Families Against Cancer & Toxics
Stop cancer before it starts
October 28, 2004
Iím a United States Air Force spouse whose husband is a Fuel Systems Mechanic. Quite frankly he crawls inside of the fuel tanks of jets and fixes any and every problem therein. On several occasions he has been doused in fuel from head to toe. He has been doing this job since 1998. He has bloodwork done frequently on him and I really have no idea if they are testing his blood levels for exposure specifically or not. However my question is this. What type of bloodwork do we need to ask to be performed on our children? We have a three year old son and a new baby on the way in February. We have been aware of the risks of JP-8 exposure to him and the potential risks to fetuses. Our first child is apparently healthy Ė we have never had a major medical problem with him.
I am truly concerned for my husband and my children. What do I need to be aware of in my family members to assure that they are healthy? I know I could ask my doctor, but they are all military and I donít fully trust any answer I may receive from them.
Hi [USAF Spouse],
I'm just a mom so I don't have any special expertise. But I'll be glad to
share my thoughts with you. I agree that there is reason to be concerned
about your husband's exposure to jet fuel, for his health and your health
and your children's health.
You mentioned that your husband often has blood-work done. Ask for copies of
the results. People are allowed to have their own medical records. He can
use the Freedom of Information Act, if necessary, to obtain copies of his
medical records (but not other peoplesā records, of course). We can help
you learn how to use F.O.I.A. law to request documents, if you wish.
I'm predicting that asking a doctor to test for jet fuel exposure in your
kids won't be a very successful approach in the short term.
Biomonitoring is an emerging technology and it hasn't trickled down into
common medical practice yet. (There are some exceptions, such as how easy
and routine it is to test for lead poisoning.) But asking to have you and
your kids tested for jet fuel or for some of the scarier components (benzene, butadiene, toulene, xylene, formaldehyde) may set some wheels turning that will eventually be very helpful.
Jet fuel is a very complex chemical mixture, and only 200 or so of its 2000+
chemicals have been formally identified. JP-8's high flash point means it
evaporates more slowly and remains on the skin for a longer period of time.
Its performance-enhancing additives have also been found in published Air
Force studies to enhance the ability of fuel hydrocarbon chemicals to cross
through skin and enter the bloodstream.
Where I see real possibility is for your husband to avoid jet fuel exposure,
and when/if future exposures occur, to take steps to reduce the exposure he
brings home to you and the kids. These heightened preventative measures
should be developed and implemented everywhere, not just for your husband.
But by requesting this where you are, you might get wheels turning that will
This study by Pleil, et all finds that 100% of personnel on the bases they sampled have some exposure to jet fuel, just from breathing near
runways. Your husband is in the job category that can potentially
have astronomical exposures, so it will be essential for him to wear
his respirator and wear protective clothing. He should do everything
he can to avoid getting fuel on his skin or breathing the fumes.
Sometimes the people predicted to have the largest exposure sometimes
have less than, say, a pilot, because they were the only ones wearing
protective gear. Exhaust from burned JP-8 seems to contain higher levels of
suspected carcinogens than liquid fuel - more benzene, more butadiene, and
more formaldehyde - all of which have been tied in some studies of adult
occupational exposures to increased leukemia risk. However, it's not clear
that air base personnel are exposed to *enough* of these chemicals to pose a
risk like that seen amongst rubber factory workers.
Other than increased respiratory infection rates for tank entry technicians
like your husband and flight line personnel, it is not at all clear whether
jet fuel exposure increases the risk of disease. There are some reasons to
suspect it could, but it has not been proven that it does. (A published
Navy-commissioned Georgetown University study, for example, showed that JP-8 exposure in test tubes causes more damage to the DNA in human white blood cells than other fuels like JP-4; JP-8+100, a newer formulation, caused even more DNA damage.)
The National Research Council has recommended that the Air Force track fuel
workers like your husband over time to determine whether JP-8 exposure
increases cancer risk. This may be why they are monitoring his blood levels,
or they may be quietly continuing the JP-8 acute exposure effects study
initiated in 2000. The NRC study of JP-8's health
risks and recommendations is published online.
I've talked with friends in the military who say that even when protective
gear is available no one uses it unless the inspectors are coming. I've
heard of research studies about who uses protective gear, that finds it is
most likely for older workers to use the gear. This is a shame because young
men are more likely to be having children. Everyone understands that
pregnant women should be protected from exposure to toxic chemicals, but it
is less widely known that prospective dads are also at risk. I think the
military and our whole society could really improve their education about how to stay safe from toxic exposures.
I see no reason to be quiet about your concerns. Why not appeal to the Air
Force to be helpful? Your husband could bring in a study or two and ask his
boss to offer a training about safe fuel handling. (There are more studies here.) They could analyze what went wrong in the previous cases in which he ended up exposed head to toe, with a goal of preventing such accidents in the future. In the event of an accidental exposure they could create a policy for immediate on-site showering, clothing change, etc. I've had a good experience so far appealing to higher-ups on Ft. Huachuca Army Base to increase their fuel-handling safety procedures.
If the jet fuel exposure is a major one, you could ask them to think
about the length of time before it is safe for your husband to return
home, where he might contaminate you and the kids just with his
breath. This is a bit off-the-wall, but let me say it anyway. My adult
friends who have undergone chemotherapy were told to wear a condom
if they have sex, to protect their partners from the toxic chemicals
in their bodily fluids. It may build awareness of the problem if you
ask them to figure out how long after a major jet fuel exposure
occurs that a man should wear a condom to protect his partner and the
babies they will have. I wouldn't expect a quick answer to this, but
it is an important question to get started researching. Your husband could also request a transfer to another assignment while you are pregnant or
nursing, particularly if he suffers headaches or nausea associated fuel
I think you could really make a difference getting some wheels
turning that will lead to keeping all kids of fuel workers safer.
You have a very powerful voice, in appealing to the Air Force.
Simply saying, "In the past, my husband has had major exposures to
the carcinogens and poisons in jet fuel while doing his job. I am
worried about his safety, and about my kid's safety. Will you help
us figure out how to eliminate these exposures?"
I like to keep in mind that the military and government were
well-intentioned about JP-8. Everyone was very excited about it as a
safer, less explosive fuel than JP-4. And because JP-8 is slower to
evaporate, the fume problem was perceived to be greatly reduced. The
unintended health outcome is that JP-8 also stays in our bodies much
longer, giving the toxic components more time to harm us. Now that
several research studies have suggested that JP-8 is causing health
problems for exposed workers and their families, I would like to see
the military and the government move faster to keep people safe.
Thanks for writing,
Mom of Henry and Linus, a 6-year-old Tucson kid with leukemia
Co-founder of FACT, Families Against Cancer & Toxics