Give Me Shelter

June 14, 2005

jittery Americans boost protective apparel sales but manufacturers view growth with skepticism

Containment suits such as these Tychem garments from DuPont are drawing much attention as a result of heightened concerns about terrorist attacks. Photo courtesy of DuPont.
The sky is falling, the sky is falling. What Chicken Little once cackled as cries of alarm might today be viewed by protective apparel manufacturers as a marketing bonanza. With governments regularly sounding alarms, sales of garments are busting at the seams as everyone from hazmat responders to housewives are looking for products that will protect them from chemical, biological and even radioactive attacks.

At a time when duct tape and plastic sheeting have become household necessities, the demand for and focus on protective apparel have never been higher. Still reeling from 9/11 and the subsequent anthrax attacks—the frayed nerves of the American public were further inflamed when the federal government raised the national security alert status to orange—the second most severe rating-last month. The escalation sent many civilians in search of protective suits, gas masks and anything in the hardware store offering the least bit of protection.

While it may seem like rich times for protective garment manufacturers and their nonwovens suppliers, many say consumer clamor for protective wear presents as many headaches as opportunities. With some inquiries seeking suits for cows and pets, one garment maker said the security alert is “bringing them out of the woodwork.”

Even legitimate requests pose a potential problem. Safety suits are designed to protect against specific hazardous agents; a single suit is incapable of protecting against all possible hazards. Additionally, most products on the market require training for proper protection—something consumers are unlikely to undertake. Donning the garments properly with the appropriate respirator is no easy feat. Worn improperly, protective apparel can actually pose a danger to the untrained user, one apparel manufacturer warned.

While garment makers say sales are rising in these wary times, some view consumer demand with skepticism. Likening the trends to the building of basement fallout bunkers in the 1950s, protective apparel manufacturers say civilian demand will ebb and flow with the focus of the media. The bread and butter of their business, they add, will continue to be industrial customers, whose need is constant.

DuPont’s Tyvek Is King
According to INDA, Association of the Nonwovens Fabric Industry, Cary, NC, the disposable protective apparel market for nonwovens is worth $290 million in North America. Dupont’s flashspun Tyvek products account for an estimated 80% of this total, making it the unchallenged leader. Of the remainder, SMS materials account for roughly 15%, with spunbond and spunlace nonwovens making up the balance. Products included in the category are disposable apparel for industrial facilities, paint shops, nuclear plants, hazardous waste teams, agricultural sites and cleanrooms.

DuPont’s dominance stems from its role as both a supplier of nonwoven fabrics and a finished apparel maker. The company expanded its market share in late 2001 when it acquired Kappler Safety Group’s garment line to supplement its own apparel products. Wilmington, DE-based DuPont’s line includes protective garments for a wide variety of occupations. Aside from garments made from nonwovens, it also offers protective apparel using other fabrics.

The company’s success in the market can be attributed to its proprietary technology, Tyvek. This flashspun olefin offers excellent dry particulate protection as well as durability. Garments made from treated Tyvek have been tested against some 280 contaminants and even offer limited protection against biological agents such as anthrax, according to DuPont. Within the protective apparel market, competitors are all hoping to develop a substitute fabric with Tyvek-like performance.

While not as dominant as DuPont, Kimberly-Clark is another major manufacturer in the protective apparel sector. And, like the market leader, this Dallas, TX-based company produces both the nonwoven and the finished product. It offers a variety of gowns and suits using its own SMS nonwovens.

It’s not enough these days to protect against just chemical and biological agents. This military suit from Radiation Shield Technology has radiation protective performance similar to that of lead; emergency worker and even civilian versions are also in the works. Photo courtesy of RST.

On the roll goods side of the business, producers such as BBA Nonwovens are focusing on improving the resin technology of SMS nonwovens as well as composites. According to Jeff Willis, business manager for protective fabrics at BBA, SMS will penetrate more of the market in the future because of its performance characteristics. He said that the company is focusing on laminates to optimize performance characteristics while providing comfort and strength.

“SMS is gaining share due to its excellent balance of barrier and protection,” Mr. Willis added. “Nonwovens companies that can add value by combining fabrics with different properties should benefit.”

Is It Sustainable?
Although it might seem that DuPont, Kimberly-Clark and other apparel makers stand to benefit from the country’s upgraded security concerns, few see it as a sustainable revenue source. Certainly government sales have risen, and civilians may also create more demand in the near future. However, as domestic security concerns ease, that demand may decline proportionately. Still, for now, the market is enjoying a strong boost.

“Right after the Anthrax (attack) came out, we put together technical information on our products for our team. We literally ran out of inventory on all the microporous and film laminated materials,” said Beth Hohl, manager, marketing and R&D, for Kimberly-Clark Safety Division. “Since then, we’ve had a harder time forecasting our needs.”

Indeed the surge of interests in protective clothing has helped producers such as Kimberly-Clark post double-digit growth in that segment. Some companies have even reported doubling their sales in the past two years, in part due to a growing consumer base. Kits containing a suit, respirator and other accessories are available to the public through various distributors.

Not all garment makers see explosive sales. Although it dominates the category, DuPont said growth has been tempered. “There has been more demand,” said spokeswoman Beth Huber. “Has it been dramatic? No.”

She said that despite the recent focus on safety garments, there is much confusion about the role they serve. Who needs garments? What level of protection is necessary? Who will be responsible for training users to properly wear them? Those are just some of the questions that professional emergency responders might ask. Throw in the consumer and the level of confusion rises further.

Bread-and-butter uses such as garments for paint shops account for the bulk of protective apparel sales. Photo courtesy of Kimberly-Clark Safety Division.

