The iconic gas mask.
It’s that one piece of survival gear we always associate with chaos, war, terror, and mass destruction.
Just its image alone conjures up thoughts and feelings of spine-chilling events that most of us prefer not to think about.
Events where the air we breathe is not safe. Where air is toxic. Where air is deadly and the world as we know it is officially over.
In my opinion, way too many survival articles begin by pointing out that water is the number one survival priority but it’s not.
Now, I’m NOT saying that clean water isn’t essential for survival (it is), but it’s secondary to air.
Access to clean, abundant, breathable air trumps water every single time.
Why? Because while it’s a well-established fact that you can only survive 3 days without water (less time in intense heat), you can only survive a few MINUTES without oxygen (and you’ll go unconscious well before that).
I honestly believe most people take clean breathable air for granted…which can be a deadly mistake.
But you might argue that “air won’t just vanish”. And you’d be right; Our entire atmosphere won’t instantly vanish. However, just because air is breathable doesn’t mean it’s not deadly.
So if you breathe highly toxic chemically infused air, even just a couple of small gulps, you’re headed for an early grave.
Of course, this all depends upon the actual toxin involved and its intensity, but for the worst case scenarios, your ultimate fate will be set in stone.
What really sucks in this situation is that you have to breathe the toxins because you can only hold your breath for so long. But at the same time, each breath brings you closer to your premature demise. In other words “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”.
So if the idea of this dire scenario frightens you (it does for me…) then you should be highly motivated to invest in a high-quality gas mask.
There are solid reasons why the military, police departments, and firefighters all have gas masks. They must be prepared to rush headlong into the worst disasters to assist their communities; even if it’s a chemical or nuclear attack. So they’re equipped to survive even if the air is deadly breathe.
So if you’re like me, and you’re serious about getting prepared, then you need to own a quality gas mask for survival.
Gas Mask Basics
A gas mask is simply, a small, portable, personal air purifying device. It’s an invention with one exceptionally important task – providing detoxified “clean” air.
Similar in concept to a portable water filter that cleans water prior to drinking. The difference being you can avoid drinking water for much longer than 3 minutes.
And the gas mask has been around longer than you realize.
The first known gas masks were made by the ancient Greeks. They were crude versions that used sponges.
A few centuries later, a pair of Iraqi brothers produced a rough prototype of a 19th-century version of the gas mask. Ever since they’ve been used by soldiers, miners, doctors, and civilians under wildly different circumstances, but always to achieve the same end goal: clean air.
But these were all very primitive. They didn’t work very well, at least not well enough to ensure survival. But to be fair, chemical and nuclear warfare had yet to be invented.
The first practical gas mask, with real survival potential, was created by a Brit named Edward Harrison in 1916 shortly after the invention of chemical warfare during WWI.
Since then the gas mask has morphed into a symbol of the apocalyptic. But as menacing as they may look; they save lives.
That why you should add one to your survival gear in your home, or in your bug-out-bag.
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But they do require research, preparation, upkeep. And a little bit of know-how to buy the right one.
2 Types Of Gas Masks – Pros And Cons
The first step to making an informed gas mask purchase is to determine which style gas mask is right for you. And you do this by deciding what level of protection you desire.
Let’s start with style first, essentially you have 2 options:
1 – If you want a down-n-dirty, quick, easy, and cheap solution you could buy an air-purifying respirator. But these respirators only cover your nose and your mouth. While they do technically keep the air your breathing clean, it leaves your eyes totally exposed.
And yes, eyeballs are extremely vulnerable to chemical damage and biological infection. And to be blunt, you need your eyesight if you want any chance to survive a real chemical attack. Stumbling around in the dark during an attack seems like a recipe for failure.
2- The second option is a full face gas mask. As you probably already guessed, this version includes eye protection.
These gas masks are the ones you normally think of when someone utters the word, “gas mask”. They include a large filter attached below the mouth area and they cover the entire face. Your eyes are inside this sealed mask and you can see out of glass or plastic plates.
My advice? You really only have one option. Go with the full face gas mask.
Full Face Gas Mask Options
The next most important decision to make is what type of respirator.
Here we have 2 basic options to choose from:
1 – The first variety is called an “air-purifying respirator”. These are the most affordable and simple full-face gas masks. The filter canisters on these units are replaceable and they screw directly into the mask. It’s designed to use the power of your lungs to pull and push air through the filter.
