In 1925, the League of Nations brokered an international agreement in Geneva, Switzerland that effectively made chemical and biological weapons illegal (2). It’s come to be called the Geneva Protocol and includes rules of engagement for all nations who signed the agreement.
While the U.S. was one of the signatories at the Geneva Convention, as well as some of our ideological opponents, it’s a stark reality that not every nation agreed to its terms.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that even those nations that did agree will continue to abide by the rules. And in an age of rogue terrorism where international bandits hijack planes and use them as projectiles, it’s always better to be on the safe side and assume that nuclear, chemical, and biological (NBC) weapons are a bona fide threat. That’s why the military teaches all its soldiers how to respond to such weapons should they encounter them on the battlefield.
It’s also why the military has been using NBC protective suits throughout the 20th century. As long as these weapons exist, they are a viable threat, illegal or not.
Why Chemical Suit Decontamination Is Necessary
In the old days, if a U.S. soldier came into contact with chemical or biological weapons and had to treat himself for symptoms, he whipped out a huge needle and jammed it into his thigh to inject atropine to counteract the side effects.
If he received enough notice, he’d done his chemical protection suit and enter the contaminated environment with trepidation. The idea was to leave no skin exposed to the chemical or biological agents.
After exiting the contaminated environment, there was a specific protocol for taking off the protective suits so that no skin came into contact with the agents. Then those suits had to be disposed of properly.
If soldiers had a uniform that could decontaminate itself, there’d be no need to dispose of the uniforms after exposure nor would the soldier have to worry about contaminating himself when removing the protective suit after leaving a contaminated environment. This would truly be a development worth pursuing, and that’s why chemist David McGarvey is working so hard to solve this problem for the military.
McGarvey works at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. He wants to pre-treat U.S. military NBC protective suits with a chemical that renders nerve and blister agents harmless.
How NBC Protective Suit Decontamination Works
Since the new technology has not been developed yet, no one knows how it will work. However, McGarvey is studying how nerve and blistering agents react to the fabric in the NBC suits in order to determine how to combat their contaminants.
If the byproduct of chemical and biological agents are dangerous to soldiers, then McGarvey wants to figure out how to combat that threat.
In the long run, the U.S. wants to develop lighter NBC protective suits that can decontaminate themselves and therefore serve as a force protection asset beyond their normal capabilities.
Current protective suits—Joint Service Lightweight Integrated Suit Technology (JSLIST)—has been used by the military since the 1990s (3). They are very uncomfortable and soldiers sweat a lot.
The military wants to replace this suit with something more advanced that is being called Uniform Integrated Protective Ensemble (UIPE). This uniform will have a thinner fabric and be breathable so that soldiers get some ventilation while wearing it.
UIPE has been tested in the field but not approved for use. The second generation is the one that will contain the decontamination features McGarvey wants to include.