ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (Sept. 19, 2014) – Choking, watering eyes, blistering skin and convulsions are symptoms of imminent death from a chemical weapons attack. The lethality of such attacks, most recently in August 2013, in Syria, sends tremors across the globe.
For Soldiers, chemical weapons present a real danger on the battlefield that requires advanced technology to keep them safe. The Army is investing in science and technology to enable Soldiers to operate in a chemical-biological threat environment.
Scientists and researchers at the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center work to provide better protective equipment, such as the iconic protective mask. As threats evolve, ECBC engineers fielded the next-generation M50 mask to Soldiers stationed in Japan and Korea. The Army is fielding more than one million of these masks across the Department of Defense.
“I noticed the difference between the M50 and the old M40 mask as soon as I put it on,” said Sgt. James Tuthill, a training non-commissioned officer stationed at the Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C. “I train Marines to be prepared for chemical, biological and radiological hot zones, and this mask provides them with better visibility, easier breathing and greater comfort wearing it. On top of all that, it just looks cool.”
Looking cool may give the mask some style points, but its improved functionality is what enables Soldiers to keep calm under pressure and execute their missions. Instead of goggles and just one filter traditionally found on its predecessor, the M40 mask, the M50 mask has a wrap-around visor and symmetrical filters on each side. It also has a silicon and butyl face piece that is flexible enough to fit all face sizes from the second to the 98th percentile of the adult population. These design enhancements make breathing 50 percent easier than the legacy M40 mask. It costs $280 to manufacture the M50 mask, its filters, a mask carrier and a decontamination kit.
The new mask is 15 years in the making. ECBC’s Joint Service General Masks Team, or JSGM, spent more than a decade developing an advanced, ergonomic and effective respiratory protective mask that can be used across the U.S. military for the defense of chemical agent threats. Soldiers can change filters in a threat environment, and the single lens across the face allows for a wider area of view for binocular use or other sighting devices. With increased comfort, improved visibility and better hydration, the new mask is considered one of the most heavily tested pieces of personal protective equipment developed by the DOD.
“We have been involved with every step of the design, validation, and testing and modification process. [We were also involved in] filter testing and product quality and deficiency reporting,” said Akanksha Raja, ECBC systems and logistics engineer.
The JSGM team traveled to Japan and Korea March 12 on a seven-week campaign to field masks at six Army sites. By the end of April, more than 39,000 masks had been successfully inspected and fielded to Soldiers in the region. The mask had been outfitted across the services since 2008, beginning with the Air Force, which has already received 345,448. The Navy received 274,333 masks, and the Marine Corps received 131,289. By 2019, the Army expects to fielded nearly 1.25 million masks.
A typical fielding includes the team arriving onsite, where an inspection is conducted for random sampling of five percent of the inventory to ensure quality of the shipment. Masks are then staged by commands in advance of the training sessions, during which 20 to 25 CBRNE specialists spend four hours training Soldiers using a train-the-trainer style that includes instruction on how to properly use and store the mask.
“We also authored the technical manual, and after the training, we remain a touch point for the Soldiers to answer any questions they have about the training, usage or storage of the mask,” Raja said.
Even as the M50 is fielded, ECBC continues to improve the most important piece of protective gear the U.S. Army has ever issued, Raja said.
The Army is currently designing a next-generation respirator that is lighter, smaller and has a built-in air flow from the nose cup to the eye cavity to keep the face cooler. Physiological monitors and sensors will control fan speeds for the air based on the breathing demands of the user. The most advanced communications technology will also be integrated into the mask.
“The center’s history of chemical weapon defense and Soldier protection keeps the end user in mind,” Raja said.