Toxicologists hold vital role in protecting DOD workforce

By Chanel Weaver, Defense Centers for Public Health-Aberdeen Public AffairsJanuary 17, 2023

Toxicologists hold vital role in protecting DOD workforce
Caroline Procell, a biological technician, works in a laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. The work performed in the Defense Centers for Public Health-Aberdeen's Toxicology Directorate has a significant impact on operational readiness and sustainment because it continually evaluates emerging products and compounds to keep the Department of Defense workforce safe. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by Graham Snodgrass) VIEW ORIGINAL

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. — Although Department of Defense personnel spend much time learning to protect themselves from enemy combatants and weapons, there are other situations, when unmitigated, that can pose a threat to the health of the Nation’s warriors.

Some items proposed for military use — including chemicals, materiel and equipment — can be harmful if not properly evaluated. That’s what makes the job of DOD toxicologists so important.

“Our mission is to promote health, and prevent disease, injury and disability of military personnel and DOD civilians by specializing in the toxicity of compounds of military interest and the characterization of the effects they pose to humans and the environment,” said Dr. Mark Johnson, director of the Toxicology Directorate at the Defense Centers for Public Health-Aberdeen. “Our current efforts focus on maintaining DOD military and civilian health and readiness through the evaluation and clearance of products, materials and compounds proposed for military use.”

Elements of the Toxicology Directorate have provided support for the safety of U.S. military personnel for nearly 60 years. In the 1960s, toxicologists and other scientists working for the U.S. Army Environmental Hygiene Agency, a predecessor organization to the DCPH-A, conducted initial work on understanding the effects of exposure to DEET insect repellent on Army personnel. Over the years, the mission of the directorate has grown significantly.

The majority of work performed by the Toxicology Directorate’s scientists is sponsored by a wide array of external organizations. These organizations require a detailed understanding of the potential health effects from exposure to various compounds and substances used, or proposed for use, by the military. The directorate also collaborates with various environmental and state organizations, universities and industry.

The Toxicology Directorate is divided into three major sections.

The Health Effects Division, or HEF, provides worldwide support through the performance of basic and applied research in toxicology, environmental biology and chemistry. The division focuses on conducting toxicological research pertinent to effects from environmental exposures.

“Scientists in this division lead the DOD community in assessment of the environmental impact of new formulations for explosives, propellants, colored smokes and illumination materials,” said Dr. Michael Quinn, chief of the HEF.

The Toxicity Evaluation Division, or TEV, provides toxicological expertise and support to the Army’s acquisition enterprise in order to identify and reduce potential health hazards resulting from occupational exposures to DOD personnel.

“Scientists in this division provide expertise in the protection of Soldiers and other personnel by assuring the safety of products proposed for use by the DOD,” said Arthur J. O’Neill, chief of the TEV. “They do so by identifying chemical hazards and providing recommendations on preventive measures for avoiding or minimizing exposures.”

In addition, Johnson said these scientists also conduct Toxicity Clearances mandated by regulation — a process that includes comprehensive toxicity reviews and evaluations.

“These results are used as a basis for granting the required authorization for continued development, use and eventual deployment of various chemicals, compounds, materiel and equipment,” said Johnson.

The other major office in the Toxicology Directorate is the Office of Toxicologic Pathology. As home to one of the few veterinary pathologists in the DOD dedicated solely to the identification of pathology due to toxicity, the Office of Toxicologic Pathology offers unique services to a host of customers within the DOD.

Andrea Clark is the current operations manager in the Toxicology Directorate. She said she enjoys working with such a talented group of professionals.

“Approximately 30 people work in the Toxicology Directorate,” said Clark. “They include military and civilian personnel who are trained as biologists, chemists, toxicologists, veterinary pathologists and administrative personnel.”

Clark also stated that in addition to their professional experience, most staff members hold advanced academic degrees and board certifications in their respective areas of study.

The Toxicology Directorate believes in the importance of collaborating with other scientists.

In addition to working on DOD projects, some members of the DCPH-A Toxicology Directorate also serve in advisory roles to other federal agencies. Johnson has served on the Environmental Protection Agency Science Advisory Committee on Chemicals, or SACC, for more than four years. This committee provides independent scientific advice and recommendations to the EPA on the scientific basis for risk assessments, methodologies and pollution prevention measures and approaches for chemicals regulated under the Toxic Substances Control Act.

In his role, Johnson is responsible for providing scientific review and suggestions to improve EPA practices during public meetings and determining the soundness of the scientific approaches the EPA uses to conduct risk assessments on industrial chemicals.

“The most enjoyable part of being a member of the SACC includes working with my fellow scientists learning and sharing ideas for improving risk assessments,” said Johnson.

The Toxicology Directorate is also a prolific producer of information for the acquisition and public health communities. The directorate has helped to produce several technical guides that are used DOD-wide to identify safe exposure limits for industrial chemicals and biological agents for DOD personnel. Experts in the directorate have also published numerous reports on their toxicity studies. The work performed in the Toxicology Directorate has a significant impact on operational readiness and sustainment because it continually evaluates emerging products and compounds to keep the DOD workforce safe and allow for environmentally sustainable training solutions.

For more information on the DCPH-A Toxicology Directorate, please visit their website.

The Defense Centers for Public Health-Aberdeen, formerly known as the U.S. Army Public Health Center, supports our Nation by improving health and building readiness — making extraordinary experiences ordinary and exceptional outcomes routine.

NOTE: The mention of any non-federal entity and/or its products is for informational purposes only, and not to be construed or interpreted, in any manner, as federal endorsement.