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ECBC: 100 years of protecting the American soldier.

This article recounts the 100-year history of the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC). It highlights the technological breakthroughs in protecting the warfighter and the Nation from chemical and biological threats over those 100 years. These breakthroughs fall into three categories: detection, protection, and decontamination. From its earliest days of using bleach and cotton pads to protect doughboys from the new threat of chemical warfare to its current work spanning digital technology, nanotechnology, and synthetic biology, this is a story of continuous improvements through the use of the world's best science and technology. This article also discusses the origins of ECBC and its readiness to respond to new threats moving forward into the next 100 years.

While ECBC is widely known to be the Nation's principal research and development resource for nonmedical chemical-biological defense, its rich history, which stretches back to World War I, is less well known. ECBC has played a role in every major American conflict since World War I, and its growth and evolution is the story of the Nation's Chemical-Biological Defense Program journey from a lesser player on the European periphery to a world leader. Today, the U.S. Chemical-Biological Defense Program is the envy of the world.

On 6 April 1917, the United States declared war on Germany and quickly moved to develop offensive and defensive chemical weapon capabilities. In October, under the Urgency Efficiency Act of 1917, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation designating Gunpowder Neck in Harford County, Maryland, as the location of the Nation's primary chemical shell-filling plant known as the Gunpowder Reservation. (1) In December, the Army Ordnance Department authorized the construction of a chemical agent production plant to supply the shell-filling plant. Its location along the banks of the Gunpowder River, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay and eventually to the Atlantic Ocean, meant that supply munitions could travel directly to the U.S. Army in Europe during World War I.

Meanwhile, the exhausted armies of Europe had been waging war for nearly 4 years, and chemical agents were a grim fact of daily life for these soldiers. Poison gas was probably the most feared weapon on the battlefield. (2) The U.S. Army sent its expeditionary force to Europe that year with the best offensive and defensive chemical capabilities available at the time.


World War I

During World War I, the U.S. Army possessed no technology for remotely sensing chemical agents and, therefore, it relied on human gas scouts. Gas scouts were positioned just beyond the main trench line, and if they smelled the garlic scent of mustard gas 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 a "sniff test."3 Recognizing the danger of using Soldiers as "canaries in the coal mine," Army researchers experimented with animals, including dogs, pigeons, and canaries. They even tried using snails and slugs, believing that by observing the waving of their tentacles, their slime production, and their movements, the snails would indicate the type of agent used and provide a rough indication of its concentration.

As the war progressed, ECBC (then called the U.S. Army Chemical Warfare Service Research Division) tested several concepts for a vapor field detector. The copper flame test lantern, which burned a green flame in the presence of copper and a blue-green flame in the presence of mustard gas, was perhaps the best prospect. However, it did not prove sensitive or reliable enough to dependably detect the presence of mustard gas, the biggest threat to Soldiers, because the effects took hours to be revealed.

Interwar Years and World War II

In 1934, ECBC (then called the Chemical Warfare Service) released a requirement for a chemical agent detector that would, above all, detect mustard gas. The requirement was not met until 1942 with the M4 Vapor Detector Kit. It used an early form of colorimetrics, by which tubes containing silica gel impregnated with a reagent would turn blue in the presence of mustard gas. It was later replaced by the improved M9 Chemical Agent Detector Kit. Also using colorimetric tubes, it only weighed 2 pounds and could be used to identify 11 different agents. However, like the M4, it could not detect nerve agents.

The next marked improvement in chemical agent detection was the M18 Chemical Agent Detection Kit, which was first produced in 1957. It used the same colorimetric technology but could detect nerve agents, and it weighed less.

Middle East Wars

The 1967 Arab-Israeli War demonstrated the need for combining chemical agent detection in the field with an alarm system that would warn Soldiers of a surprise chemical attack. In 1968, ECBC (then known as the Edgewood Arsenal Research Laboratories) combined the M43, a more advanced colorimetric detector, with the M42 alarm unit, creating the M8 Automatic Chemical Agent Alarm, a detector alarm system weighing 10 pounds. The combined unit could detect almost all known chemical agents. With minor adaptations, it could be configured for hand-held field use, mounted on trucks, or mounted on armored vehicles. It was a mainstay of the Army chemical agent defense until 1996.

