Long Term Exposure to Contaminants Used in Life Support

There is always talk about the contaminants we were subjected to as we went about performing our daily military duties.  Agent Orange and asbestos have been at the top of the list, but what about some of the others?  Do you remember replacing the helmet edge beading and using toluene/MEK to remove the left-over glue from the helmet?  Did you get to pour any custom helmet liners? I always said the jury is out on the long-term effects of exposure to the chemicals used in the pouring of those helmet liners and now the results may have finally surfaced.

Below is a comment from Linda Diemer (formerly Bloomer) who believes she’s suffering from exposure to those chemicals. Provide me with your comments below especially if you share a similar experience.

Linda’s comments are as follows:

Based on my research and a recent meeting with my Pulmonologist, the industrial exposure during the foam liners and other solvents, etc. definitely contributed to my early lung disease. That I was a smoker didn’t help. 

I want to poll the group to get a feel for the scope of this issue.

31 replies on “Long Term Exposure to Contaminants Used in Life Support”

Linda,
I poured many a liner, used MEK on cleaning helmet edges to apply that yellow creamy glue that if you didn’t take breaks you would get light headed. We used MEK on floors that were asbestos tile and in our hangar next door that I am sure had asbestos.
That all said thank the Lord I don’t believe I ran into issues you are experiencing. My lung problems were caused by other issues.
I wish you the best and will keep you in my prayers 🙏🙏
God Bless
JP

Chief, during my 25+year career in the AF, all spent in Life Support, I do remember quite well the various chemicals and hazardous materials that we were exposed to. Fortunately for myself I’ve been spared (at this time) from any illnesses while performing my duties as a life support specialist. I pray that all past and current Life Support personnel who may be suffering ill health as a result of being exposed will be able to seek immediate help, care and assistance they need to get back to a somewhat normal way of life.

I too used all that stuff and as a young Airman 2nd class would dip MEK out of 55 gallon drums to clean helmets prior to painting them the squadron colors. Was exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam and now suffer from COPD however, the VA is dealing with all of that and doing the best they can with what they have to work with.

Thank you for responding to our request. I know how awful COPD is and how it controls all aspects of daily life.
Linda

Don’t forget Methyl Ethyl Keytone (MEK), and fiberglass during the modification of hard pan seat survival containers. Paint fumes from flight helmet personalization and others too numerous to mention.

Good Afternoon. In addition to what folks may be experiencing, there may be other factors that are unanswered. I speak of AAAF fire suppression solvents that have entered local aquifers, contaminated on base wells and have migrated out into many local communities. Willow Grove NAS, Pa. has a particular problem. To research, look at the Intelligencer News Publication for the article UNWELL WATER, By Kyle Bagenstose. The issue is PFOA’s that are polymers referred to as forever chemicals. These elements are suspected to be linked to several serious health issues including immunology deficiencies and cancers. I have been involved since 2016 and somewhat of an expert where former employees and Veterans were unknowingly subjected to the solution conditions and as of today will not be covered if a VA claim is initiated. For Linda, be sure to include your issues on your VA appointment schedule and your local physician. As of 2016, the American Legion has made a resolution to have former employees to be screened and tested for such exposure. Should anyone wish to contact me, I am willing to share my email. [email protected]. and we can connect and talk. It is not just about 10% at the local store to honor your service. All of this was as a result of the work environment and should, be honored and covered by the employer. Thank you to the ALS staff or their efforts on our behalf.
Joe McGrath, MSgt., (ret)
913AW/913MSX/327AS
Willow Grove, ARS, Pa. (BRAC-2005)
Former employee, 1973-2007

Hey, Joe!
First, thanks for adding your comments! I appreciate your stepping up and having your voice heard. So, for me it was 16 years of drinking the water at Willow Grove ARS. Now we find that the water at Dover AFB is just as contaminated! And, leadership had been silent about it. They should, at the very least, disable every drinking fountain on base, then come up with a plan to further minimize exposure.
Every single one of the stories you hear from Aircrew Life Support technicians about exposure to MEK, Toluene, Xylene, and those chemicals used in the poured helmet liners is my story as well. Plus, let’s not forget the chemicals in the Chemical Detector paper and tape. We provided Chemical Defense Training to our aircrew members, and used operational M-9 paper/tape during that training. We were never informed that the coating on this paper was carcinogenic!
Well, I have finally had the VA provide me with a disability rating for chronic headaches. I provided a complete list of all the chemicals that I used throughout my career, and I suppose there is now merit to these chemicals causing health problems.

I too was stationed at Willow Grove 1972 to 2005. Drank plenty of water there. I’m still trying to find out about testing since I now live in Florida. I worked in parachute and life support shops 1979 to 1988. Used contact cement, MEK, spray paint, and poured many helmet liners.

