A “Hillbilly Scientist” at HeartPosted on by
“I am fortunate to have a job that actually lets us fix our past mistakes, make a measurable difference in affected communities, and improve the safety of the world,” says Terry Tincher, MS, CSP. Terry is a chemical engineer and chief of the Environmental Public Health Readiness Branch (EPHRB) at CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health.
The EPHRB oversees the destruction of the U.S. Army’s chemical warfare material. The United States chemical weapons program began in 1917. Chemical weapons like mustard gas and sarin were developed as a deterrent against use of similar weapons by other countries. Though never used in battle, these obsolete weapons were stored at nine chemical disposal facility sites, where they were deteriorating with age. Seven of the nine sites have been safely destroyed and those facilities closed. Two communities, one in Colorado and one in Kentucky, still have chemical weapons stockpiles and the destruction should begin within the next year at both locations.
Impact on Public Health
The effort to destroy chemical materials left over from both world wars and the Cold War has been ongoing for more than 30 years, but most of the real progress was made in the last 12 to 15 years. More than 27,000 tons of agent have been destroyed, accounting for 90% of the stockpiled weapons. Much of this was accomplished by emphasizing a holistic effort to improve safety, health, environment, quality, and quantity.
This effort has not only eliminated the threat of chemical weapons in communities, but several have seen an increase in the value of the property, interest in new businesses relocating, and new uses for these areas. For example, one such site, Johnston Atoll, a deserted coral reef in the North Pacific Ocean southwest of Hawaii, is now a nature habitat flourishing with fish and birds and maintained by the Department of the Interior.
The Coalfields of West Virginia
Terry was born in the coalfields of West Virginia. His father was a fire boss (safety foreman) who died of black lung after 42 years working in the coal mines. His mother had breathing and lung problems because of the pollution from the chemical plants in the Kanawha Valley. “This was my first experience with both occupational and environmental health issues; little did I know where this would lead me,” says Terry.
After graduating from West Virginia Institute of Technology, now part of West Virginia University, with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, Terry ironically went to work in the chemical industry manufacturing highly hazardous and toxic materials. Because of the work he did designing and operating hazardous chemical processes, much of his time and effort was spent on safety, occupational health, and pollution control. He specialized in improving these areas and actually saw a positive financial impact on these companies’ products. Terry also went on to obtain a master’s degree in Engineering from North Carolina State University.
Path to Public Health, and Current Work
In 2003, Terry saw a job listing with CDC’s Chemical Weapons Elimination Program for a safety engineer with experience in chemical process safety. The program has congressional oversight responsibility for overseeing the destruction of the U.S. Army’s chemical warfare material.
Previously, the Army had primarily used incineration at the sites to get rid of the chemical weapons, but because of concerns about the hazards of incineration, was moving to chemical neutralization. Terry’s background was a good fit and he soon joined what he describes as one of the best teams he has ever been associated with. “It was like I had trained my entire life for this job and I could not believe I was here,” he says.
“Like my father I am passionate about safety, helping people, and making a difference. CDC has provided me a unique opportunity to protect workers, our community, and our world from the threat of chemical weapons. It has been an opportunity like no other in the world. I am very proud of the work the branch has done and the contributions we have made as part of CDC.”
Activities Enjoyed Outside Work
Terry has an interest in fast cars and fast dogs, and currently owns a 1972 Dodge Challenger muscle car. He and his family have been involved in the rescue of racing greyhounds for many years, providing a safe and caring home and enjoying the company of dozens of these unique and loving animals.
Terry has been married for 36 years (this year!) to someone he dubs “the most special woman in the world.” He and his wife have two children, a daughter and son, and three grandchildren, two girls and a boy. You can see Terry and his family in his “I am CDC” video clip at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_tK2ymimA1M.
“I would never have thought that a hillbilly from the mountains of West Virginia would be part of overseeing the Department of Defense in their effort to destroy chemical weapons that were made before I was born. I consider it an honor and a great responsibility to ensure these weapons are destroyed in a way that is protective of public and worker health and safety,” says Terry.
Working with the Department of the Army, CDC’s chemical weapons elimination efforts have safely eliminated 27,000 tons of chemical agent that could have been used or accidently released in the environment. Not bad for a “hillbilly scientist.”
For more information about CDC’s Chemical Weapons Elimination Program, visit our website at www.cdc.gov/nceh/demil/ and the Program Executive Office, Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives (PEO ACWA) at www.peoacwa.army.mil/.