Ms. Huber said her company offers a range of products that meet just about all of the market’s needs. While DuPont is always seeking ways to improve garment performance and durability, product improvement isn’t its only focus. At a time when uninformed consumers are reaching out for products, she said the company wants to ensure that buyers understand their proper use. “We take a strong position that if you’re not trained, you shouldn’t be using these garments.”

Ms. Huber’s sentiments aren’t alone. Charlie Roberson, the marketing manager for the SoftGUARD fabric line at Precision Fabrics Group, Greensboro, NC, said his company saw a “short-term” spike following 9/11, attributed to purchases by first responders. The nonwovens producer has since seen sales resume to their normal levels.

With increased interest in protective garments came customer inquiries about product’s protection performance, requiring fabric suppliers to perform additional testing.

“Manufacturers were forced to test fabrics against chemicals that were previously considered unnecessary,” Mr. Roberson added.

Meeting Established Standards
While the vast number of biological and chemical agents available for attacks complicates suit selection, there are many standards and testing results that can help end users make the right choice. Organizations such as ASTM International (formerly the American Society for Testing and Materials) and the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) have published standards by which testing is performed.

A battery of ASTM tests is used industry wide to gauge a fabric’s tensile strength, air and liquid permeability and chemical resistance. Manufacturers use the ASTM test results as a reference for end users.

Recently, the NFPA released its 1994 standard, which covers protective ensembles for chemical/biological terrorism incidents. This follows two other standards for garments for vapor and liquid splash protection. Bruce Teele, senior fire safety specialist at the NFPA, said the 1994 standards were issued in 2001, prior to the 9/11 attacks. They are currently under review for additional revisions to be published next year.

The current standards specify three classes of suits: classes 1, 2 and 3 for different levels of protection. It also calls for fabrics to be tested against highly penetrating agents such as VX, lewisite, mustard and sarin gas.

One of the problems of evaluating fabrics against these agents is that only military labs can access them. Fabric manufacturers must contract those facilities to conduct the testing, which is costly and time consuming. As a result, few protective garments on the market meet the 1994 standards. Mr. Teele said while he understands the difficulty facing manufacturers, he also expressed “disappointment” with those manufacturers, saying they could be more “robust” in their efforts to introduce compliant suits.

Radiation Protection
Protection against chemicals and biological agents is not enough for some; radiation attacks have also crept into the conscience of Americans. Talk of “dirty bombs” has many on edge.

One company is already employing nonwovens in a radiation-blocking suit. Miami, FL-based Radiation Shield Technology (RST) recently began offering nonwovens-based suits with radiation and chemical protection benefits. Using what the company described as a “hybrid” nonwoven, its suits offer protection against x-ray, alpha, beta and low levels of gamma rays. In testing conducted at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Columbia University and the Georgia Institute of Technology, the company’s core technology, Demron, was shown to have radiation-blocking abilities rivaling that of lead. It was also cited by Livermore Lab officials as “effective as a radiation shield,” according to the company.

According to Jon Hefler, operations coordinator at RTS, the company’s main customer base is the military; he declined to provide additional details about his company’s work for the armed forces. However, the company will soon launch products for municipal employees as well as consumers with an emphasis on first response workers such as police officers, firefighters and hazmat crews. Other buyers could include power plant and medical workers. RST has started taking preorders for civilian suits.

It will offer class A-D garments that protects against nuclear, chemical and biological agents and fire retardent and bomb suits.

Demron was originally developed by Ronald DeMeo, a surgeon who sought to find better protection against x-rays in the operating room. The company said the material took 10 years to develop and can be incorporated into construction materials, aircrafts and other products in addition to protective apparel.

Mr. Hefler said the technology’s strongest selling point is the suits’ ability to comfortably provide radiation protection. It is also a much lighter alternative to lead. “There’s really nothing like it out there right now,” he claimed.

Everyday Applications
With the protective apparel market focused on chemical, nuclear and biological protection, it seems that the bulk of the business goes unnoticed. Safety garments used at chemical plants, paint shops, farms, machinery shops and other locations still account for the largest portion of the segment’s nonwovens sales. While garments available on the market for the most part meet customers’ performance requirements, they are also constantly asking for improvements in comfort, air flow, durability and lower pricing.

“Customers’ demands regarding the protective apparel products themselves have not changed significantly over the past few years,” said Precision Fabric’s Mr. Roberson. “All of my customers can describe the ‘holy grail’—a fabric that offers a barrier to all of the hazards in their workplace, that will breathe like a cotton T-shirt and costs half as much as one, but they also realize that this product does not exist.”

What nonwovens producers can offer, he added, is test data to guide customers in picking the fabric that best suits their needs.

Nonwovens are also growing in other niche protective apparel applications such as high-visibility safety clothing. These products are typically worn by department of transportation crews, sanitation workers and even landscapers. The key performance requirement, explained Doug Daigler, product manager for national accounts at WearGuard, is that the fabric maintains color integrity and luminosity and doesn’t shrink after washing because garment visibility is the most important criteria. Wearguard manufactures a line of high-visibility clothing, including knit jerseys and jackets made from 100% polyester.

A lesser requisite is that the garment is comfortable under hot conditions. Mr. Daigler said nonwovens meet all of his customers’ requirements, including standards set by ANSI. The company is now developing an inner-layer garment, made possibly out of nonwovens, that would help draw heat and moisture from the user to provide greater comfort.

Whether it’s brightly-colored vests or full-containment suits, the range of protective apparel applications continues to grow. A wide gamut of roll goods offered by nonwovens producers gives garment manufacturers many choices. As new resin technology emerges and improved substrates are introduced, users, whether emergency response professionals or civilians, can expect more comfortable garments that protect them from a greater number of hazards they might encounter at work or in the home.

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