You know, a gas mask is one thing that most people don’t think about here in the US when it comes to survival kits and emergency preparedness planning. That’s too bad because one day we may find we will need one of those cumbersome, ugly pieces of equipment left over from wars gone by. That’s what many people think of these things, relics from the distant past. However, there are countries in this world where chemical and biological warfare is all too real, and all too close to home. Israel is just one such nation. The Iraqi Kurds are also familiar with the deadly affects of chemical warfare, and Saddam Hussein used this form of terror on them without hesitation. Funny how the left claimed that he never had weapons of mass destruction isn’t it. I doubt that the Kurdish survivors would agree with that assessment.

What is a gas mask, anyway, and why won’t one of those paper masks the government hands out work? Well, to begin with, the two devices serve somewhat different purposes, even though the mechanics of operation appear to be the same, they are not interchangeable for the needs they fulfill, although a gas mask will work far more efficiently than a paper mask in the same situation as you would utilize a paper mask.

Essentially, a paper, or dust mask, shown in the upper left, is simply a particulate filter. It will only filter out solids in excess of the size the mask is rated for. They’re great for when you are in an environment that doesn’t have any life threatening toxins such as a chemical weapon would have. Explosions and fires are good examples. The dust and debris flying through the air can get into your lungs and cause some respiratory harm. Sometimes the dust will create a long term affect situation and give you permanent breathing problems. These masks will help prevent that from happening. One thing you need to remember is that you cannot simply slide one of these masks on and be protected. You have to make sure that it fits tightly against your face, and completely covers your nose.

These masks can be difficult to breathe through as the pores become clogged, but they are inexpensive enough where you should be able to have several on hand to cover low level incidents where the big problem is mostly dust. These masks are also readily available in bulk quantities at many of the larger home building centers. The primary purpose is for dust filtration, but they will also help filter out some germ sized particles such as bacteria and viruses.

But not always. Some of the really cheap ones are cheap for a good reason. They work well when sanding wood or drywall, but that’s all they can be depended upon for.

The next step up is what is often referred to as a respirator mask, illustrated to the right. These cost a little more money, but not enough where it becomes cost prohibitive. These units sometimes have a exhalation valve on them, and usually have much finer pores in the paper. Like the cheaper models they also have elastic straps and a bendable metal strip to make the mask conform to your nostrils.

The advantage these models have over the cheaper is that they have a finer porosity and they can be used in more serious events, such as when a powdered chemical like anthrax has been blown into the atmosphere by some means. One clue to look for is the NIOSH 95 certification, or N95 masks. This designation means that the mask will filter out at least 95% of very small particulate matter. Notice I said 95%? That means there is still a chance of catching a bug even if you do wear one of these masks.

All paper masks, whether just a 99 cent drywall mask or a two dollar N95 mask are to be considered as single use devices. You cannot wash them out, dry them and reuse them. And you can’t use them day after day either. Use it and throw it away for your own safety. When done using these paper masks you should put them in a baggie and toss them into a secured trash container so any germs that may be swarming for action on them cannot make contact with another person.

Making a big leap from these paper models we next look at what some call respirator masks. These usually have a vinyl or silicon body with cloth or paper filters that can be replaced. There’s an illustration to the left here. You can get filters that will cover a much broader range of protection, from drywall dust to non oil particulates, ammonia, organic vapors, acid vapors and more. Do some research on the shopping sights and I believe you will decide these are probably the best way to go when looking at a survival situation when you cannot afford an actual full face gas mask.

These masks are multi use, though the filters are not. You can clean them with an alcohol based cleaner to kill any lingering germs and other stuff and use it again and again. A good choice for a cartridge is a multi-purpose cartridge that will filter for Organic Vapor, Chlorine, Hydrogen Chloride, Sulfur Dioxide, Hydrogen Sulfide, Hydrogen Fluoride, Chlorine Dioxide, Ammonia, Methylamine and Formaldehyde & solid particulates such as drywall dust and ash. Some of them are even usable with a backpack filtering system, although you’re talking some big bucks when you get into that level of equipment. The type illustrated here is called a half face respirator, and a full face respirator has a shield over the sight portion of the mask. These are far better because of the extra protection they provide in an explosive event such as a high rise fire or explosion where there would be a lot of debris in the air and visibility would be limited by smoke or dust getting in your eyes.

The next step up from the respirators is the full fledged gas mask, of which there are many models on the market. These are the one you see frequently advertised at military surplus dealers. You’ll have to be careful when dealing with these items because many older units may not be safe to use due to degradation, and prior to 1956, filters normally used asbestos as a filtering medium, which resulted in many cases of mesothelioma from that usage. Make sure you are buying a fairly new mask, and never buy old filters. There is a shelf life with many of these filters, depending upon what they were made to filter and will deteriorate to the point that they will become useless in an emergency, possibly resulting in your death.

Top of the line gas masks are generally made to cover as much of your head as possible. Sometimes they are made to be used in conjunction with a full body NBC suit. Frequently you will pay at minimum over a hundred for a good gas mask, and on up to hundreds for the best ones on the market. If you live in an area where there is sure to be some biological or chemical action, then it may be worth the cost, but you will have to analyze your situation and decide for yourself as to what level of protection you want to invest in.

Gas masks will have a larger sized filter and thus will take longer to become clogged and unusable, and quite often you will see them with backpack breather/filter units as well. But then you’re looking at the thousand dollar range in many cases.

So, remember my ADD method of preparedness. Analyze, develop and deploy. It’s up to you to decide how much protection you want to provide for your family, but sometimes costs get in the way. This isn’t one of those products you can take lightly, and get a cheap used unit, expecting it to keep your kid alive. Don’t cut corners when it comes to gas masks and respirators. Get the best you can afford, and get a supply of good quality filters as well.

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