The 1990s to Today

During the 1990s, ECBC (then known as the Edgewood Research, Development, and Engineering Center) made great strides in remote chemical agent detection. ECBC standardized and fielded the Improved Chemical Agent Monitor (ICAM). It was more reliable, more easily maintained, and more versatile than its Desert Storm predecessor. It could be programmed to test for expected threats, and it was sensitive enough to use for monitoring decontamination efforts.

In the 2000s, ECBC developed and fielded the M4 Joint Chemical Agent Detector (JCAD). It is capable of detecting nerve, blister, and blood agents and toxic industrial compounds. The JCAD is small, light, rugged, and highly portable. Because of these features, it quickly replaced the ICAM for field use. It has been produced in large quantities and fielded across the armed Services as a personal chemical agent detector.

Looking Forward

ECBC scientists and engineers continue to extend the boundaries of chemical detection to make the equipment faster, lighter, less expensive, and more reliable. Currently, ECBC is developing new methods to send detection instrument data to smartphones held by Soldiers standing at safe locations. The Soldier could then send the results to the unit commander, allowing hot zones to be quickly marked and communicated to other units.

ECBC is also developing on-the-move detection at speeds of up to 30 mph, which would allow a vehicle to remotely detect a chemical on the ground that could not be seen by the naked eye. Finally, ECBC is developing a new generation of drone technology that allows unmanned aerial and ground vehicles carrying detection equipment to intercept chemical agent clouds, identify the type of agent, and electronically send the data back to an integrated mission command center.


World War I

After the Germans first used chlorine gas as a chemical weapon in early World War I, Allies responded by issuing cotton pads that soldiers needed to soak in urine--the urea in urine reacted with chlorine. 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 consisted of cotton fabric coated with rubber. The canister was smaller than the British version, causing less breathing resistance. In addition to being more comfortable than the British mask, the Richardson Floy Kops Mask was also much easier to manufacture. Approximately 3 million Richardson Floy Kops Masks were produced during World War I.

Interwar Years

In 1939, as war was breaking out on the continent, ECBC created the M2 service mask. This mask was a lightweight training mask with a fully molded rubber face piece. It proved successful in training, so it became the standard mask for the Army. Although this model ceased to be used in 1949, the face piece from the M2 service mask continued in use for special purposes.

Post-War Years

The M9 series mask was developed in 1947. It came with a light carrying bag, a face piece made of synthetic-molded rubber, and a breathing canister on the right or left side. More than 3 million of these masks were made between 1947 and 1959. It was replaced by the M17 series mask in 1959. The M17 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, wrap-around lens. This provided greater visibility than earlier masks. It had front and side voicemitters and a drinking device. It was designed to allow for rapid donning, and it came in three sizes. However, due to marring of the lens and other problems, the M17 series was discontinued in the 1980s. In all, approximately 3.3 million M17 masks were produced between 1967 and 1986.

The Army replaced the M17 with the M40 mask in 1987. The face piece of this mask was made of silicone rubber. There were many improvements, including better vision, increased comfort, and easier maintenance. Later models included a quick-doff hood to improve liquid resistance. The mask was first used during Operation Desert Storm, but was more widely used in 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

21st Century

The M50 Joint Service General-Purpose Mask, the first mask of the 21st century, replaced the M40 mask. The M50 Joint Service General-Purpose Mask was first field tested in 2001 and was standardized in 2007. It has a wrap-around visor, a silicon butyl blend face piece, and an upgraded valve design, which makes breathing 50 percent easier than with its predecessor. The M50 gives more vision range, has dual filters that are interchangeable, and can stay in toxic environments for longer periods.

The Future

ECBC has developed technologies for the next-generation mask, which is under development. Researchers are working to make the mask lighter and less bulky. The new design will feature upgrades that allow a flow of air into the nose cup and eye cavity of the mask to keep users cooler. Researchers are also developing physiological monitors and sensors that will control fan speeds based on the breathing demands of the user. Finally, the most advanced communications technology will be integrated into the mask.


