TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- Battered by lawsuits, the nation's top supplier of bullet-resistant police vests is urging its customers to replace vests containing the synthetic fiber Zylon, saying they may not be safe.
Second Chance Body Armor Inc. said Wednesday that tests suggested the vests "may fail to perform and result in serious injury or death." The company sent warnings to police agencies nationwide.
The company previously recalled more than 130,000 vests made entirely with Zylon. The latest warning covers vests with filling blends containing any amount of the fiber, including about 58,000 Tri-Flex vests and an additional 40,000 Ultima and Ultimax vests with Performance Pacs. The vests are used by police officers and some government officials but not by the military.
Second Chance, undergoing reorganization in federal bankruptcy court, did not recall its remaining Zylon vests because it doesn't have the money to replace them, company attorney Doug Wagner said.
He added that it's possible the company could tap a federal body armor fund to replace the vests.
"While Second Chance has not received any reports of field failures of the products in question, we felt it was our obligation to report these new research findings immediately," said Matt Davis, the company's vice president of sales and marketing.
"The safety and well-being of all the officers who wear our body armor is of primary importance to Second Chance," he said.
The National Association of Police Organizations, which has filed a class-action suit against Second Chance, said the company should have discovered the problem sooner.
"If there's any chance that these vests could fail at all, beyond the normal effectiveness rating of a bulletproof vest, they have to be recalled," said John Terrill, spokesman for the coalition of police unions and associations.
The International Organization of Police Chiefs called on the Justice Department to finish an 18-month study of body armor degradation and release its findings.
"Our concern is that police officers not take their vests off, that we can assure them they can put on a vest that will keep them safe regardless of what it's made of," said Joe Estey, the group's president.
Toyobo Co., the Japanese manufacturer of Zylon, has acknowledged the fiber loses up to 20 percent of its durability within two years of manufacture.
But the company said Zylon works well in body armor that is properly constructed, and is not to blame for any problems with Second Chance vests.
"This comes as a surprise to us that a company that's in bankruptcy and struggling to survive continues to blame Zylon," Toyobo spokesman Kent Jarrell said. "Zylon is being used by many manufacturers and is out there saving lives of police officers."
Second Chance said the research that prompted its warning was conducted by a chemist retained by the company's legal counsel. The tests detected unexpectedly high levels of acids in the material that "can lead to a sudden and dramatic loss of tensile strength," the company said.
"These test results lead us to believe that even products that contain relatively low percentages of Zylon by weight may fail to perform as expected," Davis said.
Second Chance began making vests with Zylon in 1998, saying it was lighter and more comfortable than other fibers used in body armor.
Toyobo notified armor manufacturers in 2001 that Zylon degrades under prolonged exposure to high temperatures and humidity. Second Chance recalled the vests made entirely of Zylon two years later, after an officer was killed and another was wounded when bullets penetrated their vests.
Seven states have lawsuits pending against Second Chance. An additional 10 class-action suits have been filed on behalf of individuals and police agencies. Second Chance is also suing Toyobo, which is a defendant in some of the other suits.
On the Net:
Second Chance Body Armor: http://www.secondchance.com
Toyobo Co.: http://www.toyobo.co.jp/e/