we think of chemical or biological attacks, the first things that usually spring to mind
are gas masks.
Some people run to the local Army-Navy surplus store and buy a
secure in the knowledge that they will be safe in the event of an attack.
This is a mistake.
Looking at the movies you get the impression that there's nothing more
to gas masks than pulling it over your face and you're safe.
The reality, however, is altogether different.
Gas masks are complex pieces of equipment. To use them inappropriately
is potentially more dangerous that the chemical they're supposed to protect you from.
On this page, I'll attempt to lay aside the myth of the gas mask and put
you in a position to make a reasoned decision on whether you should use them or not.
This is the six million dollar
Do you need a gas mask?
Most experts would advise that stocking up on gas masks for the whole
family is not worth it.
An appropriate gas mask will protect you from breathing in most
chemical or biological agents, BUT there are some things to bear in mind before you run
out to buy one:
A gas mask will be effective if you're wearing it before
exposure to the agent or immediately upon exposure. If you're inexperienced in the use of
gas masks, or if you take to long to find it, you may be putting your life more in danger
than if you simply moved quickly to escape the cloud. Of course there's every chance that
you will not know what kind of poison is in the air and may not have the appropriate
filter in your mask. This may lead to a false sense of security.
In the case of a biological attack masks are of little use. In most cases a biological
attack will go undetected for at least several days making the gas mask virtually
- It's also worth bearing in mind that gas masks are
quite expensive. You can expect to spend about $200 for an effective mask. Then you need
to decide if (1 you're going to carry the mask with you everywhere you go
which would be uncomfortable, impractical and probably not too popular an idea with the
kids or (2 you're going to have one mask for home, one for work, one for
the car, and so on which would be very expensive.
In the case of a biological attack, breathing through a doubled-up t-shirt will greatly
increase your chances of survival in an emergency situation. Unfortunately, this method
isn't effective against most chemical agents.
In conclusion, I would suggest that a gas mask, used properly, would be
useful in the event of an attack (provided you know how to use it and you're aware of the
attack in time to put it on). However, I would not feel compelled - despite current
threats - to rush out and invest large amounts of money in them.
IMPORTANT NOTES ABOUT GAS
Gas mask filters have a limited life-span. Most of them have just a few
hours of active use (depending on the amount of dangerous substance being filtered and the
relative air humidity). At this point the filter needs to be changed. Never buy a
second-hand mask as you will not know how much life the filter has left in it.
You'll need precise instructions on using your gas mask. There's more to
it than just pulling it over your face. Inappropriate use may be more dangerous than the
substance you're trying to protect yourself against. Ideally you should get some training
on the correct use of gas masks and both you and your family should practice using them
You should be clean-shaven when putting on your gas mask. A beard (or
even stubble) may enable the poisons to infiltrate the mask.
If you've had no training in the use of gas masks, there's one important
point to remember - take the plastic seal off the filter before putting the mask on.
During Operation Desert Storm (1990) eight people lost their lives because they forgot to
remove the seal (they thought they were being poisoned, when in fact it was the mask that
was smothering them).
Some gas mask filters have larger intake openings designed for people
with lung/breathing problems.
Increasingly, gas masks are available in various sizes - even for
children and babies. If you're buying gas masks for your family, then be sure that each
one has a perfect fit. Some masks are equipped with drinking systems, and masks that
enable easier speech (via 'voice-mitter') are also available.
Don't buy masks via mail-order or over the Internet as you can't be sure that they'll fit
properly. Always buy them in person from a professional who knows what he/she is talking
about. Be sure to get a mask fitted for everyone in the family. To my knowledge, there are
currently no gas masks available for pets...
Bear in mind that, while gas masks are effective
against most chemical and biological agents, they do not assure protection against
everything. Be sure to get a gas mask that is certified to be effective against chemical
and biological weapons agents.
Generally, for biological agents to be effective,
they need to be between 1 and 5 microns in diameter. For this reason, regular surgical
masks, which are relatively cheap, would protect you against almost all biological
threats. Protection against chemical agents, however, requires a gas mask.
If you have a baby or a young infant who is
reluctant to put on a gas mask during an attack, then don't waste time struggling. Strive
instead, to get both yourself and the child to a safe place as quickly as possible. It's
for this reason also, that it's vital that you practice proper gas mask usage with your
family -- particularly young children.
Buying a gas mask
There are a number of important points to bear in mind when buying
a gas mask:
While there have been some advances lately in the
production of gas masks for women, children and people with smaller faces, a lot of the
masks on the market are designed with the adult male (military) face in mind.
Be sure to buy a mask that fits perfectly otherwise it will only give you a false sense of
security (there's no point in a filter that keeps out bacteria at 0.3 microns if you've
got 1mm of space between your face and the mask (which is why you have to be clean-shaven
before putting on the mask). Of course, you would need to have a mask fitted individually
for every member of your family.
Make sure that your gas mask is certified against
chemical and biological warfare agents. But, bear in mind that no matter how good the gas
mask is, the filter will not protect you against everything. You may need to get
different sets of filters with your mask to have the broadest protection possible. Be sure
to discuss this issue thoroughly with potential suppliers before buying.
Don't buy your gas mask from surplus 'Army-Navy'
type stores. The gas masks you'll find here have most likely been used in military
exercises, may be out of date and very possibly contain flaws in the structure (small
cracks or holes in the rubber). If you are buying a mask, buy one from a reputable
manufacturer and buy it in person with every member of your family available for a
The best masks are those with HEPA filter* (ideally coupled with chromium-free impregnated carbon,
that filters both inorganic warfare agents like cyanide, chlorine and phosgene,
as well as organic agents like VX, sarin, tabun, mustard
gas and lewisite). Some gas masks can even protect you against acid
gases and ammonia.
*High-Efficiency Particulate Air
Gas Mask SuppliersNOTE: These websites are a useful
resource for researching the range and types of gas masks available. However, gas masks
should be bought in person with each member of the family getting a proper fitting mask in
the company of a professional.
Retail chemical and biological gas masks for industrial and personal use.
California Toxic Mold MAAC, Inc.Offers gas masks, filters, and accessories.
CivilianGasMaskSells civilian gas masks based on U.S. military designs. Also provides masks for
infants and children.
GasMaskExpressSells protective masks that filter gas and chemicals for use by journalists,
policemen, firemen, military personnel, and the general public.
Israeli Gas MasksOffers masks and nuclear, biological, and chemical protection equipment for
adults, children, and infants.
Shalon Chemical IndustriesIsraeli manufacturers of gas masks and other nuclear/biological/chemical