The Army’s Anthrax-Eating Underwear

The military’s ‘second skin’ would protect against chemical or biological attacks—but it has a long way to go.

02.06.16 5:02 AM ET

The U.S. military is developing—or at least trying to develop—skintight “smart” underwear that can sense a chemical or biological attack and instantly adapt in order to protect the wearer from contamination or infection.

This “second skin” would combine the benefits of a gas mask, a biohazard suit, and certain vaccines—all while being super comfortable for the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines wearing it.

Problem is, the second skin would probably never work against one of the biggest biological threats out there, one that the military specifically cited in its announcement of the project: anthrax.

Anthrax is an insidious, practically undetectable bacterium that can be easily adapted into a weapon. It killed five people in one particularly chilling act of apparent domestic terrorism back in 2001.

The U.S. Army’s Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Massachusetts announced the second-skin initiative in an official release on Jan. 28.

“The second skin will be a protective ‘skin’ engineered with textile materials as a substrate that will adapt to the environment that the soldier is in,” Dr. Paola D’Angelo, a Natick bioengineer, said in the statement. “The idea is that the skin will be lightweight, it will not retain heat, and it will be air and moisture permeable.”

Composed of special polymer gels, the second skin would detect harmful agents and quickly react, closing any gaps in the “fabric” to prevent the gas or biologic from passing through. There would also be neutralization function, whereby the second skin would “deactivate” the harmful chemical or biological agent, according to the Army release.

“Anthrax, for instance, is one of the biggest threats,” D’Angelo said in the release. “So we need to find a way to detect it and kill it onsite.”

But the military already routinely vaccinates deploying service members against anthrax. The second skin might in theory help protect troops from chemical attacks, according to Mark Coggeshall, an anthrax expert at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation in Oklahoma City. But Coggeshall said that as an anthrax defense the smart underwear is at best redundant and, at worst, utterly ineffective.

For starters, it won’t be able to sense an anthrax attack, the scientists claimed. “As far as I know, there’s no easy way to detect anthrax spores [in advance],” Coggeshall told The Daily Beast.

It’s usually only after anthrax infects someone—by being inhaled or ingested or penetrating the skin through an open wound—that the bacterium’s presence is evident, in the form of lesions, vomiting, diarrhea, or flu-like symptoms, depending on the method of infection. To give the second skin anthrax-sensing capability in the near future, the military would need to make some profound scientific breakthroughs—and fast.

In any event, Coggeshall said that as a defense against anthrax, combined with a face mask the second skin would be no more effective than, well, a mask and actual skin, which when intact forms a pretty good barrier against anthrax and other biologics. “It’s kind of its own suit,” Coggeshall said of human skin.

Army researcher D’Angelo defended the smart underwear project in an email to The Daily Beast. “Valid points,” she wrote of Coggeshall’s criticisms. But she pointed out that there are ways of detecting certain strains of anthrax before infection, including inspection via microscope and shining a fluorescent light to reveal acid that the spores release over time.

At present these methods only work in a carefully controlled laboratory setting. It might be hard to imagine a suit made of near-term technologies that can microscopically monitor its surroundings in the middle of, for example, a running gun battle.

Still, D’Angelo insisted that it’s worth trying to develop the second skin. “It is true that anthrax occurs after ingestion, breathing or entry of spores through a wound,” she wrote. “However, we do not want to wait until this happens to act against the spore. If spores happen to be present in, let’s say, a compromised setting/environment and make contact with the second skin, we want the proposed fabric to act instantly and inactivate spores before the soldier breathes them.”

So D’Angelo and other military scientists could keep working on the second skin, hoping for a breakthrough that makes anthrax-killing underwear possible and practical. But if Coggeshall’s critique is valid, the second skin is a long shot.