Good Evening, Nice response to the original thread. All must remember to have any medical personnel, VA or Civilian be aware of your career history. I also wish to correct myself. I called the solution used in fire fighting as AAAF. The correct acronym is AFFF. Please note and welcome you to do some research as the results may apply to you. Happy belated 4th of July to all.
Joe McGrath

Good Evening, Nice response to the original thread. All must remember to have any medical personnel, VA or Civilian be aware of your career history. I also wish to correct myself. I called the solution used in fire fighting as AAAF. The correct acronym is AFFF. Please note and welcome you to do some research as the results may apply to you. Happy belated 4th of July to all.
Joe McGrath

Fortunately my health is pretty good considering all the helmet chemical pours we did in the 70’s and 80’s. That mix was chemically very similar to cyanoacrylates (super glue).
Another item we used in Life Support was ‘Phisohex’ liquid soap for disinfecting O2 masks. About the mid-1970s they reformulated it to remove a chemical I think it was hexachlorphene which can cause skin rashes, allergies, and possibly worse. Lots of Life Supporters used this stuff.
We probably all used acetone or MEK to prep helmet shells for repaint, and prior to the 1980’s protective gear was pretty basic, maybe goggles for the eyes (just don’t breathe while your working!). I never had a respirator or even a basic mask during my years doing this work, and this stuff wasn’t really a concern of base safety office or hospital environmental staffs.
Finally, sanding helmets releases paint, primer, and other fibers into the air for entry into the lungs or eyes.
Best of luck and good health to you all, Mark.

PD 680, the military nomenclature for Mineral Spirits was the prescribed cleaning/de-greasing agent for hardware assemblies on the CNU-111/P Survival Kit installed in the F-4E Phantom II. Prior to the introduction of HAZMAT programs with strict compliance to MSDS’s, we Life Supporters handled and stored that stuff like it was soapy water. Only later in my career did I realize the dangers it posed to respiratory and skin contact. Shame on me I guess.

Sorry to hear about Linda. We all got exposed daily. I know we had procedures and exhaust fans but if you spent too long in the helmet room it was headache, nausea, runny nose, burning throat, etc. I have COPD as well.

There was also a message that came down sometime between 88-92 regarding the Vermiculite that was used in shipping some items in, we also used Vermiculite in the PC Kits as an absorbent on our C-130s. But it was determined to be a carcinogenic, but they told us we didnt use the bad stuff.

There was an issue with the chemicals used on the Wash Rack, the Maintainers later had to wear PPE. I remember crawling onto a bird on the Wash Rack several times.

The old green floor tiles aka Creech Green tiles contained asbestos. If you were stationed overseas a lot of the European buildings had asbestos. Our original LS shop at Rhein Main was a WWII German building, when Environmental condemned the building the asbestos insulation on the wiring was literally melting off.

As mentioned MEK, Naphtha, Chemical Pour Liners, Lensatic Compasses. I had to be tested after reaching into a ML-4 kit and grabbing hold of a leaking compass, with a cracked lense.

What about the different adhesives we used, there was the rubber cement, and then the 3M spray glue. What was the powder used on rafts? Was it similar to talc powder?

That’s about all I can think of right now, off the top of my head.

My issue comes down to I was a smoker, so any and all issues I have are automatically considered smoking related. IE bladder cancer, COPD, cardiac issues, upper respiratory issues, even unexplained skin rashes they try to pass off on smoking.

Michael C. Bernhardt
TSgt, USAF Retired
Aircrew Life Support
1986-2008

Served at Beale AFB California 74 to 76. Created the custom helmets using the foam chemical mix. What are the reported health issues and side effects reported if any for the persons involved with custom helmet production. Thanks for your feedback.

I went in in ’83 and I’m pretty sure no-one was stressing PPE until the early-mid ’90’s. We all went about our day doing our jobs like the good airmen we were. MEK, Toulene, Krytox/Halo Carbon, glues, alcohol and the list goes on. Fingers dried out regularly, and those rooms we used for the helmet pours were not usually the biggest or most ventilated in the shop. I don’t even want to talk about the beating my knees took closing CNU-129/P kits. We dealt with a lot of hazardous crap back in the day, but it seems like someone will always find a way to point the finger back at us for what we were ordered to do. I’ve got issues, fortunately no lung issues, but I really haven’t narrowed them down to specific procedures in my career.

The metal cleaner I used in Germany to clean F-4 CNU-111/P kits were very toxic. Now they do not even use it any more.

Just wanted to say I was at Griffiss, AFB, with luck I was in the RADC, life Support shop, but five of my friends were in the SAC shop. There were lots of pipes covered with “asbestos” and five of my friends passed away from cancer, and three of then did not smoke, or drink.

