxic exposure or predict disease. Extramural researchers confirmed that easy-to-collect saliva can be used to assay pesticide exposure in children and adults; other grantees used biomarkers to demonstrate that specific insect management techniques effectively reduce prenatal pesticide exposure. Other high-priority strategies within the STAR program include funding climate change studies with grants administered through EPA’s Global Climate Research Program in two principal areas: assessments of consequences of global climate change and human dimensions research.
Indoor Air Quality
One impact of cuts to ORD over the last several years includes the loss of capacity for research on indoor air quality. This is an important issue because we spend 80 percent or more of our time indoors and climate changes will likely affect indoor air quality in yet unpredictable ways. Funding needs to be restored for this important program.
Climate change affects all of earth’s biota, including microbes that often dominate the living mass of many ecosystems. The potential effects of climate change include sea level rise, shrinking glaciers, changes in the range and distribution of plants and animals, changes in plant and animal life cycles, changes in the water (or hydrologic) cycle and thawing of permafrost. The impact of these changes on microbial activities is often unpredictable, but the central role of microbes in the mobilization and toxicity of selenium, arsenic and mercury provides apt examples of the potential for deleterious outcomes if microbial activity is altered by climate change. Because microbes play major roles in water quality, environmental integrity and human health, it is essential that the EPA retain and expand its ability to support research on climate change and subsequent impact on both beneficial and pathogenic microorganisms.
The ASM is concerned with the proposed 9 percent cut to the Global Change research program at ORD because it is clear that certain diseases and pathogens are sensitive to climate changes. Since 1995, Lake Erie has experienced a microcystis algal outbreak every summer; scientists have concluded that the warmer the water temperature, the more extensive the outbreak. Although the toxic algae can be filtered out of drinking water, microcystis can kill fish and birds, and coastal communities often ban swimming and water skiing when the algae bloom. Heavy rainfall has been associated with waterborne disease outbreaks throughout the United States, while outbreaks of vector-borne diseases like encephalitis have been linked to a pattern of warm winters and hot dry summers. As global temperatures rise, the incidence of malaria and other serious diseases, some of which are currently limited to tropical latitudes, could expand significantly in incidence and geographic distribution. Public health officials elsewhere are reporting unusually high incidences or new geographic locations of diseases like ciguatera poisoning (toxic algae in marine fish), Lyme disease, and hemorrhagic dengue fever, which officials suspect might be linked to climate changes. Global climate experts predict even more striking changes in infectious diseases as global temperatures rise and regional climate patterns change.
The climate research programs at ORD can provide valuable information necessary for prevention of, response to, and recovery from changing patterns of pathogens and disease. Last December, the EPA released a draft document on its review of the impact of climate variability and changes in aeroallergens in the United States (pollens, molds and indoor allergens), concluding that climate changes likely will increase allergy-related issues. In 2006, the Agency completed a study of publicly owned water treatment systems in the Great Lakes Region, finding that climate change could have significant effect on pollutant discharge.
Clean and Safe Water
Congress has mandated that the EPA ensure the safety of our drinking and recreational waters, an enormous regulatory and assessment task that relies on sufficient EPA funding and personnel resources. The ASM supports the proposed 7 percent and 10 percent increases for the Drinking Water and Water Quality programs at ORD, respectively. It is imperative that the EPA continue to: develop analytical methods for accurately measuring contaminant levels in drinking water and surface water; ensure proper certification and assessment of laboratories that analyze drinking-water samples; conduct research that strengthens the scientific basis for standards that limit public exposure to contaminants; and assess, restore and protect aquatic systems. Topics of growing concern include, among others, the dissemination into the environment through water and wastewater treatment systems of diverse anthropogenic compounds, such as pharmaceuticals and estrogens or estrogen-like compounds. These compounds are now ubiquitous, but their fates in the environment and impacts on humans and other organisms are inadequately known.
EPA researchers have aggressively sought improved techniques for water quality assessment, building “toolkits” of assays and computational models that can be used by local and state public health officials. Recent examples include a new rapid DNA analysis to quantify enterococci and bacterioides bacteria in water, reducing the time for detecting these sewage contaminants from 24 hours to just two and making possible same-day decisions on beach warnings or closings—some of the first research findings from a multi-year water study being conducted jointly by the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Other current ORD research efforts include developing laboratory cell lines and assays to measure chemical interactions with human hormone receptors and using new genomics technologies to assess risks from widely used conazole fungicides. Last year, the Agency, in collaboration with other federal agencies, launched the Harmful Algal Blooms Observing System in South Florida, the first component of a planned surveillance network to rapidly identify and track red tide outbreaks in ocean waters.
Water and Wastewater Infrastructure
In order to provide safe and secure drinking water for its citizens, the nation must improve the sustainability and energy efficiency of its water distribution systems from sources to “sinks”. Energy efficiency is an important but often overlooked consideration. At present, the nation’s water distribution infrastructure consumes approximately 5 percent of total electricity use. The development of non-fossil fuel energy sources for water distribution can not only contribute to a more secure water supply, but can also contribute to the nation’s energy security. Coupling microbial activity during wastewater treatment to electricity generation provides one example for increasing energy efficiency.
Researchers, supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), have made great strides in advancing the technology of microbial fuel cells to benefit wastewater treatment plants. Microbial fuel cells work through the action of bacteria, which can produce electricity in fuel cells. In the process, the bacteria consume organic matter in the wastewater and thus, improve water quality. This approach uses the bacteria that naturally occur in wastewater, requiring no special bacterial strains or unusual environmental demands. The benefit of microbial fuel cell applications is that while they generate electricity, they purify wastewater, a goal of wastewater treatment facilities that usually requires the consumption of energy.
The ASM urges Congress to support a collaborative relationship between the EPA and the Department of Energy (DOE), the NSF, and the USDA to explore energy production from waste treatment, and to develop mechanisms for improving energy efficiency in water distribution.
Sound science is necessary for the protection of human health and the environment. The ORD is an integral component for conducting research needed to answer many of the challenges we face, such as climate change, and clean and safe water. The ASM urges Congress to provide at least $595 million for the ORD and $102 million for the STAR program in FY 2008.
The ASM appreciates the opportunity to provide written testimony and would be pleased to assist the Subcommittee as it considers the FY 2008 appropriation for the EPA.