July 14, 2008

Fabric Blocks Radiation, Chemical, Biological Hazards

By Jim Wyss, The Miami Herald

Jul. 14--Ronald DeMeo places a radioactive wafer about the size of a silver dollar on his desk and waves a handheld Geiger counter over it. The machine chatters wildly, the numbers on the readout spin upward and visitors instinctively lean back.

But when the Coral Gables doctor covers the disc, which is designed for materials testing and quite safe, with a thin piece of fabric, the numbers dive and the noise from the Geiger dips to a low growl.

It's an effective demonstration of Demron -- the radiation-blocking material of DeMeo's invention -- and one that his Coral Gables company, Radiation Shield Technologies, hopes will find a receptive audience in a post-9-11, security-conscious world.

The patented fabric -- just slightly thicker than denim -- is embedded with metal particles and other compounds capable of blocking X-rays, low-energy gamma rays and other types of nuclear emission that might be found anywhere from a doctor's office to the site of a dirty bomb blast.

The company had just under $1 million in sales last year, providing torso vests and full Demron suits to doctors and a specialized niche of first responders. But now RST is hoping to broaden its reach into the military market with the launch of Demron-W, which is also impervious to chemical and biological agents.


Currently, first responders and military planners have to pick and choose protective clothing depending on the scenario. By addressing the triple threat of radiation, chemical and biological agents, RST is hoping to take the guesswork out of the equation.

"We have a suit that you can wear in any environment -- chemical or radioactive -- and that addresses the concerns that first responders are dealing with right now," DeMeo said.

Retailing for about $1,500 each, the suits have several competitive advantages. Unlike traditional lead aprons, Demron is toxin-free, flexible and remarkably light. A heel-to-head Demron suit weighs about 12 pounds.

And unlike many existing biological and chemical suits, Demron is thermal conductive, meaning it doesn't become a sauna inside, reducing the risk of heat stress.

While there is a healthy market for chemical and biological gear, that has not been the case for radiation-blocking suits, said Jeffrey Stull of International Personnel Protection, a Texas-based consultancy that advises first responders and industry on protective clothing.

Most of the protective suits on the market might stop radioactive dust but do little to block ionizing radiation. First responders deal with radiological threats by developing protocols that maximize distance and minimize the time spent around sources of radiation, he said. But those strategies might not work in the case of a dirty bomb, he said.


"So a material like Demron comes along, and it isn't perfect but it does provide greater protection than existing materials," he said. "This is an area that's really untapped because there haven't been any products that were effective."

Florida is better known for UV rays than gamma rays, but it is also becoming a hot spot for companies like RST that deal in homeland security. With 50 military installations and 12 major bases in the state, Florida companies won more than $10.3 billion in Department of Defense contracts last year, according to Enterprise Florida.

RST has not made Defense Department sales yet, but it is getting attention in Asia, Europe and the Middle East, where there is a heightened awareness of radioactive threats, DeMeo said.

NATO recently purchased 250 Demron suits for $250,000 for the Republic of Belarus. And other larger deals are in the works, DeMeo said. The company expects sales of $5 million this year.

RST manufactures the fabric in a plant in Medley and assembles its products in factories throughout the United States. Pompano Beach-based Point Blank Body Armor, for example, makes high-energy suppression blankets from Demron that are designed to be thrown over a dirty bomb or other radioactive source.

The CBRN marketplace -- that's chemical, biological, radiation and nuclear -- is competitive and confusing since there are few standards, said Jonathan Elkoubi, general manager of Safer America, a New York company that distributes RST's products.

Demron's radiation-blocking claims have been tested by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, operated by the University of California and the Department of Energy. And Underwriters Laboratory recently certified the suit as a "Protective Ensemble" for first responders to CBRN terrorism incidents.

"The product is really picking up momentum as it becomes [better known] among first response officials," said Elkoubi, who has sold just over 150 of the suits. "But it's still a niche type of market, and it will take some time to make a name for itself."

Demron didn't start off with dirty bombers in mind. DeMeo, who still works as a pain specialist in Coral Gables, began working on the fabric in the early 1990s after he began noticing radiation burns on his hands and face -- and those of his colleagues -- from prolonged exposure to X-ray machines. That sent DeMeo on a search for alternatives.

"I funded the research myself because it was for my own preservation," he said. His tinkering led to an early version of Demron that he turned into radio-opaque sheets thin enough to slip inside surgical masks.

DeMeo and investors have put about $2 million into the company thus far and plan to keep exploring opportunities in both the medical and military fields. But the technology may find uses well beyond the operating room and battlefield, DeMeo said.

NASA is looking at Demron's suitability as a radiation shield for the International Space Station.


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