Bulletproof, But For How Long?

Tom Reilly, as Massachusetts Attorney General, holds bulletproof vest protective insert covered Zylon fabric, as he announces a lawsuit against the both the manufacturer of the vest and the manufacturer of the fiber. Boston, Mass., 11-17-03
The Justice Department launched an intensive review Tuesday of the reliability of Zylon police body armor, in response to complaints that the material might lose strength over time and put officers' lives in danger.

The initiative will focus on bullet-resistant vests made with Zylon, a fiber made by the Japanese company Toyobo and used by manufacturers of many types of body armor.

CBS News Correspondent Jim Stewart reports Zylon's manufacturer does say the fiber can degrade when subjected to heat and humidity: two things cops put out in abundance through sweat and body heat.

Toyobo, in a statement issued last month, says the strength of the fiber "might be susceptible to degradation under certain extreme temperature and humidity conditions for prolonged periods of continuous exposure."

Toyobo stresses that it can only make statements about the fiber itself, cannot "assess the actual ballistic performance of any individual manufacturer's product," and has continued to update manufacturers with its latest test results.

Announcement of the review by the Justice Department came one day after Massachusetts Attorney General Tom Reilly filed a lawsuit seeking to stop sale of Zylon-based vests.

The lawsuit was filed against Toyobo and Second Chance Body Armor, a Michigan-based company which was named earlier in a class action suit filed on behalf of police in Georgia.

Second Chance, in a statement on its web site, claims Toyobo withheld for two years - until last month - information pointing to Zylon durability problems.

Second Chance told its customers in September that it had seen an "unexpected decrease" in the strength of the fiber in two of its vest models, and had discontinued the models.

The company disclosed the potential problem following incidents when the vests failed, including the June 23 wounding of a Pennsylvania officer.

Reilly wants the court to order sales of the vest halted in Massachusetts and force the defendants to replace defective products or give officers their money back.

Chuck Canterbury, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, sent a letter Monday to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, saying that Toyobo has acknowledged Zylon may lose 20 percent of its strength within just two years.

"In several cases around the country vests less than a year old have failed," says Canterbury. "Bullets have penetrated and caused critical injuries to police officers."

Questions about the vests have led some police executives to warn their officers against wearing them, according to Canterbury, who says that type of reaction makes things even more dangerous.

Ashcroft has ordered the Justice Department to conduct its own longevity tests and report back within 90 days on just how bullet-resistant Zylon vests actually are.

Ashcroft said in a statement that the review is intended to "ensure the reliability of bullet-resistant vests worn by officers as they patrol our streets and keep our communities safe."

"As all law enforcement organizations know, bulletproof vests exist to save the lives of law enforcement officers," Ashcroft said.

If the Justice Department finds that Zylon does degrade quickly, the Fraternal Order of Police wants the government to stop certifying the vests and force their makers to replace them.

The initiative announced by Ashcroft includes:

  • A study by the National Institute of Justice on Zylon-based vests and how they are certified by the government.
  • A summit of law enforcement organizations, vest makers and testing groups to go over the study and determine whether Zylon-based armor remains suitable for police.
  • Assistance for state and local law enforcement agencies in replacing any defective equipment.