Marks 100 Years Laboratory Workforce Responsible for World-changing Advances in Chemical-biological Defense
The year 2017 marks the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center’s 100th year of operations, a century of excellence and dedication by generations of scientists, engineers, technicians and support personnel. Together, they have safeguarded the nation through a century of tumultuous events and unprecedented challenges. While ECBC is widely known to be the nation’s principal research and development resource for non-medical chemical biological defense, what is less well known is its rich history stretching back to World War I.
World War I, a Hurried Start
Upon entering the war, the nation was in a rush to develop a chemical weapons capability, both offensive and defensive, to meet the terrible new weapon the Germans began using in 1915. On Oct. 16, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation under the Urgency Efficiency Act of 1917 designating the Gunpowder Neck in Harford County, Maryland the location of the nation’s primary chemical shell filling plant, then called the Gunpowder Reservation. On Dec. 10, 1917, the Army Ordnance Department authorized construction of a chemical agent production plant to supply the shell filling plant.
During World War I, the U.S. Army possessed no technology for remotely sensing chemical agent and relied on human “gas scouts.” They were positioned just beyond the main trench line, and if they smelled the garlic scent of mustard agent or felt the nasal and throat irritation of chlorine, they ran back and warned the other soldiers. After a chemical agent attack, soldiers determined if the agent had dispersed by taking off their masks and performing the “sniff test.”
Gas mask design was in its infancy, too.
At first, soldiers were simply issued cotton pads that they had to soak in a liquid, often their own urine. Soon, the mainstay of respiratory protection for American soldiers during World War I became the Richardson Floy Kops Mask. It was an improved version of a British mask in wide use. The face piece was cotton fabric coated with rubber. The canister was smaller than the British version, to cause less breathing resistance. In addition to being more comfortable than its British counterpart, the mask was also much easier to manufacture. Approximately three million of these were produced during World War I. Starting in 1920, gas mask production became a major activity at Edgewood.
The World War II Boom Years
In 1939, as war was breaking out again in Europe, Edgewood created the M2 Service Mask. This mask started out as a lightweight training mask with a fully molded rubber face piece. It proved successful in training and so became the standard mask for the Army. Over 8.4 million of the M2 series masks were manufactured during the World War II, many of them at Edgewood. This provided employment to thousands of workers in northeast Maryland, including large numbers of women and African-Americans.
The workforce averaged 7,000 for the duration of the war, half of whom were African-Americans.
The demand for workers during the war created opportunities for women, too. The Women’s Army Corps, called WACs, arrived in 1943. The WACs went to work testing weapons and equipment and working in the chemical laboratories. During the same period, another wave of female workers arrived. Known as the WOWs, for Women Ordnance Workers, they proofed weapons, tested vehicles and performed most of the functions necessary to provide the soldiers in the field with the best equipment.
The need for workers in this period was vast. Local newspaper ads placed by the Army asked for all manner of labor – clerks, draftsmen, chauffeurs, electricians, glass blowers, mechanics, scientific aids, crane operators, photographers, munitions handlers, toolmakers, steel workers, welders, pressmen and chemists. As the war came to an end, the labor force shrunk back down to peacetime levels. However, thousands of workers previously on the margins of the workforce now had newly acquired skills and experience.
The Cold War
America’s new adversary, the Soviet Union, possessed a chemical biological arsenal every bit as formidable as Nazi Germany’s. Edgewood employed hundreds of scientists to develop ever-improved defensive technologies, and hundreds of other workers manufactured the masks, detectors and decontamination equipment these scientists designed.
Edgewood scientists achieved a big step forward in chemical agent detection with the M18 Chemical Agent Detection Kit in 1957. It used colorimetric technology to detected nerve agents. It weighed less, was more sensitive and was easier to operate than earlier detectors. Between 1957 and 1965, the Army procured over 19,000 M18 Chemical Agent Detector Kits.
Another chemical defense breakthrough was the M17 Series Mask, which Edgewood first developed in 1959. Its innovations included filter material in the cheek pockets of the mask rather than a side canister, which could pull the mask away from the face. The M17 series masks were the first to have a large flexible wraparound lens. This provided greater visibility than earlier masks. It had front and side voice mitters, a drinking device, was designed to allow for rapid donning, and came in three sizes. Approximately 3.3 million M17A1 and A2 masks were produced between 1967 and 1986.
With these advances in technology came a need for even more scientific and engineering expertise in the Edgewood workforce. More Ph.D.’s and professional engineers joined the workforce, and Edgewood fully established itself as the nation’s brain trust for chemical biological defense science and technology.
Shift to Demilitarization
The next chapter in chemical weapons history began in 1969 when President Richard Nixon unilaterally renounced the first use of chemical weapons and renounced all methods of biological warfare. This new policy direction culminated in 1997 when the United States ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention banning the possession of chemical weapons and requiring the destruction of existing stockpiles, precursor chemicals, production facilities and weapon delivery systems.
