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Burns and Military Clothing
  1. Maj A D McLean, BSc MB Ch B FRCS Ed RAMC1
  1. 1Biophysics Group, Biomedical Sciences, DERA Porton Down, Salisbury, SP4 0JQ


Burn injury is a ubiquitous threat in the military environment. The risks during combat are well recognised, but the handling of fuel, oil, munitions and other hot or flammable materials during peacetime deployment and training also imposes an inherent risk of accidental burn injury.

Over the last hundred years, the burn threat in combat has ranged from nuclear weapons to small shoulderlaunched missiles. Materials such as napalm and white phosphorus plainly present a risk of burn, but the threat extends to encompass personnel in vehicles attacked by anti-armour weapons, large missiles, fuel-air explosives and detonations/conflagrations on weapons platforms such as ships. Large numbers of burn casualties were caused at Pearl Harbor, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Vietnam, during the Arab/Israeli Wars and in the Falkland Islands conflict.

The threat from burns is unlikely to diminish, indeed new developments in weapons seek to exploit the vulnerability of the serviceman and servicewoman to burns.

Clothing can be a barrier to some types of burn - both inherently in the properties of the material, but also by trapping air between clothing layers. Conversely, ignition of the clothing may exacerbate a burn. There is hearsay that burnt clothing products within a wound may complicate the clinical management, or that materials that melt (thermoplastic materials) should not be worn if there is a burn threat. This paper explores the incidence of burn injury, the mechanisms of heat transfer to bare skin and skin covered by materials, and the published evidence for the complication of wound management by materials.

Even light-weight combat clothing can offer significant protection to skin from short duration flash burns; the most vulnerable areas are the parts of the body not covered - face and hands. Multilayered combat clothing can offer significant protection for short periods from engulfment by flames; lightweight tropical wear with few layers offers little protection. Under high heat loads in the laboratory, combat clothing can ignite, but there is little evidence that clothing ignition is a common occurrence in military burn casualties.

Thermoplastic materials have many benefits in civil and military clothing. There is little objective evidence that they exacerbate burns, or complicate burn management. Their use in military clothing must be based on objective evidence, not hearsay.

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