This setup works fairly well as long as you get can get and keep a good seal. You see, air pressure always takes the path of least resistance. As you pull air in and push air out with your lungs YOU are creating this air pressure.
Now if you have a good seal around the outside of the gas mask, then the path of least resistance is the filter itself. Which is what you want. However, if the seal breaks or fails for any reason, the path of least resistance is no longer through the filter; it’s through the breach. The breach route will have less resistance than the filtered route (hence the term “path of least resistance).
And that’s the one big disadvantage to this type of gas mask: any prolonged leak makes it 100% ineffective. If there is a gap between your chin and the mask, outside air will bypass the filter and enter through the leak. And you may die.
So just make sure that seal is absolutely airtight and you’ll be just fine.
Two notes of caution here:
1) If you have a legit beard, you are going to have to shave it off because facial hair makes these masks difficult to seal.
2) Also, be careful what tasks you are performing while in the mask. You don’t want to accidently run into anything that could break the air seal. So try not to be clumsy or perform any unnecessary acrobatics if you can help it.
The bottom line is even if you initially establish a good seal, you still need to be diligent enough to KEEP a good seal.
2 – The second variety of mask is by far the most effective, and the heaviest. It is the type of mask that firefighters use to breathe in smoke-filled rooms. It is called the “self-contained breathing apparatus system” (or SCBA).
These masks require you to carry around a tank full of air (usually strapped to your back). But they provide the highest level of protection and security of any respirators on the market.
The air tanks contain high-pressure purified oxygen and it keeps pumping it into the mask at a constant rate. This design keeps a positive pressure in the mask at all times, which essentially eliminates the need for a perfect seal. Why you ask? Because of physics. Air moves in one direction only. From high pressure to low pressure.
One simple way to understand this concept is by thinking about flat tires. An inflated tire contains pressurized air. Or another way to explain it; it has more pressure in the tire than the surrounding atmosphere. Hence, when a tire is punctured the air moves from its higher-pressure environment (in the tire) to the lower pressure atmosphere (out of the tire); never the other way around.
So a gas mask filled with pressurized air will leak out, never in. As long as the gas mask maintains a relatively higher air pressure than the surrounding atmosphere leaks are not dangerous.
Ok, enough science for one day…
But the SCBA setup is not without its tradeoffs: for one, it’s bulky, heavy and unwieldy in all circumstances. SCBA equipment is also a challenge to store in small spaces. It takes up serious square footage in a regular sized closet. Also, most tanks only contain about 30-60 minutes of fresh oxygen anyways and can only be refilled using special equipment.
So as you can see, there are upsides and downsides to each of your options. It is totally up to you to determine what kind of chemical or biological threat you plan to face, how much you are willing to spend, and how protected you want to be.
Bottomline: Not all gas masks setups are created equal. Some are glorified surgical masks while others are only used by serious professionals in the most dangerous circumstances.
Now at this point, I could cop out leave it at “just do your own research” but that’s why you’re here; looking for advice. So here’s my advice.
Invest in a full-face air purifying respirator and practice putting it on and getting a good seal.
And if you have a large and gnarly beard and refuse to part ways with it, well good luck with that…
Here’s a short video covering the basics of using a full faced gas mask.
Ok, before you pull the trigger on a purchase we still have some more technical groundwork to cover. So stay with me…
How The Filters Actually Work
The common full face air purifying respirator gas mask uses filter canisters to keep the air you breathe, poison and disease-free. There are three general types of filter designs:
- Particle Filtration
- Chemical absorption
- Chemical reaction to neutralize other chemicals
Particle filtration is the most common and the simplest of these three options (and it’s also the oldest). Just like the ancient Greeks who held sponges up to their faces, particle filters act to block foreign substances from entering your lungs.
Recall a time when you’ve pulled your shirt over your nose in an attempt to block the smell of a particularly repulsive fart. You were employing a crude version of particle filtration.
Very fine particulate filters are helpful against biological threats, like anthrax. However, these filters have a limited life. They can only hold so much particulate matter before they clog, so you have to replace them after every 20-24 hours of use (always verify these numbers on any gas mask filter you intend to purchase).
