A team with chemistry

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Keenan Berry
  • 509th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
There are many hazardous materials capable of causing massive damage and hindering the mission. Exposure to hazardous materials could cause health related problems or even result in death. To prevent these possibilities, the 509th Medical Operations Squadron Bioenvironmental Engineering Flight works every day to find solutions to protect Whiteman from harm.

The bioenvironmental team identifies and quantifies potential threats and finds solutions to mitigate them, according to Tech. Sgt. Annemieke LeBorgne, Bioenvironmental NCO in Charge of Occupational Health.

"We do health risk assessments which identify hazards people may come in contact with," LeBorgne said. "We do air sampling in work centers to see if paints and other chemicals are over exposure limits. If they are, we will find a solution involving a respirator, ventilation system or finding another way to do the job to avoid exposure from the harmful elements. We also do noise surveys throughout the base to determine how loud it is within the work centers, which lets us know what kind of hearing protection or other controls are required."

To ensure they are on top of their game when entering hazardous situations, the bioenvironmental team, along with emergency management and other response agencies, conducts readiness training, according to Haugland.

"We conduct monthly training and exercises to ensure we are prepared," Haugland said. "This ensures each team knows their role when entering dangerous situations. We must always be aware that there may be additional hazards such as explosive devices that were overlooked."

The monthly training helps keep the teams ready in the case of real world incidents. In the event of an incident which may involve nuclear hazards, the bioenvironmental team uses a device known as a Radeco, a high volume air sampling pump, to capture airborne particles from radiation.

"We need to know how much radiation is in the air to inform people to stay clear of it," said LeBorgne. "We assess the situation to see what level of respiratory protection is needed or if any is needed at all."

If there is an unknown powder or liquid on base, the bioenvironmental team will respond using instruments capable of detecting, identifying, and quantifying exposure hazards. A device called the HazmatID can be used to identify powder or liquid agents by comparing a sample against a library of thousands of known compounds. A common scenario may also involve sampling for any volatile organic compounds (VOC) being released to the air.

"The instruments used to detect off-gas from the VOC are the TVA-1000 and the HAPSITE," said Haugland. "The TVA-1000 gives us a hit on whether or not something is there. The HAPSITE is used to identify and quantify the VOC.

In addition, the bioenvironmental team conducts routine water sampling for things such as pH, chlorine, and bacteria to ensure the base water supply is stable and safe to drink. The bioenvironmental team collects samples from specific monitoring points around the base that have been approved by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

"As an example, we do weekly pH testing of the water from different facilities around the base," said LeBorgne. "We put red solution into a bottle of collected water and shake it up to see what color it turns, determining the pH."

After the samples are collected, the bioenvironmental team will conduct some analysis in-house and send other samples to a state-certified laboratory for analysis. Results are entered into a database called the Defense Occupational and Environmental Health Readiness System, or DOEHRS, which is a DoD database, according to LeBorgne.

Additionally, all results are compiled and reported in an annual consumer confidence report.

The bioenvironmental flight must be ready to respond to hazardous situations at all times. In the event of a suspicious package, bioenvironmental engineering, along with the 509th Civil Engineering Squadron Fire and Emergency Services, 509th Civil Engineer Squadron Explosive Ordnance Disposal, 509th Security Forces Squadron and 509th Civil Engineering Squadron Emergency Management, must mitigate the hazard. The EOD team is the first to assess the package to ensure the scene is clear of explosive hazards. Once cleared of explosive concerns and the fire chief has given the signal, bioenvironmental and emergency management teams will use their equipment to detect any type of chemical, biological, or radiological threat, according to Staff Sgt. Tyler Haugland, bioenvironmental readiness and radiation program manager.

"Once we identify and quantify the level of hazard, we can give medics, other responders and commanders valuable information," Haugland said. "They can determine what type of medical treatment may be necessary for exposed individuals and can determine appropriate mitigation strategies to control the situation."

Bioenvironmental engineering is a diverse career field with many areas of technical expertise. Team members are charged with ensuring the health and safety of industrial workers and the broader base populace. Each member must be aware and attentive to every detail of the job. They must also be aware of the hazards they face and ensure they are wearing the proper personal protective gear to prevent exposures. When going out and surveying unknown response situations, there must be a sense of trust the team has with each other to do their job successfully.

"Each team member has a responsibility when we are out and about," said Haugland. "We are counting on each other to do their part and most importantly, ensure everyone is safe!"