Chemical warfare testing at Battelle keeps soldiers safe
Few research labs in the country are as trusted as Battelle's lab in West Jefferson.
"It's very unique there's only a couple in the country that do this type of work and we're by far the best at it," Principal Researcher Ed Soja said.
Inside a locked vault is where the lab keeps some of the deadliest chemical compounds known to man.
Sarin, mustard gas, and VX nerve agent are stored here.
This is the largest lab in the country dedicated to chemical testing of military clothing.
Each swatch of material receives eight tiny drops, about the size of Lincoln's eye on the penny.
That's all it takes, scientists say, for a nerve agent to kill if it hits your skin.
The cloth samples are placed into metal cylinders. Then they are transferred into a machine. A machine designed by Battelle and is the only one of its kind in the world.
Once the cylinders of cloth are placed inside the machine, the swatches of cloth are put to the test. The machine is designed to expose the samples to wind speed, humidity and heat. It stresses the fabric to see if the droplets permeate the fabric.
"Chemical warfare testing is dangerous hazardous business this here is critical using that live agent to ensure this gear will protect against that actual threat," Soja said.
If any of the agents leak through the cloth they are caught in vials that bubble outside the machine.
But the testing doesn't end here. It's time to dawn test the clothing-by wearing it.
We begin in a locker room and start one leg at a time. Rubber boots, gas masks, gloves, jackets. The equipment requires a lab technician to put on to ensure every strap is correctly secured; every piece of equipment is worn just as the military requires.
The military not only wants to know how its chemical suits react to certain agents, but also how they perform when someone is actually in the suits. To complete this part of the test we enter what's called the MIST chamber.
Here, chemicals that simulate real live agents are sprayed onto the chemical suit while we perform a series of exercises. We walk on a treadmill, lift weights, perform arm raises, and lay prone on the floor as if we're firing a weapon. Under normal conditions, subjects will stay inside the MIST chamber for two hours.
If any of the spray leaks through the fibers of our chemical suits, tiny bandages placed on our skin prior to wearing will absorb them.
The temperature inside the chamber is 80 degrees with 70 percent humidity. It's designed to simulate warfare weather conditions.
"The real purpose when you are inside the chamber doing these exercises is to stress the suit," Principal Researcher Amy Andrews said.
As we lift weights and stretch, researchers in another room are watching our heart rates. They're also looking closely for any flaws in our chemical suits.
"When you're reaching are we getting gaps between that glove and that sleeve? When you're climbing the ladder is your pant leg separating from the boot," Andrews said.
Battelle says just 1 percent of the military clothing it tests fails. It’s work these scientists take a lot of pride in.
"It's really rewarding. It's for the greater good and it has an actual impact on war fighters," Andrews said.
Amnesty International has gathered harrowing evidence strongly suggesting the use of chemical weapons against civilians, including very young children, in Jebel Marra, one the most remote parts of Darfur, Sudan.
Syrian government forces apparently used toxic chemicals in two recent attacks in Aleppo, Syria that killed five civilians and injured dozens. New information also indicates that the Islamic State has recently used chemicals as a weapon.
Battelle says it never stops trying to advance their protective technology.
They are already testing a new kind of Gortex chemical suit that will hit the battlefield next year.