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Volume 28, #6, August 10, 2010

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NYU study: Is foam a hidden danger in helmets?

A study at NYU does not conclude that foam is a hidden danger in helmets. Press releases have distorted the findings to produce sensational headlines.

In August of 2010 NYU produced a press release saying that:

"In a counter-intuitive finding, scientists at New York University (NYU) and Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly) report that the foam used in helmets and other body armor indeed absorbs damage when compressed slowly but can cause as much injury as a hard object when hit at high speeds."

Both the press release and this article posted by NYU on the Futurity site using identical language feature photos of football players.

The journal article reveals that the researchers were testing only syntactic foams, a specialized type of foam not generally used in sports helmets, although it may be in some military helmets. The foam tested is rate-sensitive, and the press release writers appear not to understand why that could be a beneficial, concluding that if the foam does not give enough in heavy impacts it could fail to protect. It probably could if the helmet were designed by NYU journalism school students. When rate-sensitive foams are properly tuned for a helmet, they provide softer landings for lesser impacts and stiffen up at higher impact levels to prevent the helmet liner from "bottoming out" and transmitting all of the energy to the wearer's head.

The press release certainly makes for a sensational headline.

We bought the article. It contains only a scientific report on impacting some syntactic foam in a lab, and how the failure mechanism changes at different strain rates. The word helmet does not appear. The lab test equipment bears no relation to helmet test equipment. The foam tested could not be used for football helmets, since it is a one-hit foam.

We concluded that we had been victimized by a university news room trying to punch up the release of a journal article by one of their departments.

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