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Considering a Gas Mask? What You Need to Know to Choose the Right Type of Face Mask for Disaster Preparedness

Considering a Gas Mask? What You Need to Know to Choose the Right Type of Face Mask for Disaster Preparedness post image

One of the most commonly overlooked survival gear item is a face mask.  The purpose of the face mask is to protect you from inhaling harmful airborne substances.  Depending on the situation, these airborne substances could be viruses, asbestos, volcanic dust, or chemicals from a terrorist attack.

If you doubt the need for a face mask, just look at virtually any disaster which has occurred in recent times.  The terrorist attack of 9/11, for example, resulted in thousands of additional deaths from cancer because of all of the asbestos and other toxins which were inhaled.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, people were also exposed to toxic construction materials as well as mold.  And the earthquake in Japan damaged a nuclear power plant and caused many people to be exposed.  These are just some of the situations where you’d want a face mask!

A lot of people incorrectly assume that a gas mask is the best choice for disaster preparedness.  In event of a chemical attack, a gas mask would be your only protection.  However, a gas mask isn’t the only option — and it isn’t always the best option.

Here we will go over the 4 main types of face masks for disaster preparedness so you can choose the right type for the disasters you are prepping for.

Dust Masks

dust mask for prepping

Dust masks are very cheap masks which are held over your mouth with a plastic strap.  These are only suitable for keeping out large non-toxic particulates.  For example, you might wear a dust mask when mowing the lawn or cleaning out your dusty attic.

Under no circumstances should you rely on a dust mask for survival.  However, if you don’t have anything else, a dust mask is better than nothing.

Key Points about Dust Masks:

  • Cheap and readily available
  • Protect wearer from dust
  • Not suitable for most disasters, but better than nothing

Disposable Particulate Respirators

particulate-respirator-n95

There is a lot of confusion about disposable particulate respirators, mostly because type resemble dust masks.  They also resemble surgical masks.

Particulate Respirator vs. Dust Mask:

A particulate respirator protects against hazardous particulates in the air. A dust mask does not.

Particulate Respirator vs. Surgical Mask:

Surgical masks protect the environment from the wearer.  For example, a surgeon would wear a surgical mask to keep the patient from getting contaminated by any germs in his/her breath.  By contrast, particulate respirators protect the wearer from the environment.

Types of Particulate Respirators

The most common type of disposable particulate respirator for survival use is the N95 mask.  Because these are very effective in filtering out most hazardous substances (filter at least 95% of particulates to 0.3 microns), are cheap to buy, and easy wear, these are probably your best choice for emergency preparedness. However, you may also opt for another rating, such as N99.

Only buy a particulate respirator which has been approved by NIOSH!  Or you could get a mask which meets the European standards.  These masks carry the EN-149 label.

Note that particulate respirators are useless against gas and chemicals. You would need a chemical or vapor mask for that level of protection.

You can read all about N95 face masks here.

Key Points about Particulate Respirators:

  • Fairly cheap and readily available
  • The rating matters! Choose at least an N95 rating
  • Make sure the particulate respirator has been approved by NIOSH
  • Do not protect against chemicals or vapors
  • Use in situations like: cleaning up after natural disasters or when walking through rubble. Better than nothing in pandemics and chemical/vapor attacks

Reusable Particulate Respirators

reusable-particulate-respirator

These masks look a lot like gas masks in that they cover up more of your face.  However, just like with the disposable particulate respirators, these are useless against gas and chemicals.  There are some higher-quality respirators that can filter out gases and vapors at a “nuisance” level, but won’t provide any real protection.

The term “reusable” can also be confusing.  Only the mask part of the respirator is reusable.  In order for it to remain effective, you will have to replace the filters.  Depending on the type of mask, the filters might pop on, get screwed on, or have to be inserted.

Even though the reusable particulate respirators aren’t necessarily more effective than the disposable ones, they do have their advantages.  The main advantage is that these can be fit much more securely than a disposable respirator.  Getting the right fit is crucial for preventing air leakage, so this advantage shouldn’t be dismissed!

The reusable particulate respirators also have vents for exhalation.  This makes them much more comfortable to wear and prevents the mask from going in/out on the face.

Reusable particulate respirators come in half and full-face masks.  It is usually better to opt for the full-face mask.  While these do limit your field of vision (and make you stand out in a crowd), they protect your eyes and skin from particulates.

A full-face reusable particulate respirator

A full-face reusable particulate respirator

Key Points about Reusable Particulate Respirators:

  • Protects against particulates
  • Full-face masks will protect your eyes and skin
  • Must replace the cartridges!
  • Does not protect against chemicals or vapors
  • Use in situations like: cleaning up after natural disasters or when walking through rubble. Better than nothing in pandemics and chemical/vapor attacks

Gas and Vapor Masks

gas mask for disaster preparedness

These are half or full-face respirators which have special cartridges that attach to them. The cartridge contains a material which captures chemicals or gases from the air.  The material is often activated carbon, but other materials may be used too.

Gas Mask Cartridge Color Codes

Gas mask cartridges are expensive and they expire!

Not all gas mask cartridges are capable of catching every type of hazard.  NIOSH uses a color-coding system for cartridges based on what they catch:

  • Black: Organic vapors
  • White: Acid gases
  • Yellow: Organic vapors/acid gasses
  • Green: Ammonia/Methylamine
  • Olive and Black: Formaldehyde/organic vapor
  • Olive: Multi-gas/vapor
  • Orange: Mercury vapor/chlorine gas

Buying a gas mask cartridge can be very confusing since you won’t necessarily know what threat you are facing.  To make things even more confusing, gas cartridges do not filter out particulates!  For example, a gas mask cartridge with the Olive color would protect you from ammonia, but wouldn’t necessarily protect you from asbestos in the air.

Thus, for the best protection, you’d need to get a mask with a combination cartridge for gas and particulates, or mask which has a particulate pre-filter as well as a gas cartridge.

Gas Mask Cartridge Costs and Life Span

Even though they are the most effective, gas masks aren’t always the best choice.  The main issue is that they are expensive to buy.  The cartridges I’ve looked at range from $10 to $25 each.

Even if you can afford the initial cost, be aware that the cartridges have a shelf life.  You’ll have to regularly rotate your cartridges to make sure they don’t expire. Most of the gas mask cartridges that I’ve seen (like this one) have a shelf life of 5 years.

Once you start using a cartridge, it doesn’t last very long.  As the CDC writes about gas masks, how long the cartridge remains effective varies depending on the quality of the air. In a severe SHTF situation, for example, a cartridge might only last for an hour before it needs replaced.  Even when you are just breathing in fresh air, the cartridge might just last just 24 hours.

When the chemical cartridge becomes fully saturated, the trapped chemicals will then be transferred to the user.  This is known as breakthrough.

Because of the cost issue, a lot of people decide to buy used military surplus gas masks.  This is NOT advisable!  Many of those old gas masks don’t work efficiently and it can be hard to find cartridges which fit.   And definitely don’t buy old cartridges as they will have expired!

Key Points about Gas Masks:

  • Cartridges have a shelf life and need to be replaced (usually about 5 years)
  • Once in use, the cartridge will need to be quickly changed – especially if the air is very tainted
  • The cost of cartridges will quickly add up!
  • Not all cartridges protect against all chemicals/vapors
  • Cartridges do NOT filter out particulates!
  • For best protection, you’ll need a gas mask with a pre-filter or a combination cartridge

Do you have a face mask in with your emergency supplies? Which one? We’d love to hear from you in the comments on in our Facebook group.


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