SEATTLE -- Scientists have discovered a lotion that can save the lives of U.S. soldiers exposed to chemical weapons -- a product vastly superior to the standard-issue decontamination powder.
Naturally, the Defense Department wants to scrap the powder and switch to the more-effective lotion.
But there's a problem: After being lobbied by the companies making the powder, several members of Congress pushed through two earmarks worth $7.6 million that forced the military for the past two years to keep buying the inferior product.
The product, known as M291, is made from a resin sold exclusively by a Pennsylvania chemical company, which is then processed into powder by a New York company, then assembled into individual kits at a facility in Arkansas.
Among the lawmakers who championed the earmarks are Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.; Arlen Specter, R-Pa.; and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
Mr. Clinton, who is poised to become secretary of state, received nearly $7,000 in campaign donations from the beneficiaries of these earmarks in recent years. Specter got more than $47,000.
Lawmakers put earmarks into bills to make federal agencies buy things the agencies didn't request, often circumventing the normal process of evaluation and competitive bidding.
The M291 earmarks reveal how lawmakers can micromanage military purchases to suit the needs of companies, constituents or campaign donors -- instead of the needs of the soldiers.
The decision of whether to give soldiers the powder or the lotion is ultimately up to commanders in the field, so the M291 earmarks don't necessarily mean troops will end up with inferior protection.
But by forcing the military to buy the older product, lawmakers are taking that chance, says Winslow Wheeler, a director at the nonpartisan Center for Defense Information. The M291 earmarks show that Congress still hasn't reformed, he said. "The pork process pays little attention to merit, reason and analysis."
On the chance that troops may be exposed to a chemical attack, they are issued protective gear, including gas masks, injectable antidotes and decontamination kits. Just a few droplets of nerve agents such as Sarin, Soman or VX can be lethal, so a decontaminant can save a soldier's life.
The Pentagon has relied on M291 kits since 1990. The wallet-sized pouch contains pads with charcoal-like powder that when rubbed on the skin absorbs the chemical agents.
Soldiers in Canada used a similar powder, but in the late 1980s government researchers there were worried about it. The powder was messy, difficult to apply and fouled gas masks. Worst of all, researchers feared that any deadly agents absorbed by the powder would release toxic gases inside a soldier's mask, said Garfield Purdon, a lead scientist on the research.
So Mr. Purdon's team at Canada's defense department developed a new product called Reactive Skin Decontamination Lotion, or RSDL. The lotion, wiped on the skin with pads, not only absorbs the chemical agents but neutralizes them as well, providing soldiers greater protection.
Canada issued the new lotion to soldiers fighting in the 1991 Gulf War. Its military later licensed the lotion to E-Z-EM, a New York company, on the condition that it make the product in Canada.
Shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. Defense Department said it was evaluating RSDL for use.
Scientists conducted more tests, comparing the effectiveness of the lotion with the M291 kit. They found the lotion to be as much as seven times more effective at protecting soldiers, depending on the chemical agent, the Defense Department told The Seattle Times.
The Pentagon told Congress in 2005 that it expected to replace the M291 kit with the RSDL. At the same time, Rohm and Haas, the Philadelphia company making the M291 resin, turned to Congress to keep its product alive through an earmark. The company spent $830,000 lobbying Congress and the military on the decontamination kits and other issues in 2005, public records show. Since then, the company has spent another $2.3 million lobbying Congress.
The Defense Department bought huge stockpiles of Rohm and Haas' resin in 2005 and 2006, enough to last through 2012, said Douglas Bryce, second in command of the DOD's joint chemical- and biological-defense office.
After the large purchases of resin, the military didn't include funding for M291 kits in its budget because the product was being phased out, Bryce said.
But members of Congress had different plans. Staffers for Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Schumer met with Daniel Kohn, president of Truetech, a Riverhead, N.Y., company that mixed the powder from the resin and produced the kits.
"In self-defense, we've gone to our representatives in Congress and we've said: 'You know, let's lay our cards on the table -- we're in business to provide a living and jobs in your district,'" Mr. Kohn said in a recent interview.
Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Schumer and others added a $2 million earmark to the 2007 defense bill, instructing the military to buy M291 kits.
In March 2007, the Defense Department gave all branches of the service the go-ahead to buy RSDL.
Although it hadn't intended to buy any more M291 kits, the military honored the earmark and bought more kits from Truetech and Pine Bluff Arsenal, a federal facility in Arkansas that assembles them. With its huge stockpile of resin, the military bought nothing from Rohm and Haas.
Rohm and Haas went back to Congress and got another $5.6 million earmark in the 2008 defense bill.
This time the list of 10 sponsors included Mr. Specter of Pennsylvania, who has received $38,000 in campaign donations from Rohm and Haas' employees and its political action committee since 2004. Mrs. Clinton has received $5,600 in campaign donations in the past two years from Rohm and Haas' chief executive officer, Rajiv Gupta, and his wife.