World War I

Bleach was considered the best method of decontamination for Soldiers and their equipment during World War I. Other measures Allied armies used in the trenches included airing out contaminated clothing and equipment for 48 hours. Trench fans were also popular until Soldiers discovered that they were spreading chemical agents, not removing them. A long, hot shower was another popular method of decontamination, especially in the case of mustard gas, where there was some delay between exposure and blistering.

By the end of the war, the Allies had advanced to the point of assigning two 2-truck degassing units to each division. One 5-ton truck had a 1,200-gallon water tank, complete with heaters and piping to connect to portable showers, and the other 5-ton truck held extra uniforms. While their size and weight limited their ability to reach Soldiers in the trenches, it marked the high point of the Allies' organized response to the need for chemical agent decontamination.

The Interwar Years

Between the wars, the Army regarded bleach as the decontaminant of choice. Through research and development, ECBC (then known as the Technical Division at Edgewood) improved storage life of bleach and established specifications for three different grades of decontamination. They created Grade A bleaching material, or high-test bleach, for use in the tropics where existing bleaches could only be stored for 3 weeks. However, it was expensive to produce because it contained 70 percent available chlorine. Grade B bleaching material contained 35 percent available chlorine; and it was cheap, effective, and commercially available. Grade C bleaching material contained 30 percent available chlorine. The Grade C designation was often simply used as a designation for Grade B bleaching material after it started to deteriorate.

Another area of research and development using chlorine-based compounds was a dry decontamination powder mixed with the industrial solvent acetylene tetrachloride. Like other chlorine bleaches, it operated by liberating chlorine atoms from the agent but was slower acting. In the event of a mustard gas incident, this had the advantage of reducing the corrosiveness of the process, which could rapidly corrode any metal being decontaminated. Later improvements to this class of decontaminant, called decontaminating agent, noncorrosive (DANC), rendered the compound less likely to clog hose lines. It was also less expensive and had a longer shelf life. While very effective against mustard gas, it had no effect on nerve agents. Decontamination powder had been applied using buckets, shovels, and brooms, but during this period, ECBC developed a sprayer. The earliest versions of the sprayer consisted of a 10-gallon pressure tank and a spray hose. Air for pressurization came from an external source. When this method failed to meet the needs of the Army, ECBC turned to commercially available, hand-held insecticide sprayers. At 72 pounds, these sprayers could decontaminate 50 square yards. They were ready for use in World War II and the Korean War if needed.

World War II

The United States entered World War II fully prepared to counter chemical attacks if necessary. As part of this effort, ECBC standardized improved grades of chlorine-based decontamination compounds by adopting improvements made by British researchers between the wars. Also during this period, ECBC (then named the Chemical Warfare Center) developed skin ointments that were of some value for protection against mustard gas. Distributed in 0.75-ounce tubes, the M5 vesicant agent protective ointment was part of Army medical kits until 1969.

Postwar Period

In 1950, ECBC developed an improved bleaching powder called Super Tropical Bleach. It was essentially Grade C bleaching material with the addition of calcium oxide, which operated as a stabilizer. This increased the storage life and made the consistency more uniform; thus, it was easier to spread over a surface. The most important benefit was that it was effective against lewisite, G- and V-series nerve agents, and biological agents. Although too expensive for private industry to produce, the U.S. Army produced it at a plant in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and it remained the Army's mainstay decontaminant for decades.

During this period, ECBC steadily upgraded its decontamination sprayer trucks by switching from wood to steel tanks; enlarging the tanks; increasing the water pressure; and adding spray guns, shower rails, and a water heater. This culminated in the M9 Decontamination Apparatus, which remained in use into the 1970s.

In 1960, ECBC (then called the Chemical Research and Development Laboratories) reformulated DANC and called it DANC 2. It was effective against all known chemical agents, including G- and V-series nerve agents, mustard gas, and biological agents. The new formulation was also far less corrosive to metals, rubber compounds, plastics, and fabrics. Despite being a skin irritant and corrosive to painted surfaces, DANC 2 was available in 1.33-quart and 5-gallon cans and remained a much-used decontaminant into the 21st century.

