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With risks this high, how much protection is enough?

My Take | April 7, 2014 | By:

I haven’t done a survey, but I think this is accurate: emergency personnel are most frequently dealing with crises they can understand. In fact, they may have been in similar situations many times in the past. They have been trained to deal with fires, car accidents and assaults, for example, and may feel confident that they can handle these eventualities, and many others, such as natural disasters.

What worries them the most are those hazards that are not so clear—but that could be deadly: chemical and biological hazards. As researcher Dr. Bryan Ormond says, “The majority of the time, all that the first responder may see is a puddle of liquid that may be as innocuous as water, as corrosive as concentrated acid, or as deadly as organophosphate nerve agents.” (See “MIST methodologies” under Featured.) The person charged with evaluating the risk may be highly trained, but how many times will he or she ever confront that “puddle of liquid?”

Consultant Johanna Bloomfield is addressing quite another market with her work on radiation protection for passengers in commercial space travel. (See “New frontiers” under Featured.) While no one is in any way diminishing the more usual hazards for which protective garments are designed, it’s the unknown that’s the scariest part in all of this, just as it’s the unknown that emergency workers find most unnerving, too.

The potential travelers on a commercial space shuttle presume that all precautions have been taken to protect them on their launch into space, but they have to know how pioneering all of this is. They are not, after all, trained astronauts; they are people with enough curiosity about space to be willing to risk it.

No garment (or collection of garments) can be considered reliable unless it has been through a testing procedure that evaluates its efficacy. Dr. Ormond’s work in chem/bio protection testing is a revelation on this. If you thought you knew something about MIST (Man-In-Simulant-Test), it’s time to check in again.

The effectiveness of protective clothing and equipment is not just useful, it is critical. I’m a little awed that there are textiles at all that can protect from chemical, biological and radiological hazards. Textiles! Lightweight and flexible enough to move in them, pick things up, carry things—in short, carry out the procedures to evaluate the hazard and respond to it.

The trick for the fabric suppliers and the fabricators making the garments is to balance functionality with wearability. Generally, that means lighter weight; textile manufacturers are hard at work on this one. (See “Right and Light,” which will be available April 23.)

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