Group Works to Minimize Deployment Health Threats
By Staff Sgt. Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md., Oct. 6, 2000 A group of people at this small base in rural Maryland are working hard to ensure U.S. service members are safe from environmental threats even in the most remote overseas locations.
Lawrence Clark, a chemist at the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., connects a summa canister to a Tekmar autocan system. The canisters are used to collect air samples in deployment locations. The autocan system then introduces the samples into a state-of-the-art analytical system. Photo by Staff Sgt. Kathleen T. Rhem, USA.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The Deployment Environmental Surveillance Program at the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine here works with commanders to identify and minimize health threats in areas where American troops deploy.
In recent years, service members have faced such diverse environmental threats as oil fires in Kuwait, industrial air pollutants in Bosnia and Kosovo, and contaminated water in Haiti, said program manager John Resta.
Resta said one team goal is to identify potential hazards in an area and get that information to military planners and commanders. He said his team works with intelligence assets, including the Armed Forces Medical Intelligence Center in Fort Detrick, Md., to identify areas that pose the greatest risks.
"Most of the time, our units are working in areas where the environmental conditions are not as good as they are here in the United States," Resta said. "We want our units to be able to try to avoid those areas, and we provide them personal protective measures in the event they can't avoid those areas because of military necessity."
The most recent surveillance example is Kosovo. Environmental health experts, working with intelligence experts, pinpointed 15 places U.S. troops should avoid in the province. "Right now in Kosovo, U.S. forces are not adjacent to these industrial facilities," Resta said. "Some of our (NATO Kosovo Force) partners, however, are (in them) and are having problems as a result."
Once troops deploy into an area, the Deployment Environmental Surveillance Program works with preventive medicine units deploying with troops to provide advice and guidance, lend equipment and provide laboratory support. The program manages extensive laboratories in Maryland, Germany and Japan.
"They collect samples and ship them back to our laboratories. We'll conduct analyses with very sophisticated equipment and provide them with the results and our interpretation of the results," Resta said. "They then go back to the commander and make recommendations about how to reduce risks. The commander selects a course of action and puts it into an operational order."
Resta's program also works to minimize the risk of insect- borne illnesses. "Insects are one of the main sources of illness and injury that militaries have faced historically since Alexander the Great," he said, specifically citing malaria-bearing mosquitoes and ticks that carry Lyme disease.
Disease remains an issue even in modern military operations. He noted, for instance, how several Marines serving in Somalia contracted dengue fever, an incurable, insect-borne illness. They hadn't used the insect repellents provided to them.
Resta stressed his team's efforts don't release troops from being responsible for their own health and safety. "The environment can hurt troops, and they need to take the responsibility to protect themselves," he said. "They need to do the things we taught them in basic training -- stay in shape, get plenty of rest, only eat and drink from approved sources, use insect repellent and wash their hands."
These measures should protect troops from most threats they'd face, Resta said, but they should talk out their concerns with preventive medicine specialists at the deployment location. Deployed service members should also never assume their leaders know about hazardous situations.
"If they see something amiss -- they're on patrol, for instance, and come across a warehouse full of abandoned, rusted out drums -- they need to make sure their leadership knows about it," Resta said. "People need to start looking at environmental threats just like they might look at finding a mine in the road or an enemy gun emplacement somewhere in your area of operations."
Providing information about potential threats -- even notifying individuals if there is no serious threat -- is a critical aspect of minimizing deployment health threats, he said.
"There are people who are very concerned about these issues, even if they haven't gotten sick," Resta said. "Sometimes we need to make sure people understand that even though something looks dirty, it's not necessarily causing them a health risk. Sometimes that's as important to people's peace of mind as knowing something is there."