Pentagon lags in protective suit recall

Mark A. DeSorbo

WASHINGTON, DC—The past keeps needling a defunct manufacturer of protective clothing, and Capitol Hill continues to press the Pentagon, demanding answers as to why it took the military establishment five years to warn the armed forces about potentially defective suits intended to protect soldiers from chemical and biological weapons.

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“We're trying to prepare for the threat of terrorism using chemical or biological agents and putting all this money into training and equipment. To have this kind of thing happen is very disheartening; it's outrageous,” U.S. Rep Curt Weldon, R-PA, told The Associated Press.

Protective garments, like those pictured, protect soldiers from chemical and biological weapons. These resemble and work similarly to potentially defective garments that were recalled by the pentagon in February. DOD photo by Staff Sgt. Steve Faulls, US Air Force.

On Feb. 9, the Pentagon told commanders to only use the 778,000 suits for training. Soldiers wear the suits over their regular camouflage gear where chemical or biological weapons might be used. The suits, some of which are not defective, cost the government almost $49 million. According to a Pentagon report, defects included “holes, cuts, embedded foreign matter and stitching irregularities.” The report also indicated that defects could potentially kill people wearing the trousers and jackets in a “chemical-biological contaminated environment.”

A Pentagon report criticizes military leadership for waiting too long before removing the suits from active inventory in February. In fact, Pentagon criminal investigators alleged in 1995 that the manufacturer, Istratex Inc., intentionally produced defective apparel. Istratex, a bankrupt New York City-based company, produced the charcoal-lined camouflage suits under two contracts, one in 1989 and another in 1992.

Last September, the former Istratex president and production manager, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in New York to one count of making false statements. Other officials were charged with obstruction of justice and making false certificate or writing. They had been charged with conspiracy to defraud the government, major fraud and false claims.

Charles W. Berndt, a member of the CleanRooms Editorial Advisory Board, says defects in the suits should have been detected in the manufacturing process and, if that was done, they should have never been shipped.

Berndt, chair of Working Group 3: Garment System Considerations for Cleanrooms and other Controlled Environments for the Institute of Environmental Sciences and Technology (IEST; Mount Prospect, IL), says a close eye should always be kept on the manufacturing process.

First, he explains, specifications for the manufacturing process should be made even before production begins. The contractor should be certified by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO; Geneva). The company hiring the contractor should also be allowed to visit the facility, evaluate and ultimately document the manufacturing process to ensure the product does what it is supposed to before it is shipped.

“Shame on the Pentagon. This is standard operating procedure. The culpability is on the Pentagon as well,” Berndt says. “How stupid for them to say they've known it for five years. On top of that fact, they didn't make sure [the suit] worked properly before it went on somebody's back.”

News of the defective suits caused the telephones at Kappler Apparel & Fabrics (Guntersville, AL) to ring off the hook. It sparked the maker of protective apparel, ranging from cleanroom coveralls to Level A vapor and gas suits, to issue a press release that indicated the suits were not theirs.

“We had a lot of customers calling and asking us, 'Are these your suits'?'' says Daphne Mitchell, media coordinator for the company. “Initially, the press didn't say who the manufacturer of the suits was, and we wanted people to know the suits weren't ours.”

“The suits in the Pentagon recall are traditional charcoal-based camouflage garments, not the broad chemical barrier garments we produce,” says Craig Woodward, Kappler's senior vice president for sales and marketing.

Kappler's garments are designed to protect against chemical and biological warfare agents. The apparel is made with a patented film-laminate. “There is no relation whatsoever to the faulty products involved in this unfortunate situation,” Woodward adds. “We want to assure customers that Kappler garments are absolutely fine and not affected in any way by the government's actions.”

At the time of this report, Weldon told The Associated Press that he may demand hearings on the matter, saying he will first ask the Pentagon to brief the House Armed Services military research and development subcommittee, which he chairs.

“Somebody responsible is going to have to answer to members of Congress and the public,” he says. “There should be some type of punitive action taken.”

At a press conference arranged in response to news reports, Army Lt. Gen. Tom Glisson, director of the Defense Logistics Agency, which manages Pentagon inventories, told reporters that military forces were never put in jeopardy.

About 120,000 suits were issued for use in Bosnia, but Glisson did not know how many were actually used. Because of a criminal investigation in 1994, the Pentagon did not permit the use of 173,000 suits made by Istratex under a 1992 contract. The quality of 607,000 suits made under a 1989 contract was never questioned and did not come under the same scrutiny by criminal investigators, he adds.


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