Friday, October 15, 2010

N95 Respirators versus Gas Masks

I have just been watching Jesse Ventura's Conspiracy Theory episode about Plum Island Animal Disease Center. Scary stuff; makes your flesh crawl just to think about it. Then there are the anthrax attacks which occurred in 2001, where at least 22 people were infected with anthrax, with 5 of those people dying from the disease. In 2002 there was an alleged and much-publicized plot to release the deadly poison ricin in the London subway system; and don't forget the (still unsolved) US ricin mail attacks of 2003 and 2004. During these attacks and scares the US government advised people to stay at home as much as possible, and stock up on sheet plastic and duct tape.
I remember hearing people crack jokes about the duct tape and plastic recommendation, but sealing the doors and windows is a fairly effective defense against airborne contaminants. But what if you are not at home when a chemical or biological attack or accident occurs?

Everyone has seen the frightening images of WWII soldiers wearing gas masks in the hopes of surviving chemical and/or biological attacks. And those of us who grew up during the Cold War have at least thought about buying one for ourselves and each member of our families. Come on, admit it.
Of course, since 9/11 and the anthrax attacks that followed, it has become more acceptable to have at least some form of respiratory protection from airborne contaminants whether chemical or biological, intentionally released or otherwise.
The question is, do we really need those bulky gas masks, or are there lighter, cheaper and more compact alternatives in the form of medical respirators?
I have considered this question, and I personally think a real gas mask for each member of the family is a pretty good thing to have, just in case. The best place to store it is in your bugout bag, so that you will know where to find it and will hopefully have it in your vehicle, if you need it.
For the EDC (everyday carry) bag though, a gas mask is too bulky under normal conditions. So I would just carry a couple of easily-foldable N95 respirators and some kind of eye protection, whether it be safety glasses, prescription glasses, or even just a pair of sunglasses. Be sure to carry a few yards of duct tape too, and if that safety equipment is needed, use the tape to seal around the respirator, glasses, cuffs, and to cover exposed skin. While, of course, getting out of the affected area.

The US FDA webpage has this article about N95 respirators:

About Facemasks and N95 Respirators

Facemasks and N95 respirators are devices that may help prevent the spread of germs (viruses and bacteria) from one person to another. They are one part of an infection-control strategy that should also include frequent hand washing and social distancing.
Facemasks and N95 respirators should not be shared. Facemasks and respirators may become contaminated with germs (viruses and bacteria) that can be spread between people.
The following provides basic information about facemasks and N95 respirators.


A facemask is a loose-fitting, disposable device that creates a physical barrier between the mouth and nose of the wearer and potential contaminants in the immediate environment. Facemasks may be labeled as surgical, laser, isolation, dental or medical procedure masks. They may come with or without a face shield.
Facemasks are made in different thicknesses and with different ability to protect you from contact with liquids. These properties may also affect how easily you can breathe through the facemask and how well the facemask protects you.
If worn properly, a facemask is meant to help block large-particle droplets, splashes, sprays or splatter that may contain germs (viruses and bacteria) from reaching your mouth and nose. Facemasks may also help reduce exposure of your saliva and respiratory secretions to others.
While a facemask may be effective in blocking splashes and large-particle droplets, a facemask, by design, does not filter or block very small particles in the air that may be transmitted by coughs, sneezes or certain medical procedures. Facemasks also do not provide complete protection from germs and other contaminants because of the loose fit between the surface of the facemask and your face.
Facemasks are not intended to be used more than once. If your mask is damaged or soiled, or if breathing through the mask becomes difficult, you should remove the facemask, discard it safely, and replace it with a new one. To safely discard your mask, place it in a plastic bag and put it in the trash. Wash your hands after handling the used mask.

 N95 Respirators for Use by the Public

An N95 respirator is a respiratory protective device designed to achieve a very close facial fit and very efficient filtration of airborne particles. In addition to blocking splashes, sprays and large droplets, the respirator is also designed to prevent the wearer from breathing in very small particles that may be in the air.
To work as expected, an N95 respirator requires a proper fit to your face. Generally, to check for proper fit, you should put on your respirator and adjust the straps so that the respirator fits tight but comfortably to your face. For information on proper fit, refer to the manufacturer’s instructions.
The ‘N95’ designation means that when subjected to careful testing, the respirator blocks at least 95% of very small test particles. If properly fitted, the filtration capabilities of N95 respirators exceed those of face masks. However, even a properly fitted N95 respirator does not completely eliminate the risk of illness or death.
N95 respirators are not designed for children or people with facial hair. Because a proper fit cannot be achieved on children and people with facial hair, the N95 respirator may not provide full protection.
People with chronic respiratory, cardiac, or other medical conditions that make it harder to breathe should check with their healthcare provider before using an N95 respirator because the N95 respirator can require more effort to breathe. Some models have exhalation valves that can make breathing out easier and help reduce heat build-up.
ALL FDA-cleared N95 respirators are labeled as "single use", disposable devices. If your respirator is damaged or soiled, or if breathing becomes difficult, you should remove the respirator, discard it properly, and replace it with a new one. To safely discard your N95 respirator, place it in a plastic bag and put it in the trash. Wash your hands after handling the used respirator.
FDA has cleared the following N95 respirators for use by the general public in public health medical emergencies:
  • 3M™ Particulate Respirator 8670F
  • 3M™ Particulate Respirator 8612F
  • Pasture Tm F550G Respirator
  • Pasture Tm A520G Respirator
These devices are labeled "NOT for occupational use.”

 N95 Respirators in Industrial and Healthcare Settings

Most N95 respirators are manufactured for use in construction and other industrial type jobs that expose workers to dust and small particles. These respirators are evaluated for effectiveness by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which is part of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). These are labeled "For occupational use.”
N95 respirators cleared by FDA for use in the healthcare setting are called surgical N95 respirators. These devices meet some of the same performance standards as surgical face masks and are also NIOSH certified to meet the N95 respirator performance requirements.

 Additional Information

For more information on the proper use and removal of masks and respirators, or to learn more about these and other issues relating to pandemic influenza, visit


remat457 said...

This is a good introduction on the topic. I have been thinking along similar lines and wondering about the effetiveness of N95's vs the (many) surplus gas masks on the market or it is worth getting the high $$$ industrial respirators for the family. Any thoughts on the various surplus models? (Finnish vs Russian vs French vs Israeli, etc)..

Tracy said...

As mentioned in the article, the N95 filters are an emergency measure to carry in an EDC bag where there a gas mask is too bulky. In no way would it replace a real gas mask, but it might buy valuable time to get to a better mask. I would carry at least one military-type gas mask in the larger survival kit (aka bugout bag) either in the car trunk and/or maybe under your desk at work, if you work in that kind of environment. Also a gas mask for each family member, stored in an emergency kit at home.
I would think that a surplus mask would be at least as effective as an industrial mask. The primary advantage of an industrial mask would be greater comfort if you have to do manual labor while wearing it. But they are not designed for war chemicals, while the surplus masks are. Any of the surplus masks that accept the standard 40mm thread NATO filter should be fine. The Finnish ones look good. I have probably a dozen Belgian masks that accept the NATO filters, because I found a deal where I could buy them very cheaply in bulk. But if I didn't already have those, I would probably buy the Israeli civilian masks that are linked above. They are brand new, very affordable, accept the NATO filters, and seem to be well liked by those who have bought them.