In 1966, ECBC (then known as the Research Laboratories) developed a skid-mounted version of the M9 Decontamination Apparatus. It could spray hot, soapy water or decontamination compounds. The field shower assembly was expanded to handle up to 25 Soldiers at a time. It remained in use throughout Operation Desert Storm.

In 1983, ECBC (then known as the Chemical Research and Development Center) developed a highly portable means of applying DANC 2. At 60 pounds, the M13 Decontamination Apparatus consisted of a 3.7-gallon tank with a spray nozzle that could be stored in a vehicle can-mounting bracket. It even included a scrubber brush to remove mud or soil from equipment that was being decontaminated.

Post 9/11 Era

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. ECBC (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 nontoxic, noncorrosive decontaminant powder and two wash mitt applicators. It required no water and could easily be carried in a rucksack. The powder, unlike DANC 2, did not interfere with chemical agent detectors.

ECBC also developed a prepackaged, ready-to-go response kit for chemical and biological agent mass casualty incident response called the Mass Casualty Decontamination System. It consists of detection equipment, personal protection equipment, tents, decontamination and clean-up equipment, communications gear, hazmat 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.

The Future

For the past 10 years, ECBC has steadily refined and improved a recently developed class of chemical compounds known as metal organic frameworks (MOFs). Chemists custom make MOFs in a laboratory using organic struts and metallic nodes, much like using an erector set, creating void spaces for chemical warfare agents or toxic industrial compound molecules to enter and get trapped.

MOFs have the dynamic quality of interacting with molecules that come into contact with them, and newer versions can neutralize chemical agents on contact. ECBC is now working to turn these molecules into a decontamination powder that can be used to neutralize chemical agents found in the field. The agency is even working on an MOF aerosol that can be sprayed on agent-exposed surfaces, such as that of an armored personnel carrier.

The best time to perform decontamination is as the contaminant comes into contact with a Soldier. ECBC is currently designing and testing new fabrics in an effort to develop a self-detoxifying protective suit to replace current protective suits. This research also includes cutting-edge work on embedding sui) fibers with MOFs so that chemical agents will be trapped, immobilized, and neutralized on contact, making decontamination of the suit unnecessary. Current research efforts include layering MOFs into the fabric as it is woven and grown on the fabric.

The Next 100 Years

In recognizing its 100-year anniversary, ECBC leaders wish to pay tribute to the excellence and dedication of generations of scientists, engineers- technicians, and administrative support personnel. Together, they have safeguarded the Nation through a century of tumultuous events and unprecedented challenges. Today's ECBC advancements are built upon the accomplishments of this past.

The future of ECBC is even more exciting. ECBC constantly retools to meet the need generation of chemical and 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 nonstate actors seeking opportunities to attack the homeland. ECBC will do it- part to make the Nation ready for any and all of these contingencies.


(1) Jeffery Smart, "From Plowshare to Sword: Historical Highlights of Gunpowder Neck and Edgewood Arsenal to the End of World War I," Harford Historical Bulletin, Number 63, Winter 1995, pp. 12-15.

(2) C. N. Trueman, "Gas Attack in World War One," History Learning Site, 31 March 2015, <http://www.historylearningsite -attack-in-world-war-one/>, accessed on 23 March 2017.

(3) J. K. Smart (Research, Development and Engineering Command historian): personal interview, July 2009.

Dr. Feeney is a contractor supporting -he ECBC Public SS-fairs Office. He holds a bachelor's degree in history from Colorado College, Colorado Springs; a master's degree in risk communication from Cornell University, Ithaca, New York; and a Ph.D. in risk communication from Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Caption: More than 41,000 M4 detection kits were assembled during World War II.

Caption: The JCAD proved to be a revolution in miniaturizing chemical agent detection technology.

Caption: Deep Purple is a sensor-carrying aerial drone that ECBC developed to intercept and identify chemical and biological threats.

Caption: The Richarson Floy Kops mask was the mainstay for U.S. Expeditionary Forces respiratory protection during World War I.

Caption: A Soldier wears an M50 protective mask with night vision goggles.

Caption: A two-truck degassing unit, one of two assigned to each U.S. Army division during World War I
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Author:Feeney, Brian B.
Publication:CML Army Chemical Review
Date:Jun 22, 2017
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