Health alert over police body armour

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The Independent Online
A police inquiry has been launched into the possible harmful side-effects of body armour after several women officers reported injury and pain to their breasts.

At least five women in two forces - Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire - have complained of trauma to their breasts after wearing the bullet- and knife-proof vests under their uniforms. Doctors believe the vests may have caused a condition called peri-ductal mastitis, which caused inflammation to the breast tissue and can lead to abscesses and surgery. However, medical experts have stressed the problem is not linked to any form of breast cancer.

Police forces throughout the country have started to issue protective vests to all their officers and there is concern that the small number of complaints about breast injury may be the tip of the iceberg. Forces are also desperate to ensure nothing hampers the growing availability of body armour, which follows years of lobbying for greater protection.

The Police Federation, the association which represents the vast majority of the 126,000 officers in England and Wales, has set up an inquiry into the possible side-effects of the vests and is seeking help in the United States, where body armour has been worn for a long time.

In Greater Manchester, where about 700 women police officers have worn lightweight bullet-proof vests since the summer, at least three have reported problems. They complained of soreness and a hardening of the breast area. A doctor has diagnosed "mechanical mastitis" in at least one officer, according to Sergeant Mike Huby, chairman of Greater Manchester Police Federation.

Sgt Huby said: "I understand that the women are being treated by the force doctor and are not currently wearing the vest. The federation are concerned that a piece of equipment that is there to protect an officer's life ... may be causing injury."

In West Yorkshire there are about 4,700 vests. A federation spokesman said: "We are sometimes in a difficult situation that the best protection we have is what we have got, and that can cause a potential risk for women's breasts. We cannot provide women with less protection than men - that would be appalling."

The force's medical officer, Dr Chris Shinn, said: "It is simply a matter that the commonly available armour is for blokes and is not designed to go around a woman's figure. It has caused soreness of the hips and the breasts to be squeezed."

In Greater Manchester there are specially shaped vests for the women officers.

Other forces routinely to issue vests include Northumbria, while the Metropolitan Police and Merseyside are about to equip all their officers.

Robert Mansel, Professor of Surgery at the University of Wales in Cardiff and chairman of the BASO breast-specialist group of Britain, said the condition is sometimes known as "jogger's nipple", which runners can experience.

A spokeswoman for the Police Federation said: "We are checking whether there is a problem but it must be stressed that there is no evidence to connect breast cancer with the wearing of ...protective vests."