I Served Active Duty 1971-1993 and as a Civilian Life Supporter (AFE) 1997-2014. Active duty, I Poured helmet liners, cleaned helmet surfaces to attach molded edge beadings. Glued the foam and leather to the liners. (MEK, Adhesive 5050, Adhesive 129, alcohol) Washed and disinfected O2 Masks. (Alcohol, Benzoconim chloride, Phisohex soap). Glued neck wrist seals to anti-exposure coveralls. (Adhesive 5050, Alcohol). Repaired Life Rafts, LPU’s using the same Adhesives.
Civilian career used the Adhesive 5050 again on helmet edge beadings. Then I developed Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (2011). Chemo six cycles (12 treatments) worked for me and I’ve been Cancer dormant since then.
The 5050 Adhesive is banned in California because of its carcinogenic components. The numbers with the adhesives are from either the MIL SPEC or the NSN as far as I can remember.
I will also agree with others that my knees are shot because of all of the Koch survival kits I closed with LRU-3, 3A/P and 16P life rafts.

Early on with the Titan II it was hydrazine and udmh which we were all around. Yes and the mek and others.

I know when they came down and changed the way the hard kits were closed, I was working on OV-10s at the time, which was a modified CNU-129/P kit if I recall.

Anyways our flight surgeon actually suggested and did annotate the previous method of closing kits in our medical records. He said we’d need it later for VA disabilty, as our knees wouid be shot. Smart doc with some serious forward thinking.

Our flight surgeon at the time was a Capt Nguyen. The stuff you can remember from 30 years ago, yet I couldn’t tell you what CINC Household told me 15 minutes ago.

Michael C. Bernhardt
TSgt, USAF Retired
Aircrew Life Support
1986-2008

I’ve been very fortunate not to have come down with any serious illnesses from working Life Support from 1971-1991. My heart goes to all those that are suffering from all the chemicals we were exposed to daily as well as the clouds of Talc and gray spray paint floating around our shops. The MEK & Toulene were the worst but there were lots of other hazards as well as. I’m sure the soft ops facilities at Ramstein we worked in for years were built after WWII and I’m sure they were full of asbestos.

The following is from an e-mail from MSgt (Ret) Erik Burney to Chief (Ret) Steve Wyatt and it reads as follows:

For much of 1985 through 87 we were deep into the conversion to the 55/P. In the spring of 86, as a stop gap, we were modifying 26/P shells into 48/Ps. I personally built 12 of them which was a great experience, but I stripped the glue and paint off at least 50 shells.

We used MEK. The lion’s share of this work was done by me and another airman. My shop issued us gloves but they fell apart after a few minutes. The stripping of shells was an all-day job 2 or 3 days a week for about a month. By the 2nd week our hands were cracked and bleeding.

After the paint stripping, we used a bench grinder with a plastic cutting wheel to remove fiberglass from the crown and nape areas, and of course we drilled the perimeter holes for sewing on the hand cut edgeroll leather.

Other than the junky gloves we had no other PPE.

In 2000, while at Mtn Home I was diagnosed with Pulmonary Sarcoidosis—it’s a progressive lung disease triggered by foreign particles stuck in the lungs. When the body can’t cough up the foreign matter it encapsulates it in scar tissue. In sarcoid patients, once that scarring begins it continues into healthy tissue. Kind of like the way frost spreads across a window pane.

I permanently lost 10% of my lung capacity.

I’m pretty sure my duties had an impact on my lungs.

The good news is I was asymptomatic at the time of my diagnosis and the disease has not progressed since. The bad news is it’s incurable and could flare up at any time and slowly kill me.

Otherwise, all is well.

Thank you all for your responses. For those who have their own experiences, please keep those cards and letters coming.
I am gathering data to request the VA conduct a aircrew equipment career field survey of all services related “MOS’s.”

Hopefully we can document the true scope of exposure related health issues.

Thanks again,
Linda Diemer

Hi Linda, Still here in WV ANG but yes back at my days at Keesler 1983-1990 I poured and cleaned many a Helmet and leathered many a liner, no known effects to date but that can change, fingers crossed. Glad to see someone is pursuing this. In today’s culture we have to turn in even an acid brush that touches any glue but back then we had our hands in all of these types of hazards with no protection or caution. I can remember many days trying to scrape Helmet foam off my skin after it dried.

Linda, I do remember the days of asbestos in buildings, using MEK daily
and almost passing out, don’t know what benzalkonium Clohride did for health problems and around agent orange in Thailand. Somewhere along the line, I developed CPOD, diabetes type 2, and allergies to many aerosols. Cleaning helmets, pouring helmets, and camouflaging helmets I feel was a hazard with the chemicals we used in the process. Good luck with your claim.

