Volcanic fissures spurt out lava and toxic gas in Pahoa, Hawaii May 25, 2018. First responders remain on standby to evacuate residents in areas heavily affected by the Kilauea volcano eruption. (Photo by Pfc. Trevor Rowett)

Volcanic fissures spurt out lava and toxic gas in Pāhoa, Hawaii May 25, 2018.

RDECOM ECBC Advises First Responders in Wake of Volcanic Eruption

RDECOM ECBC Advises First Responders in Wake of Volcanic Eruption

Brad Kroner

As emergency service personnel in Hawaii rescued evacuees and contained damage following the eruption of the volcano Kilauea, scientists at the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (RDECOM ECBC) provided their expertise to help safeguard the health of first responders.

The volcano’s continued eruption cast ash and chemicals into the air, posing a health concern for first responders. For a century, RDECOM ECBC scientists have developed equipment to protect warfighters for situations where they may be exposed to chemicals on the battlefield.

Chemicals of concern include sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide and hydrochloric acid. At certain concentrations and length of exposure, sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide can cause life-threatening respiratory issues, especially for those with lung diseases like asthma. Hydrochloric acid can causes severe burns, irritation and respiratory system issues. “Both the National Guard and the U.S. Navy came to us with questions about these chemicals in the atmosphere and protections available for those chemicals,” said Greg Peterson, an RDECOM ECBC chemical engineer. “Our role is to tell them how best to use the filters, problems to look out for and things to be aware of.”

Peterson said he shared technical details on several filters, estimates on their duration and potential problems like oxygen-depleting atmospheres and filter fires. Peterson said he was aware of one report of oxygen depletion.

Three filters were used by responders in the Kilauea crisis — the M61, C2A1 and the GP filter — and all were developed at RDECOM ECBC. Each protects against the same threats, but they are used on different masks.

“They’re good against chemical warfare agents and acid gases,” Peterson said. “Differences arise from the needs of the user. For example, the M61 filter is used on the M50 Joint Service General Purpose Mask, while the GP filter is used on the M53 Chemical Biological Mask used by Special Operations. The two have different specifications.”

All the filters use high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration and activated carbon to protect the user. HEPA filters block soot, ash and other aerosols.

RDECOM ECBC Chemical Engineer Greg Peterson

This reach-back support leads to mission readiness and provides the warfighter the means to successfully complete the mission.”
RDECOM ECBC Chemical Engineer Greg Peterson

Activated carbon limits the effects of chemical threats through adsorption and chemical reaction. At some point, Peterson said, the filters would have to be replaced, as soot could clog the filter or the capacity of the carbon is used up.

During response operations, the Navy sent a used mask to the lab for evaluation. Peterson and his team responded immediately, analyzing the filter for degradation and performance.

“The filter we received weighed a lot more than a typical filter,” Peterson said. “This could be due to soot and ash from the volcano. It could also be from water loaded on the carbon. Or it could be from other contaminants.“

“We are working with the Navy to develop a standard operating procedure for logging data when using filters so we have more information when we go to test it,” Peterson added.

After the evaluation, Peterson determined that the masks were well-equipped to serve the needs of responders.

“In this case we’re seeing low concentrations of chemicals,” he said, noting that the masks are designed for higher concentrations.

Through working with the National Guard and the Navy, Peterson hopes to gain new perspectives that lead to new ideas.

“At the end of the day, our primary goal at RDECOM ECBC is to support the warfighter,” Peterson said. “This reach-back support leads to mission readiness and provides the warfighter the means to successfully complete the mission.”

Volcanic fissures spurt out lava and toxic gas in Pāhoa, Hawaii May 25, 2018.