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Air Force Bioenvironmental Engineers bring advanced exposure surveillance to the front lines

By Shireen Bedi | Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs | October 30, 2017

FALLS CHURCH, Va. -- Modern battlefields have many sources of potentially harmful airborne substances, but that is not the only place that Airmen can be exposed to harmful environmental factors. Air Force bioenvironmental engineers are developing technology to track, catalogue, and provide useful data about environmental exposures that will help identify battlefield threats in real time and inform Airmen of the everyday exposures that affect their health.

Understanding these exposures, whether they are from the battlefield, on the job, off-duty or even while asleep, is a critical piece of improving the readiness of the active duty force. With a better picture of exposures, doctors can better explain risks to patients, leaders can make more informed decisions on the battlefield, and Airmen can take control of their health.

“One of the challenges bioenvironmental engineers face is that they can usually capture only a very small sample of the various chemical, biological, and environmental agent we are examining,” said Col. Kirk Phillips, consultant to the Air Force Surgeon General for Bioenvironmental Engineering. “Often, the sample will also only be from a single location, and for a short time, not capturing a complete picture of the exposure risk.”

This leads to general assessments of risk based on an average, or potential exposures. According to Phillips, this data is often not refined enough to make important, fully informed medical decisions.

The Bioenvironmental Threat Surveillance system addresses this head on. The system works as an analytic platform, collecting various types of exposure data over a period of time. This lets bioenvironmental engineers get a better understanding of what impact a potential exposure might have on Airmen, as well as predict exposure risks of individuals throughout their work day or off-duty time.

When combined with one of many types of sensors such as a portable pathogen detection device that can collect small samples in combat settings, BETS can identify dangerous pathogens in real time. On the battlefield, this information can determine pathogen exposure risks for chemical or biological weapons, or other environmental risks, like from burn-pits.

“We are developing deployable technology to move the process of identifying dangerous exposures from the lab to the battlefield,” said Phillips. “Having this data helps commanders know what their troops are facing, and inform important decisions about health risks.”

BETS relies on sensors with its own situational awareness data analytics.  This converts sample information received in the field into exposure data. From this data, Air Force bioenvironmental engineers can create a more precise, predictive map to illustrate exposure trends.

“We as exposure scientists can apply this information to an individual and get a close, predictive estimate of exposure,” said Phillips. “For instance, if we know that you spent 10-12 hours working at a job location, then you are assigned to sleep at another location, and then you eat at a different location, I can capture most of your day. Now we can get a pretty close estimate of exposure just from knowing where you are. From that, quicker and more informed medical decisions can be made.”

Every base and deployed setting has different exposure risks. Monitoring devices used in each settings can vary based on the expected hazards are each area.

“Most Air Force bases largely deal with hazardous noise exposures mainly due to the aircrafts. Exposure data can easily be captured around the clock for individuals,” explains Lt. Col. Jung Lee, an expert in emergency and contingency bioenvironmental engineering operations for the Air Force. “From this information, we use this noise exposure information to create an acoustic map. That helps us see trends in something like hearing loss in Airmen, and can compare these maps between the bases.”

In addition to occupational hazards, there is a great value of this technology being used for identifying exposure to biochemical threats. The BETS system can attach to a variety of sensors and detect a wide range of potentially harmful exposures. Instead of building a new system for each substance, the core of it will integrate with any sensor each with its own unique algorithm.

“This technology will make collecting vital deployable exposure data significantly more accurate in combat and garrison settings,” said Phillips. “This is an important step towards making tomorrow’s military population healthier and safer for American forces.”

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