The following article was in today’s (Saturday, July 11, 2020) Victorville’s Daily Press newspaper:

Former George Air Force Base residents file claim, intend to sue the government over alleged exposure to toxins

Lisa McCrea arrived at Victorville’s George Air Force Base in 1987 a healthy and pregnant military wife.
But within the first month, McCrea — who was 19 at the time — said her body “just didn’t feel right.”
“Something was off,” she said.
Four months into her pregnancy, she suffered a miscarriage that she said almost killed her. A base doctor said that her uterus had been “full of tumors.”
After she left the base in 1991 — a year before it officially closed — she said she continued to suffer from various symptoms and “just got sicker and sicker and sicker.”
Now in her early-50s, McCrea estimates she has at least 40 different medical conditions, including lupus, Parkinson’s disease, and fibromyalgia.
As president of the Military Accountability and Transparency Alliance, or MAATA, she and about 1,600 others who served or lived on George AFB believe they were unknowingly exposed to toxic chemicals and radiation, and as a result, are plagued with the aftereffects.
The group filed an administrative claim on June 30 against the federal government, which serves as notification of their intent to sue.
The U.S. Air Force did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Environmental contamination
The fighter jet base was declared a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1990. The agency has, so far, identified more than 30 contaminants of concern at the site that “pose an unacceptable risk to human health or the environment,” and are present in the soil, solid waste, and groundwater.
They include a 600-acre plume of trichloroethylene, or TCE — a solvent used to de-grease metal parts and known to be a human carcinogen — and about two million gallons of disposed jet fuel in an area turned over to state oversight in 2005.
In March 2018, the Department of Defense reported to Congress that at least 401 active and shuttered military installations, including George, were found or suspected to have released chemicals known as perfluoroalkyl substances.
The chemicals are used for a variety of purposes, including in the foam for firefighting at airfields.
At 22 monitoring wells on George AFB, Department of Defense officials found 14 with the chemicals present in the water at levels ranging from 87 to 5,396 parts per trillion — above the EPA’s guideline of 70 parts per trillion.
According to limited studies on people, the chemicals have been associated with among other disorders: developmental delays in fetuses and children; changes to the immune system and prostate; and kidney and testicular cancer.
At least 23 out of 219 hazardous sites in total on the base are being actively cleaned up, according to the investigative news outlet ProPublica. So far, $172 million has been spent with an estimated $62.2 million still needed to achieve cleanup of all the sites by 2077.
A group with a link
McCrea, who resides in Ohio, said MAATA started as a “nostalgic group” for people who’d lived or served at the base.
But she said it quickly became clear that many of the former residents were suffering from the same medical conditions — a “lot of reproductive issues,” rare cancers, leukemia, and multiple lymphoma, among others.
A majority of people suffer from peripheral neuropathy, according to McCrea, a disease that damages nerves and has been linked to exposure to toxins.
“Nobody knew anything. There’s just a lot of people that are sick,” she said. “And I think the one thing that (military officials) didn’t count on was us ever finding each other. But the internet made that possible.”
McCrea said a study of the group’s conditions also found a miscarriage rate ten times higher than the national average.
She and other mothers who lived on the base were profiled by MilitaryTimes.com in 2018. According to the article, nearly 300 women who had connected via Facebook reported similar health issues such as ovarian cysts, uterine tumors, hysterectomies, and birth defects.
An informal poll found that nearly one-third had had a miscarriage. Some were told not to get pregnant at the base, the outlet reported.
A silent protest
MAATA members, meanwhile, said they are planning to place hundreds of baby shoes and a plaque at the former George AFB’s hospital parking lot on Sunday in memory “of our children lost due to miscarriages and stillbirths as a direct result from maternal contamination exposure.”
Members are asking for donations of newborn or preemie shoes.
The 8 a.m. memorial service will include a “silent protest” of the Air Force’s lack of a response to the contamination. MAATA says the military branch “has yet to respond to these very serious issues concerning Veterans and family members of the base.”
“Our mission is to assist those that have been affected by military contamination throughout the United States, to know that they are not alone and we ask that they join us, so that our legacy is not forgotten,” the group said in a statement.
As for McCrea, she said she continues to get calls from people who currently work in the area of the base, where the Southern California Logistics Airport is now located.
“I get people coming to me all the time asking me, ’Is my cancer related?,” she said. “It’s just a horrible thing.”
For more information on the memorial and how to donate, contact [email protected].
Martin Estacio may be reached at [email protected] or at 760-955-5358. Follow him on Twitter @DP_mestacio.

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