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McConnell Air Force Base finds high levels of chemical made famous in ‘Erin Brockovich’

Staff Sgt. Shane Pentheny performs water-quality tests on water taken from several base buildings March 9, 2017, at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan.

ERIN MCCLELLAN/U.S. AIR FORCE

By TARA COPP | McClatchy Washington Bureau | Published: February 20, 2020

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — The cancer-linked compound made famous by the movie “Erin Brockovich” has been found in dangerous levels inside an aircraft hangar at McConnell Air Force Base, including its breakroom, according to documents exclusively obtained by McClatchy.

Hexavalent chromium can be used as an anti-corrosion agent and “it is found in paints and primers used on the KC-135 and to a lesser extent the KC-46,” both tanker aircraft that are based at McConnell. Contamination from the chemical compound was documented in multiple base memos from October 2019 to January 2020 that were obtained by McClatchy.

More than 50 personnel may have been exposed to the chemical, an October memo warned. A November test found that an airman had been exposed to levels almost six times higher than the permissible exposure limits set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Exposure to hexavalent chromium can cause respiratory diseases, kidney, liver or abdominal damage and various cancers, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has warned.

“The risk of developing lung, nasal, and sinus cancer increases with the amount of hexavalent chromium inhaled and the length of time the worker is exposed,” OSHA said.

While exhaust filters and protective gear should have limited contamination and risk of exposure to the area where painting took place, “we determined that Cr(VI) dust contamination is present on most surfaces in hangar 1124 North and presents a contact hazard to unprotected workers.” The Cr(VI) mentioned in the memo refers to hexavalent chromium.

“Additionally we noted inadequate control of Cr(VI) dust due to the detection of Cr(VI) in the breakroom and on the floor near the shop supervisor’s desk,” an October 2019 memo reported.

A notice was issued in October to personnel warning of the hangar contamination and underlined “NO FOOD OR DRINK are authorized in the North Bay of Hangar 1124.”

The base encouraged any personnel who believe they were exposed to the chemical to report it.

Air Force personnel exposed to similar hexavalent chromium contamination at a maintenance hangar at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi have said they think that exposure is responsible for multiple cancer deaths among the maintenance crew that was tasked with removing old paint and corrosion from C-130 “hurricane hunter” aircraft at the base.

McConnell Air Force Base conducted a round of tests at a paint booth area in the hangar in November 2019, monitoring levels of hexavalent chromium exposure that took place while a service member sprayed aircraft wheel components.

Test results found that the service member, a senior airman, had been exposed to levels of hexavalent chromium that were almost six times higher than the permissible exposure limits set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

In a statement, McConnell Air Force Base said it is aware of the exposure hazard and has taken steps to protect personnel working in the hangar, the base said. In the documents obtained by McClatchy, the base has also recommended a different configuration in the paint booth to improve air filtration.

“Only mission essential personnel trained to work with hexavalent chromium have access to the hangar. The hangar also is limited to a single entry control point with specified decontamination zones and rigorous cleaning procedure, and exposure-level testing is conducted regularly,” according to a statement released by McConnell Air Force Base to McClatchy.

However, a Jan. 29 email obtained by McClatchy shows that the contamination may have spread, and could affect operations there.

“OSHA inspector for B1124 called my cell phone today,” the email from a base bioenvironmental engineer to a chief medical officer said. “She’s confirmed that HexChrome used in B1124 South Bay has broken out of the regulated areas. The implication is that people who enter the facility are exposed to the chemical hazard whether or not they enter the paint area.”

“I don’t know what the impact to the mission will be at this point,” the engineer wrote.

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©2020 McClatchy Washington Bureau
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