By Judith Snyderman
Special to American Forces Press Service
Aug. 31, 2009 - A Defense Department program is being recognized for identifying chemicals the department uses that have emerging environmental and health risks and finding alternatives to using them. The Emerging Contaminants Program has been nominated for an "Innovations in Government Award" by Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
"The judges were certainly impressed that [the department] was taking action ahead of a regulatory requirement," said Shannon Cunniff, director of the Pentagon's chemical and material risk management directorate, which runs the program, during an Aug. 26 webcast of "Armed with Science: Research and Applications for the Modern Military" on Pentagon Web Radio.
The program acts as a funneling operation for the directorate's focus on reducing solid waste and analyzing water and chemical use. The strategy starts with a scan of scientific journals and a simple question about any chemical of concern, Cunniff said: "Is there something about the chemical that would affect human health or the environment and [the Defense Department's] operations?" If the answer is "yes," she explained, staff members are consulted and some chemicals are placed on a watch list for analysis by panels of scientists, engineers and subject matter experts.
"We use these experts to rank the risks based on their likelihood of occurring and the severity," Cunniff said, adding that not all contaminants are toxic or relevant to the department. "What we are looking at is any emerging contaminant that has potential high risks or impacts to the [Defense Department] mission," she said. "So if we don't use them, we're not interested."
Since the Emerging Contaminants Program began in 2006, several investigations have escalated chemicals to an action list, Cunniff said.
"We've had a couple of pretty significant policy memos come out of our office," she added. "One [was] on the minimization of the use of hexavalent 'chrome' -- a known carcinogen that was the one that the 'Erin Brockovich' film was made about – and we also did one on nano materials." Program findings about hexavalent chromium, an anti-corrosive agent, Cunniff said, have had broad impact due its wide use in the department.
"We were able to convince even the corrosion folks that it made a lot of sense to move away from hex chrome where we could; and this is because we found out in our analyses that the [Defense Department] had invested millions of dollars in alternatives to hex chrome, but they weren't necessarily being adopted, even though they had been proven out as feasible alternatives," she said.
Program officials also studied perchlorate. "In that case, it was public concern over the chemical - even before there was a toxicity level established by [the Environmental Protection Agency] - that caused us to limit training on two of our ranges," Cunniff said.
To anticipate federal regulation related to greenhouse gases, sulfur hexafluoride also was selected for thorough analysis. "It's an industrial chemical with a global warming potential that is 23,000 times that of carbon dioxide, which we are more used to hearing about," she said. "So we knew that [the Defense Department] uses it, we looked at that and we are in the process of developing risk-management measures."
Department stakeholders are involved throughout the analysis process, Cunniff said. The program's list of chemicals being studied is available to the public via the department's Defense Environmental and Network Information Exchange site.
"We put information about the basic reasons why it's on the list, how does [the Defense Department] use it, and then once we have those risk management options developed and endorsed by the governance council, we put those out there on the Web, too," she said.
Due to the global nature of manufacturing, Cunniff said, the toughest challenge is figuring out what materials are being used in equipment. "A part may be made in Zanzibar and then shipped over to Mozambique and added into some other product that then goes over to Brazil and finally makes its way into Kansas, and eventually onto a plane," she explained.
Cunniff credits the program's expert panels with carrying out thorough investigations. "Our process is only as good as the diversity and depth of the scientists we bring into it," she said.
(Judith Snyderman works for the Defense Media Activity's emerging media directorate.)