The Defense Department, military services and Veterans Affairs are doing a lot now to assess the effects of airborne hazards, including open burn pits, on the health of current and veteran service members who may have been exposed while deployed overseas in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Capitol Hill lawmakers on Wednesday were also interested in how the military services might one day evaluate an individual service member's exposure to toxins with wearable sensors, rather than with the kinds of static sensors being used today.
"We're very interested in wearables," said Dr. Terry Rauch, the acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for health readiness policy and oversight. "The reason is because our emphasis, our focus really needs to be on individual exposure monitoring."
Speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee's subcommittee on personnel, Rauch said wearable technology may allow the department to one day more closely monitor an individual's precise exposure to health-affecting toxins in a way that's just not possible today.
"If we can't figure out what the dose of the exposure was and what they were exposed to, then it's very difficult to capture their response," he said.
Navy Capt. Brian L. Feldman, commander of the Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center, told lawmakers the Navy is already looking at such wearable technology for use on submarines.
"One unique thing that Navy medicine is doing with research and development [is that] we've got some very robust submarine atmospheric monitoring, quite a robust and safe program. And R&D [research and development] is looking at silicone bands, wearables so that you can get individual-level exposure data on a submarine," he said.
Both Air Force and Army witnesses at the hearing also said that their respective services are interested in wearable detectors.
When it comes to better understanding how service members will react to exposure to toxins — such as those produced by exposure to burn pits, fuels, solvents, or even dust and sand, Rauch said it's also important for the services to know how an individual service member's personal health habits and history might affect his or her response.
"In addition to wearables, we need to understand more about how the individual responds to environmental exposures," Rauch said. "What risks do they bring [and] other background lifestyle factors, such as smoking a pack a day before you deploy, [as well as] other lifestyle factors or even what genetic background individuals bring. We need to understand those because they're going to have an impact, and science isn't there, yet, but we're pursuing it."
Rauch also said the Defense Department is working with the Department of Veterans Affairs on a variety of tools to better inform health care providers about what a service members' past exposure to toxins might be.
One such tool — the Individual Longitudinal Exposure Record — is expected to reach full operational capability in 2023. It allows medical professionals to match an individual service member's or veteran's location data — such as where they were deployed and when — against existing databases that document exposure risks, so doctors can get a better picture of what a patient might have been exposed to.
"The department remains committed to continually improving our understanding of exposures of concern and potential health effects in order to prevent and mitigate exposures and clinically assess, treat and care for our service members and veterans," Rauch said.