McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita says it has increased its safety procedures for personnel who work in an aircraft hangar where a cancer-causing chemical is present.
A base spokeswoman says exposure level testing found the environment in Building 1124 had higher than normal levels of hexavalent chromium, and particles of the toxic chemical may have spread to other unregulated areas in the hangar.
Hexavalent chromium is considered an industry standard for corrosion control, and is in paint and primers used on air refueling tankers based at McConnell. The hangar’s large aircraft paint facility is regulated by federal safety procedures.
"Only mission-essential personnel trained to work with hexavalent chromium have access to the hangar," said Kate Danner, chief of media relations at McConnell Air Force Base. "The hangar is also limited to a single entry control point with specified decontamination zones and rigorous cleaning procedures, and exposure level testing is conducted regularly."
Danner says at least one person was exposed to a higher level of hexavalent chromium while they were working in their required protective equipment. More than 50 people were potentially exposed to trace particles of the compound in their offices and break areas, which are located in an unregulated administrative area in the hangar.
"We are actively working to address concerns of our airmen related to hexavalent chromium exposure. … To date, there have been no correlations made between health issues and the work environment in Building 1124," Danner said.
In response to the exposure concerns, Danner said, McConnell leaders have directed personnel to wear additional personal protective equipment, and have increased education and training to inform and protect employees.
The base also assembled a team of bioenvironmental and safety experts from state agencies and the U.S. Air Force to review current safety processes. The group will work with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to determine whether new protocols are needed.
"We take every precaution and every opportunity to provide outside agencies a chance to audit our processes and test the environment," Danner said. "Any unsafe condition or unhealthy environment is unacceptable and will be addressed."
Hexavalent chromium is widely used in aviation and other industries. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says hexavalent chromium is harmful to the eyes, skin, and respiratory system, and is known to cause cancer. Exposure can occur from inhalation of dusts, mists, or fumes, or from eye or skin contact.
"Employees working in Building 1124 have been briefed by medical and occupational health professionals on the potential hazards of hexavalent chromium exposure," Danner said, "and are encouraged to address any concerns with their medical provider and supervisor."
McConnell has a total workforce of nearly 7,000, including active-duty members, civilians, and airmen in the 22nd Air Refueling Wing, the 184th Kansas Air National Guard Intelligence Wing and in the 931st Air Refueling Group.