CTEH® principal toxicologist Dr. Alan Nye, points to a pair of box-shaped devices resting on a countertop in the CTEH® lab and sings the praises of technology.

“The ability to detect and analyze chemicals during an emergency has gotten so much better in recent years,” he says. “This is a portable gas chromatograph. It allows us to detect very low concentrations of chemicals in the air. Not only does it determine what chemicals are in the air, but it also helps us determine the exact concentration of the chemicals. This is valuable because some chemicals can be of great concern even when you can’t smell them.”

The gas chromatograph is just one of the pieces of sophisticated equipment that line the shelves at CTEH® and frequently accompany CTEH® teams on long road trips to disaster locations.

Nye explains that the field of human health risk assessment has benefitted from such technical advances, but stresses that personal experience and knowledge is still critical when dealing with dangerous situations.

“Levels of experience matter – background and knowledge base,” says Nye. “Health and environmental standards vary widely by location and regulatory agencies differ, so understanding all of these factors can help inform decisions (at a disaster site). It is also critical to understand the latest science as it relates to human sensitivity to certain chemicals.”

He offers an example of knowledge that human health risk assessment experts have gained through experience and that now comes into play during chemical release incidents: “In recent years we’ve learned a lot about sulfur dioxide, an irritating gas. We found that very low levels of exposure can trigger asthmatic episodes, so we have to consider that when planning responses that involve sulfur dioxide.”

This sort of real-world knowledge will always be key, he says, but technology helps make the entire disaster response and risk assessment process more efficient.

“Instruments help you define the situation based on real data, not just your initial impressions or instincts.”