Monday October 21, 2019

“EPA Will No Longer Fund Children’s Health Research”, Say Researchers

Research on children's health risks in doubt over EPA funds

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FILE - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sign is seen on the podium at EPA headquarters in Washington, July 11, 2018. VOA

Long-running research projects credited with pivotal discoveries about the harm that pesticides, air pollution and other hazards pose to children are in jeopardy or shutting down because the Environmental Protection Agency will not commit to their continued funding, researchers say.

The projects being targeted make up a more than $300 million, federally funded program that over the past two decades has exposed dangers to fetuses and children. Those findings have often led to increased pressure on the EPA for tighter regulations.

Children’s health researchers and environmental groups accuse the EPA of trying to squelch scientific studies that the agency views as running counter to the Trump administration’s mission of easing regulations and promoting business.

“A lot of the centers, including mine, have identified a lot of chemicals that are associated with diseases in children,” said Catherine Metayer, an epidemiologist who directs research into children’s leukemia at University of California at Berkeley through the federal program.

The EPA awarded smaller than average funding for the research grants for this year, asked Congress to cut funding for it from its budget, and has refused to commit to future funding for the program.

“The EPA anticipates future funding opportunities that support EPA’s high priority research topics, including children’s health research,” spokesman James Hewitt said, while declining to answer questions on the future for the national research projects.

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FILE – 15-month-old August Goepferd received the measles, mumps and rubella booster shot at a clinic at Children’s Minnesota in Minneapolis. VOA

Children’s centers at universities around the country typically get joint funding from the EPA and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in three- and five-year packages, with most packages running out in 2018 and 2019. With no word on future funding, researchers overall “have been kind of scrambling to find a way to continue that work which is so important,” said Tracey Woodruff, director of the children’s center at the University of California at San Francisco.

Woodruff’s federally funded work includes looking at how flame-retardant chemicals and PFAS compounds – a kind of stain-resistant, nonstick industrial compound – affect the placenta during pregnancy. The Trump EPA has come under increasing pressure from states to regulate PFAS as it shows up in more water supplies around the country.

With no news from the EPA on any more funding in the future, “we’ve been winding down for about a year” on work funded through those grants, Woodruff said. On Tuesday, a banner across a website home page for the overall children’s research declared “EPA will no longer fund children’s health research.”

The EPA and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences have jointly funded the children’s environmental health research since 1997, through grants to at least two dozen children’s environmental research centers around the country. The annual grants averaged $15 million through 2017. In the current fiscal year, the EPA contributed $1.6 million, agency spokeswoman Maggie Sauerhage said.

The research often involves enrolling women while they are still pregnant and then following their children for years, to study environmental exposures and their effects as children grow, said Barbara Morrissey, a toxicologist and chairwoman of the EPA’s Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee.

The long-term projects often produce much stronger results overall than one-off studies do, Morrissey said. Each children’s center funded by the grants also works to spread information about environmental threats to local health workers and to families.

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Children’s health researchers and environmental groups accuse the EPA of trying to squelch scientific studies that the agency views as running counter to the Trump administration’s mission of easing regulations and promoting business. VOA

The institute is under the National Institutes of Health, which has numerous other children’s environmental research studies underway but said with the EPA joint program left hanging, it was considering a new program to put lessons learned about pediatric risks into practice in communities.

EPA’s funding for the grants comes from the agency’s Science To Achieve Results, or STAR, program for research into environmental threats. The Trump administration 2020 budget request sought to eliminate funding for the STAR grants, and sought a nearly one-third cut in the EPA’s budget overall.

A House Appropriations subcommittee released its own budget proposal Tuesday to restore funding for the STAR grants and boost the agency’s overall budget from last year by 8%, rejecting the administration’s requests for cuts.

EPA spokespeople did not respond when asked why the EPA had asked Congress to end funding for the grant program, and whether the agency would commit to continuing the children’s health research if Congress overrides the EPA and restores funding for the grants, as expected.

The science journal Nature first reported funding concerns for the program. In a statement Tuesday, Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group said “crippling research to protect children’s health, while bowing to the agenda of the chemical industry, is the calling card of the EPA in the Trump administration.”

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Even if the administration restores funding to previous levels, for one year or several years, the time span of grant cycles and grant-funded work means that uncertainty over continued federal support is making the intended multiyear research untenable, researchers and program supporters said.

“The whole point of these children’s centers is to be following children over time,” Morrissey, the chairwoman of the advisory committee to the EPA, said. “That’s why it’s so high-quality.” (VOA)

Next Story

New Interface That Allows Phone to ‘Feel’ Sensations just as Human Skin

In the study, the researchers created a phone case, computer touch pad and smart watch to demonstrate how touch gestures on the Skin-On interface can convey expressive messages

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Human Skin
The "Skin-On" interface, mimics human skin in appearance but also in sensing resolution. Pixabay

Researchers have developed a new interface that allows phones, wearables or computers to “feel” sensations such as tickling, caressing, twisting and even pinching just as the human skin does.

The “Skin-On” interface, mimics human skin in appearance but also in sensing resolution.

In the study, the researchers created a phone case, computer touch pad and smart watch to demonstrate how touch gestures on the Skin-On interface can convey expressive messages for computer mediated communication with humans or virtual characters.

The researchers demonstrated that tickling the skin can generate a laughing emoji on a phone, while tapping it can create a surprised emoji.

“One of the main use of smartphones is mediated communication, using text, voice, video, or a combination,” said lead author of the study Marc Teyssier from Telecomm ParisTech in France.

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The artificial Skin allows devices to ‘feel’ the user’s grasp — its pressure and location, and can detect interactions such as tickling, caressing, even twisting and pinching. Pixabay

“We implemented a messaging application where users can express rich tactile emotions on the artificial skin. The intensity of the touch controls the size of the emojis. A strong grip conveys anger while tickling the skin displays a laughing emoji and tapping creates a surprised emoji” Teyssier said.

The study scheduled to be presented at the 32nd ACM User Interface Software and Technology Symposium to be held in New Orleans in the US from October 20-23 takes touch technology to the next level.

The researchers adopted a bio-driven approach to developing the multi-layer, silicone membrane. This is made up of a surface textured layer, an electrode layer of conductive threads and a hypodermis layer.

Not only is the interface more natural than a rigid casing, it can also detect a plethora of gestures made by the end-users.

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Touch gestures on the Human Skin-On interface can convey expressive messages for computer mediated communication with humans or virtual characters. Pixabay

As a result, the artificial skin allows devices to ‘feel’ the user’s grasp — its pressure and location, and can detect interactions such as tickling, caressing, even twisting and pinching.

“This is the first time we have the opportunity to add skin to our interactive devices. The idea is perhaps a bit surprising, but skin is an interface we are highly familiar with so why not use it and its richness with the devices we use every day?” said University of Bristol Professor Anne Roudaut who supervised the research.

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“Artificial skin has been widely studied in the field of robotics but with a focus on safety, sensing or cosmetic aims. This is the first research we are aware of that looks at exploiting realistic artificial skin as a new input method for augmenting devices,” Teyssier said. (IANS)