Environmental health works behind the scenes to keep Soldiers ready

by Lesley Atkinson

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Readiness is the Army and Environmental Health mission and it really starts with in prevention.

“I didn’t know what the extent of my job would entail when I came to Environmental Health,” said Army Spc. Johnathan Vargas, who is a preventive medicine specialist at Kenner Army Health Clinic Environmental Health. “Most people don’t understand all that we do. We work on a lot in the background of many things.”

“Many people don’t know that a huge percentage of Soldiers’ injuries are disease and non-battle injuries,” said Vargas. “Those are injuries sustained through illness and diseases; not being shot or getting blown up by an improvised explosive device. We play a huge role to make sure everyone is healthy while deployed and provide education on what it takes to stay healthy.”

Kenner’s EH section is one section out-of-five areas in the Preventative Medicine Department. On the EH team are a mix of military and civilian employees who conduct inspections, food safety training, water sampling and entomology services.

Each quarter, the department inspects 80-90 facilities on Fort Lee. The inspections are 100 percent unannounced and they inspect all dining facilities, food vendors, mobile trucks, Child Development Centers, gyms, barbers and beauty shops.

“We want to get a snapshot of the facility as it is without any preparation for employees to remediate what might be wrong,” said Vargas. “If there is an issue we want to be able to catch it because they might continue to do the deficiency regardless of our recommendation. They might fix it before we get there and then revert to their normal operation.

“We mostly look in the kitchens and look for anything that can cause a health hazard now or down the line,” he continued. “If the contents are out of their original packaging, we make sure the food is properly labeled. The item needs to have its common name with time and dates including when it was received, opened, and expired. For example, it would be hard to tell the difference between blue cheese and ranch dressing. It is important to have everything labeled correctly. Even though it smells and looks good doesn’t mean the item isn’t contaminated.”

They work diligently to prevent failed inspections by teaching personnel how to prevent illnesses.

“I have had to fail a few inspections due to lack of training, which is one of the biggest issues,” said Vargas. “It’s important for someone to be food-safety-certified on the premises at all times.” This is a food and beverage safety training and certificate program administered by the National Restaurant Association. There are other entities that provide certifications as well.

Another service offered by EH is collecting and identifying mosquitos and ticks for disease testing. Ticks are brought in using tick kits that are provided by the clinic, compliments of Army Public Health Command. Inside the kits are two forms that are to be filled out by the beneficiary and submitted to Preventive Medicine. EH picks up the tick samples, logs them, and sends them to APHC for testing. If a sample comes back positive then EH notifies the epidemiologist who then contacts the beneficiary of the positive sample.

“Many people don’t realize that we give out tick kits to the clinics,” Vargas added. If someone is bitten by a tick on-or-off post we encourage them to bring it in to be tested. This helps them and also gives the post data on what species of ticks are in the area and what disease they might be carriers of.

Mosquito surveillance is conducted every summer on Fort Lee. EH tests for mosquitoes carrying diseases by placing traps that collect mosquitoes using a battery and a fan. For mosquito larvae, they place other kinds of traps. These work by placing water inside of a cup and suspending a velour strip (inside) so that mosquitoes can lay their eggs.

Another EH function is barracks inspections where they look for overall sanitation – for example water leakage in the pipes. Evidence of pests (insects) like bedbugs and cockroaches are part of the sanitation inspection. They even inspect the ice machines; an area that may otherwise be forgotten.

On top of all the inspections they teach field sanitation. The Field Sanitation Team is a requirement by a command to ensure the unit abides by all preventative medicine regulations. They complete water trailer inspections as well as teach others how to implement the same rules.

“We can’t be everywhere,” Vargas said. With EH training Soldiers in field sanitation, they have the tools to make good preventive medicine choices.

“We are not bad people,” he explained. “There is a stigma around the Army when they see preventative medicine; their like ‘oh they are here.’ We are here to make sure everyone is following the rules so no one will get sick because this is our main mission.”

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