The Case for Civilian Ownership of Gas Masks
I know what you're thinking. A gas mask? Really? Do I need to have one or more of those things? The short answer is yes.
As a civilian not in a direct threat environment, you might not think you need a gas mask. But trust me, there are more than enough reasons why you should have them in the home, vehicle or workplace.
Why You Might Need a Gas Mask
Half mask respirators and full face gas masks provide the wearer with degrees of protection from various hazards. Some respiratory threats you might need a gas mask for include smoke and fumes from structure fires and wildfires, poisonous gas releases from storage tanks, underground pipelines and other industrial processes, and fumes released from household chemicals, painting and waste products.
In addition to the obvious respiratory benefits, full face gas masks also protect your eyes from harmful splash hazards. Whether it's acid rain or noxious fumes, a good gas mask will keep your eyes safe.When you can SEE better, you can MOVE better.
We wrote in a previous post about the Considerations for Full Face Gas Masks, which gives more information on the differences between industrial/commercial respirators and military/tactical gas masks.
Categories of Protection
There are four main categories of protection when it comes to gas mask cartridges: Particulate Filters, Chemical-resistant Filters, Multi-purpose Filters and Special Purpose Filters.
Particulate Filters will protect you from solid and liquid aerosols in the air, like dusts, mists, fumes, and asbestos. Most of these look like pleated paper filters and are also adequate protection from biological dangers like viruses.
Chemical-resistant Filters will protect you from gases and vapors, like chlorine dioxide and formaldehyde. In the home, these are adequate for use when painting, welding or working on chemical products. These cartridges contain activated carbon granules, with specific coatings depending on the threat.
Multi-purpose Filters will protect from both solid particulates and gases/vapors.
They cover a broad range of threats, usually at the expense of having shorter breakthrough times. Often they have both particulate filters and activated carbon inside.
Special Purpose Filters add resistance to CBRN threats, smoke fumes or other specific uses like CS gas or Mercury vapour.
If you’re preparing for emergency situations, such as nuclear war, gas attacks or devastating wildfires, filters in this category are suited to your purpose.
Storage, Cleaning and Decontamination of Gas Masks
Your gas mask should be stored in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight. Direct sunlight (more specifically the ultraviolet radiation found in it) degrades the visors, seals and harnesses for gas masks and respirators. A closet, drawer or robust nylon pouch are all ideal locations. Just make sure to keep it dry while in storage to prevent rot and get maximum useful life out of it. You should also have a backup gas mask stored in a different location in case of fire or flood.
When it comes to cleaning your gas mask, you'll need to remove the filter and cartridges and wash them separately with warm soapy water. Harsh chemicals add no value as they may degrade the gas mask, and if they are needed in order to fully clean the gas mask, the best bet is to dispose of it. Rinse thoroughly and let fully air dry before reassembling. The rest of the mask can be wiped down with a damp cloth, and fully air dried. DO NOT STORE IT DAMP.
Military Units, hazmat organizations and NGOs often pack and use decontamination gloves for rapid spot decontamination in the field. These use highly adsorbent clay-like particles and make an effective option for reducing harmful substances on your gear, equipment and body prior to formal decontamination. If you have to use your gas mask to protect you from CWAs or CBRN agents, consider carrying a Decon Glove to fill the gap between danger and full decon.
*** Be sure to check the manufacturer's instructions for any special care instructions.
Note carefully: All gas masks are considered DISPOSABLE. While they can be cleaned and maintained if used for minor irritants and other non-life-threatening hazards, in professional, industrial and tactical settings gas masks used to protect against CWAs, TICs or CBRN agents are routinely disposed of rather than cleaned and reused.
As civilians, we will rarely have access to the logistics and finances required to throw away gas masks after each use, so most will prepare for cleaning and other decontamination methods with the hopes of reusing as many times as possible. This is understandable, but will be less than ideal for any situation that involves protracted or repeated contact with life-threatening agents. It is what it is.
Staging Your Gas Mask for Easy Access
Once your gas mask is clean and dry, it's time to stage it for easy access. I like to keep mine pre-assembled in a heavy-duty zip seal bag so I can put it on quickly. Others prefer to keep theirs in a designated backpack or spot near the door so they can grab it on their way out.
One of the best options for staging in the home is to keep it in a pouch or strong zip seal bag attached to or near to each fire extinguisher. Because where there’s fire, there’s smoke, and good respiratory protection will extend your ability to fight a house fire.
Keep your filter cartridge on your mask – if you need to put it on while already in a cloud of thick smoke you might not be able to see well enough to insert the filter. Also, by definition, time will be of the essence.
I like 6mil or 8mil zip seal bags because they resist punctures, so my filters aren’t degraded when I eventually go to use them. An alternate version of this, if you are into vacuum sealing, is to vacuum seal your mask with filter installed and an oxygen absorber in the bag. Then stage the bag wherever you might need it.
Whichever method you choose, ensure that your gas mask is easily accessible in an emergency.
Finally, Getting a Good Seal
When it comes to gas masks, the general rule is this: If you want it to work properly, you need to be clean shaven. That's right, no beard. In fact, even a little bit of stubble can cause problems. So why is that? Let's take a look.
A gas mask needs to create a tight seal in order to be effective, and that's hard to do when you've got facial hair in the way. Even a small amount of stubble can prevent the mask from sealing properly, which means that dangerous chemicals and particles can still get through. In a combat situation, that could mean the difference between life and death. In a non-combat situation, the same effect applies. Consider yourself, with a great beard, standing still and being able to not smell the fart bomb, cigarette or CS gas canister you’ve just deployed. Successful test?
Try it again, but this time, get down on your stomach and crawl. Then climb over a fence. The do some burpees. Look down at your toes. Look up at the sky…
If you’ve ever been fit-tested for a respirator, some of these things will sound familiar. The point is, combating or evacuating from emergencies requires MOVEMENT. Movement challenges seals on gas masks. Facial hair creates further challenges.
And I’ll just drop these extra little CBRN tidbits right here: Some Chemical Warfare Agents (CWA) have much smaller particle sizes than others, and can fit in places where Tear (CS) Gas won’t. And some can even wick up your exposed beard and through the mask using capillary action…
But I've Seen Guys with Beards Wearing Gas Masks!
You might have seen pictures or video online of guys in military or law enforcement outfits wearing gas masks with beards, and you might be thinking "If they can do it, why can't I?"
The answer is simple: They are acting.
Keep your beard - Beards are great. I am NOT telling you to walk around clean shaven all the time. But if you do have a beard, have a dry shaving kit stored with EACH gas mask. Either a razor and cream, or an electric shaver - you decide. But when time is of the essence, you'll need to get the sealing portions of your face clean shaven QUICKLY.
And when you train with your gas mask, do so clean shaven if at all possible. Otherwise you lose a lot of the value that comes from the training and subsequent practice.
A gas mask may seem like overkill, but trust me, it's not. In today's world, there are more than enough reasons why you should have one on hand at all times. From protecting your lungs from smoke, fumes and other respiratory threats to safeguarding your eyes from harmful splash hazards, a gas mask is a useful piece of personal safety equipment.
Now that you have more in-depth knowledge on working with, storing and cleaning your gas mask, I hope you will be able to make the most informed, most appropriate decision for your scenario.