ECBC supported and continues to support the United States’ chemical demilitarization program, a massive undertaking to destroy the nation’s entire chemical arsenal, through its unmatched scientific expertise and laboratory infrastructure. The center also uses its field response capability, known as the Chemical Biological Applications and Risk Reductions or CBARR, to assist other nations around the world in destroying their recovered chemical weapons. ECBC made headlines around the world in 2014 by developing and operating a new chemical agent destruction system called the Field Deployable Hydrolysis System to destroy Syria’s 600 metric ton declared stockpile of chemical warfare material at sea in international waters.
The Post 9/11 Era
With the start of the 21st century came a new set of chemical biological threats. After anthrax-laced letters were mailed to public buildings in 2001, policy makers felt an acute need for a highly compact, easy-to-use agent decontamination system. Edgewood, officially named the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center at this point, developed the M100 Sorbent Decontamination System in response. It consisted of two packs of a non-toxic, non-corrosive decontaminant powder, and two wash mitt applicators. It required no water and could easily be carried in a rucksack.
ECBC also developed a pre-packaged, ready-to-go response kit for a chemical biological agent mass casualty incident response. Called the Mass Casualty Decontamination System, it consists of detection equipment, personal protection equipment, tents, and decontamination and clean up equipment, plus communications gear, hazardous materials reference guides, cameras, power and lighting.
Using a modular design concept, these sets are stored in industry standard containers with interiors that ECBC customized to precisely match the storage requirements of each specific equipment ensemble.
Also in the 2000s, ECBC developed and fielded the M4 Joint Chemical Agent Detector, known as the JCAD. It is capable of detecting nerve, blister and blood agent as well as toxic industrial compounds. It is small, light, rugged and highly portable. It has been produced in large quantities and fielded across the armed services as a personal chemical agent detector.
Today, ECBC employs more than 1,100 civilian employees and about 300 contractors. Among its workforce are approximately 500 bachelor’s degrees, more than 200 master’s degrees and nearly 100 doctorate degrees in a wide range of fields – including mechanical engineering, chemistry, mathematics, aerospace engineering, microbiology and more. The education and expertise of ECBC’s workforce make possible the partnerships and solutions which ECBC provides to its technically diverse customers and technology development partners.
This wide-ranging expertise also makes ECBC an engine of private sector job growth in Maryland and beyond. Many of the technologies that ECBC develops lend themselves to commercialization, stimulating the nation’s economy at the same time they make the nation safer. Through patent license agreements and a variety of other mechanisms, ECBC forms active partnerships to advance and commercialize new technologies. ECBC partnerships with private businesses contribute to civilian job growth in the Mid-Atlantic Region. ECBC anticipates that these numbers will increase as the commercial applications of its novel advances in additive manufacturing 3-D printing and rapid prototyping expand.
ECBC has actively promoted science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education in nearby Harford and Cecil County schools since the 1980s. In that time hundreds of ECBC science and technology experts have reached more than 10,000 students in 60 schools in the two school districts and worked with nearly 100 teachers. ECBC sends its experts to classrooms to speak to students, serve as guest lecturers, host field trips, judge competitions and science fairs, and exhibit at career fairs and expos.
In addition, for eight years, ECBC has hosted a class of competitively selected minority college undergraduates majoring in a STEM discipline to participate in 10 weeks of chemical biological research under the mentorship of ECBC subject matter experts. Known as the Minority Undergraduate Student Internship Program, the mentorship concludes with the interns presenting their research findings to ECBC leadership.
ECBC’s work with under-represented groups in science does not end there. ECBC worked with the United Negro College Fund Special Programs Corporation to establish the Minority Serving Institution STEM Research & Development Consortium. The initiative has attracted membership from institutions across the country that have traditionally served minority students, including African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and Alaskan natives. It includes minority-serving institutions, including Howard University, Morehouse College and Tuskegee University. Students and faculty at these institutions submit proposals to ECBC where subject matter experts evaluate them competitively. A committee of ECBC scientists awards research grants to the most promising proposals. They also provide mentorship to the winning students over the course of their one-year research project. Last year, ECBC awarded five grants ranging from $80,000 to $280,000 and plans to award more next year.
ECBC’s next 100 years will be even more exciting. ECBC constantly retools to meet the next generation of chemical biological challenges confronting the world. In the second decade of the 21st century, these challenges include emerging chemical and biological compounds, asymmetrical warfare in the far corners of the world, drones on and over the battlefield and non-state actors seeking opportunities to attack the homeland. ECBC will do its part to make the nation ready for any and all of these contingencies, and will continue to be a great place to for area residents to work. I95
For more information about ECBC, visit www.ecbc.army.mil.