DoD Releases Paper on Chemical Agent Detector Kit

WASHINGTON, Aug. 13, 1999 (GulfLINK) � The office of the special assistant for Gulf War illnesses released today an interim information paper on the M256 series chemical agent detector kit. This latest release from the DoD office is designed to provide a basic understanding of particular chemical detection equipment relevant to several case narratives currently under investigation by this office. This paper also provides information on the kit's strengths and limitations related to its operational use during the Gulf War.

The M256 Chemical Agent Detector Kit consisting of two primary testing components - the vapor-sampler and M8 detection paper - is used to detect hazardous concentrations of blood, nerve and blister agents that could harm troops in a combat situation. It is manually operated and used to determine whether it is safe to remove protective gear following a chemical warfare attack, or as a confirmatory test after a chemical warfare agent alarm has sounded.

"In an operational environment, troops would use the M8 paper to investigate liquids like a 'litmus test' for the presence of nerve and blister agents. The kit's primary testing device, the vapor-sampler, is similar to a miniature chemistry set and, as its name implies, is used to test vapors and aerosols," says Terry Garner, the lead M256 kit investigator for the special assistant's office.

In some instances, during Operation Desert Storm, units reported increasing concerns over the availability and reliability of the kits. According to after-action reports from the VII Corps during Desert Storm, "Sixty percent of [1st Cavalry Division's] M256 kits were expired" and the unit inquired about replacements. Shortages of kits were not confined to Army units; Marine Corps units also received expired kits. Garner says the shelf life of the kits was originally five years.

"A lot of the initial supplies that were sent to the Gulf were kits that had either just passed their shelf life or were about to," Garner says. "Of course there were unexpired kits available that were moving through the supply system. But the deployment was going much quicker than the supply system could possibly react to."

He says updated kits were in place before the ground war began, and there were procedures in place for use of expired kits to make sure troops were not at increased risk.

"If using a kit with an expired shelf life gave a positive reaction for nerve agent, then they were to conduct a confirmatory test using another type of detector, or another 256 from a different lot number," Garner says.

The paper details the sensitivity of the M256 detector kit, which detects chemical warfare agents at much lower concentrations than other detectors U.S. forces had during the war. To prevent injury and death, the detector had to be able to detect chemical agents in concentrations lower than those that would injure service members. Those levels were established through laboratory research, observing workers who were accidentally exposed and in some cases from real-life examples.

"We know that Iraq used chemical agents against Iran, and we treated some of the Iranian soldiers," Garner says. "So we know what they were exposed to, we know the approximate amounts they were exposed to and by treating them we know the effects of the exposure."

One lesson learned from the Gulf War is that supplies must be monitored to make sure they are up to date. When kits are about to expire, they must be replaced. The supply status of chemical protective equipment must be included in the annual assessment of NBC defense capability DoD is required to submit to Congress.

"In the latest report, it shows the risk is low," Garner says. "Although [DoD does] recognize that in the future it could rise as more kits start to expire."

Another lesson highlighted is that documentation of chemical incidents should be improved. Poor record keeping has made it difficult to research chemical alarms reported by service members.

"Part of our problem is that a lot of logs were administratively destroyed before the Gulf War investigation began," Garner says. "So when a veteran says they had a positive 256 detection, we have no reason to doubt them. But when we try to backtrack, to find a record of that detection, there isn�t any." It is also clear in retrospect that the limitations of the M256 kit must be communicated to operators. To perform a detection test with confidence, service members need to know the circumstances which will cause the M256 to give an inaccurate result.

While the M256 kit is an improvement over older detection kits, Garner is quick to point out that it is not a cure-all for all problems associated with battlefield detection of chemical warfare agents.

Garner says none of the substances tried during development of the M256 caused false negative detection, but several substances like burning brush, pyrotechnic smoke and dried supertropical bleach did cause false positives with some regularity. He adds that false positive readings present one problem that is very difficult to overcome because operator error can be a factor.

"I think when people talk about the incidence of false positives they often forget that the person doing the test is probably a bit scared, and is trying to keep up with all that's happening on the battlefield," says Garner. "We will never be able to eliminate the human factor, and the only way to reduce it is to train, train, train, train, train."

This paper can be accessed through the GulfLINK website ( . If a reader has additional information or questions on the use of the M256 kit that would help better understand and more accurately report its use during the Gulf War, contact the office of the special assistant at 1-800-472-6719.

This is the third information paper published by this office on chemical warfare detectors. The other two, M8A1 and the Fox Vehicle papers, can be accessed through the GulfLINK website.