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Services Working on Ways to Beat Battlefield Environmental Hazards

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 21, 2003 – Military environmental health risk experts were unprepared in 1991 when Saddam Hussein ordered engineers to blow up hundreds of Kuwaiti oil wells. Over the next seven months, more than 1 billion barrels of oil went up in flames, some creating huge, dark soot plumes.

Kuwait and much of the Persian Gulf was shrouded in poisonous smoke, creating a large-scale environmental disaster and possible medical problems for U.S. troops breathing the contaminated air.

"We have preventive medicine specialists throughout the services, but they were concentrating on things like food, water, and basic sanitation and hygiene," said John Resta, director of health risk management at the Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. "The oil well fires showed us other hazards out there that we had not been prepared for, such as industrial chemicals, air pollution, and contaminated soil from hazardous waste disposal sites."

The center works to maintain the health of deployed troops by reducing the impact of potentially harmful environmental exposures. Teams are dispatched worldwide to provide technical expertise and services in the areas of occupational health, industrial hygiene, medical surveillance, laboratory work and health promotion. In addition to Aberdeen, the center has subcommands in Landstuhl, Germany; Camp Zama, Japan; Fort Meade, Md.; Fort McPherson, Ga.; and Fort Lewis, Wash.

In May 1991, the center sent an environmental surveillance team to Kuwait to investigate the occupational and environmental health hazards associated with the oil well fires, Resta noted.

"We were there through December, and we've been working that problem ever since," he said. "We're trying to access exposures, identify who may have been exposed, and look at what their health experiences have been since that time.

"At the same time, we've been spending a lot of time getting quicker response times," Resta said.

Since starting back in 1991 with Desert Storm, teams were deployed to Bosnia in 1996, Kosovo in 1999, and they've been to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia several times during the past decade.

"We're trying to get military preventive medicine personnel properly equipped and trained so they can assess conditions and advise their commanders of the risks posed by occupational and environmental health hazards during deployments," he noted. "It's an enhancement of the historical mission, which was being concerned with such things as disease-bearing insects, water and food contamination, and a lot of basic sanitation and hygiene."

Many changes in the way teams operate have been made since the Gulf War. "We're getting them equipment that's lighter, smaller, easier to use and doesn't require electrical power -- and it's cheaper," he said.

For example, he said, teams collected particulate samples to see what was in the soot being spewed during the 1991 Kuwait oil well fires. "We used a sampler that was about six feet tall, weighed about 130 pounds and required electrical power. Now we have a sampler that does the same things, but it weighs 18 pounds, runs on batteries and takes up one-fifth the space of the 1991 model," Resta said.

"Consequently, we can collect more samples over there using less airlift," he continued. "Today's sampler is easier to use, and we don't require all the logistical support of generators, electrical power sources and miles and miles of extension cords."

In 1991 Kuwait, collecting a water sample required a full- sized picnic cooler. The sample size was cut by taking analytical methods directed by the Environmental Protection Agency for use in the United States and minimizing the amount of sample needed, he said. "Instead of a coolerful of water that might weigh hundreds of pounds, a sample today is about the size of a six-pack. You don't need a Humvee to carry around a quart-and-a-half of water."

An environmental sampling backpack that preventive medicine personnel can carry with their other military gear is in the development pipeline for issue in 12 to 18 months, Resta advised. The pack has containers to collect soil and water samples and supplies used with the air sampler. It also has a maintenance and repair section with wrenches, voltmeters and other needed tools.

"We want the equipment to get them answers quicker, so we don't have to collect samples and ship them back to Germany or the United States for a laboratory analysis," he said. "Our next big goal is to be able to do more analyses in the field using simple technology "We want to use 'dipstick technology,' where you might dip a test strip or probe into a sample of water or soil and it would tell you what the contaminants are."

He noted the Army has a unit, the 520th Theater Army Medical Laboratory, which can take sophisticated analytical equipment into the field. Samples no longer have to be sent to a rear-area lab for analysis. The Navy and the Air Force are working the same kind of lab concept.

It took months to get test results during the Gulf War, Resta said, adding that by the time the findings were ready, the units had left the area.

"We've been working hard to reduce lag times," he said. "In some cases we've done very well. We're actually getting results in days. In other cases, it's weeks because of shipping problems, but it's still much faster than it was in 1991."

Results of tests are also being speeded up through the use of things like the Internet, secure Internet, e-mail and other various communication platforms, he noted.

Resta said DoD is concerned about both the short-term risks and hazards and the risks that could cause delayed health effects. "We didn't have that kind of policy requirement back in 1991," he said.

Specialists now identify occupational and environmental health hazards before troops land in a certain area. "So we can avoid highly hazardous areas if there are no military reasons to be in them," he explained. For example, he said, consider an industrial chemical manufacturing plant that has no military significance. "We'd just stay away and establish an exclusion zone around it."

Several other improvements and changes have been made since the Gulf War. "Laboratory analytical equipment is now computerized, so reports now come from the laboratory and go directly into computer databases for analysis," he said. "We don't have to wait for somebody to key in data and also don't have to worry them making errors while transcribing information."

Resta said another big center accomplishments is standardizing the way occupational and environmental health risk assessments are done. Commanders can be advised of these risks in the same kinds of terms they already know from reports on their safety and transportation risks," he noted.

His health advice to military personnel in the field is to practice good sanitation and hygiene, use insect repellent and treat their uniforms against insects, eat and drink only from approved sources and get plenty of sleep. For more information, including downloadable "Staying Healthy Guides" for troops deploying to 15 countries and seven regions worldwide, visit chppm-www.apgea.army.mil/deployment/ shg.asp. Users must have the Adobe Acrobat Reader, a free download at www.adobe.com.

Also at the same location are the general-purpose "Guide to Staying Healthy" and "A Soldier and Family Guide to Redeploying."

The Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine Web site is at chppm-www.apgea.army.mil.

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