Chemical weapons and clay

My first foray into science policy led me to the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. At this non-profit advisory organization I spent three months as a science and technology policy fellow, assigned to the Board on Army Science and Technology (BAST). To this day I’m not sure why the army board selected me, but I imagine the simple fact that I have a chemistry Ph.D. played a large role.

During my twelve-week fellowship I wrote weekly updates for my friends and family as they tried to wrap their heads around the fact that I was hanging out at army bases. Well, I was. And, lo and behold, I learned a lot.

Within my first week at BAST I had begun research into the U.S. Army’s chemical weapons disposal project. We call this long-term project “chemical demilitarization” because we’re destroying, rather than building, chemical weapons. Who is “we”? That would be the U.S. of A.

Here’s what I learned during week two: Until recently, the U.S. had nine stockpiles of chemical weapons. The stockpiles resulted from our recent chemical-weapons-building phase, also known as the 1920s through the 1960s. Several years ago the U.S. joined an international consortium called the Chemical Weapons Convention, which mandates that we destroy all chemical weapons.

Based on a 1969 executive order from President Nixon the stockpiles aren’t moveable. So, we built nine chemical demilitarization facilities, one per stockpile, to destroy our weapons. As of today, two of the chemical demilitarization facilities have completed their missions and five are chugging along nicely. The last two sites, in Blue Grass, Kentucky and Pueblo, Colorado, need to kick it up a notch. They’re behind schedule.

By “weapon” I’m talking M55 rockets, bombs, missiles, mortars, projectiles and mines. Each of these delightful weapons is filled with a chemical agent. And by “agent” I’m talking the blister agents mustard gas and Lewisite, and the nerve agents VX, GA (Tabun) and GB (Sarin).

The experts responsible for draining the agents out of the weapons wear $300, disposable, vacuum-sealed suits, complete with booties, gloves, masks and a 2-hour-maximum oxygen tank. Although not explicitly stated, I’m guessing that mustard gas is nothing like the mustard I’d put on my sandwich.

Although fairly engrossed in the chemical weapons project I broadened my scope to include other BAST studies. One such project involved finding suitable body armor for our soldiers.

Here’s a snippet of activity related to the Body Armor study, my focus during week four of the fellowship: In a couple of weeks I’m attending a meeting for the Body Armor study in Edgewood, Md. This past week I sat in on two conference calls, in which I and other BAST staff members talked with body armor experts about clay. To be clear, I didn’t talk…I sat quietly for several hours, writing furiously.

As it turns out, clay engineers have a lot to say about clay. Growing up in North Carolina I knew clay to be the mucky red stuff you avoided at all costs else you’d find it embedded in your carpet. Clay engineers know clay to be a fantastic medium…to evaluate body armor safety.

Although the term body armor encompasses several distinct pieces, this study focused on chest plates. Before chest plates are distributed to soldiers for battle, they are subjected to quality control testing.

Each batch of newly manufactured chest plates arrives at the army’s testing facility. A soldier removes a chest plate from the batch and embeds it in a wall of clay. A designated marksman targets the chest plate, firing one bullet across the room. The bullet penetrates the chest plate, denting the armor, and subsequently denting the clay.

A laser scans the clay to measure the size of the indentation. From what I gleaned the dent size averages 46 millimeters. To me, this means nothing. But to experts, a 46-mm hit is acceptable, i.e. no harm is done to your vital organs at this depth. Good. I like my vital organs intact.

A few more chest plates are tested, and if the depth of the clay dent is within the acceptable range, the chest plates are ready for the troops. When I visited the army base I saw this process from start to finish. The statisticians had a field day with the error rate of these measurements (currently greater than 10 %, which is way too high), and the clay engineers had a field day with the heating and cooling procedures for the clay. As for me, after several futile attempts to convince the marksman to let me try, I resigned myself to simply watching and learning. Apparently it was “safer this way.”


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