If you are trying to prepare for a chemical threat, then you will have to take a different approach. While particle filtration is an effective system, it does little to purify the air of chemical agents. For that, you will need to use an activated charcoal system for chemical absorption.
Most deadly chemical warfare agents come in the form of gaseous vapors (not particulates) and will slip straight through your particle filtration filter system and kill you. Your best bet, whether you are trying not to breathe household chemicals or a neurotoxin, is activated charcoal.
Charcoal is a highly porous form of carbon. So porous, in fact, that it chemically attracts gaseous or liquid substances strongly enough to trap the harmful chemical vapors. But it doesn’t catch everything.
Certain chemical agents aren’t chemically attracted to carbon and will pass straight through (such as sodium and nitrates just to name a couple). This is to say that the activated charcoal will absorb some chemical agents while totally ignoring others. Chemicals that could be as equally dangerous.
The final type of filter option uses chemical reactions to neutralize. This is a very effective way of defending against one specific chemical agent or another, but you have to know exactly what you are up against so that the respirator is loaded with the right counteractive chemical.
For instance, in WWI during chlorine attacks, soldiers would be fitted with masks containing sodium thiosulfate, which would react with, and neutralize the chlorine in the air.
When you buy these filters they are color coded to indicate which type of gas or acid they work to diffuse. Unfortunately, for most people, this type of mask is ineffective, because it’s impossible to predict what kind of chemical will be present in any given attack.
No matter what type of filter you end up choosing, you will have to invest regular time and money in keeping them maintained. No filter lasts forever – in fact, most only last about 20-24 hours of use.
So every time you use your mask, you will probably have to replace the filter afterward. Filters usually run for between $40-$60 a pop, and it is highly advised that you keep several on hand for each gas mask at all times.
They also have a limited shelf life, so you will have to check up on them every so often and replace them once they expire (even of you did not get the chance to use them yet).
A final note of caution: Don’t use any filters that were made during WWII or early. Back then, asbestos was considered the ideal filter medium. Now we all know that breathing asbestos is highly dangerous and will lead to asbestosis and lung cancer. You’ve been warned.
The Final Word and Recommendation
Here’s the ultimate rub: when it comes to any gas mask, a little late is almost always too late.
Even if you buy the most expensive, advanced, top-of-the-line gas mask and keep yourself stocked and loaded with innumerable back-up filters, if you put your mask on after you realize there is a chemical agent in the air, you are probably already dead.
Real life doesn’t happen like it does in the movies. Every second of respiratory exposure, be it biological or chemical, is a second closer to death.
It’s also impossible to tell when or where you’ll need your respirator. Soldiers and police often get a heads up and can deploy their masks quickly because they always carry it with them.
Civilians won’t get such advanced notice. We are at work, or in our cars, or hanging out with friends most of the time. And should word of a chemical/biological attack reach you while you’re away from home, you’re going to wish you’d taken your respirator with you.
The best way to avoid this is to buy several gas masks and store them in various places where you often spend time. Keep one in your car, one in your office at work, one at the house, one in your bug out bag.
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If there is a place you spend a lot of time, and you are worried you will be there when the shit hits the fan, hide a gas mask nearby. Not only does this provide peace of mind, but it also increases your chances of chemical attack survival by tenfold.
Finally, gas masks are not a fool proof solution. They are actually a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves. For instance, you can’t live your entire life in a gas mask. You can’t hang out in a room full of noxious chemicals forever just because you are wearing one.
Eventually, you will need to eat and drink. Eventually, the filter is going to go bad and you are going to have to replace it.
So gas masks are a defensive measure, a temporary solution to a hopefully temporary problem. So don’t put too much faith in any gas mask getting you through a prolonged emergency/disaster/attack. Gas masks are a survival tool, meant to buy you time in a toxic situation. It may just be enough time to escape and keep your life. That is the hope, at least…
And this article wouldn’t be complete without a final recommendation.
If your not a gas mask enthusiast and just want to get something simple and cost effective for protection then get an Israeli Gas Mask. It’s a simple proven design, replacement filters are readily available, and it can be purchased at a reasonable price point.
I won’t say it’s the absolute best gas mask you can buy, but I do think its one of the best from a cost per dollar standpoint. Allowing you to get a couple.
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