Gas Masks Don't Always Fit an Emergency

They can be more danger than help, say experts

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HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, Oct. 23, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Before the national anxiety over bioterrorism drives you to buy a gas mask at the nearest army surplus store, take a deep breath and brace yourself for what experts say about them -- most of it is not good.

"One could never know where the exposure is; you'd have to wear the mask at all times. Are you going to wear it to the grocery store?" asks Dr. Susan M. Nedza, who's on the board of directors of American College of Emergency Physicians.

Even if you could stand to do that, Nedza adds, the risks to your health would probably be higher than the likelihood that wearing the mask would prevent contamination. And wearing a mask could be particularly dangerous if you have a respiratory disease or asthma, which already hampers your breathing.

"There were 20 deaths during the Gulf War associated with wearing the gas masks improperly. And those were people who were trained to use them," she points out.

Michael Sailor, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of California San Diego, also is skeptical about the practicality of having a respirator or similar protective device available for home use.

"The chance that you'll be hit by a bus because you can't see is far greater," he says.

But if you insist, experts advise, buy the best. The device used by firefighters or emergency medics who get to a disaster first is a self-contained breathing apparatus, which has its own oxygen canister, good for about a half-hour of breathing time. It's similar to scuba equipment. First responders also wear impermeable clothing designed to protect from agents that penetrate the skin.

The second-most protective masks are those that fit either over the full face or over half the face and contain filters. These masks can protect against breathing in most gases and biological agents as long as the person is wearing the correct filter, which only can be used once. But as Sailor points out, "Will you know which filter?"

A special kind of hospital mask, called the "N95," could also be protective against most biological agents. The mask, along with gloves and protective clothing, is what the U.S. Army recommends for its medical personnel who handle people infected with biowarfare agents. But these would not be fully protective against chemical agents or smallpox, Sailor says.

In fact, Sailor points out, some of the likeliest chemical attacks -- based on past experience -- are by nerve gases that enter through the skin. In 1998, U.S. missiles destroyed a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory that government officials say was making deadly VX nerve gas. And in Tokyo in 1995, terrorists placed plastic bags of diluted sarin, another lethal nerve agent, on a crowded subway train during morning rush hour. It killed 12 people and injured 5,000 more. In both these cases, only a full body suit would have made a difference.

So what can you do if you are unfortunate enough to get a powdery substance in your mailbox or if a small plane enters your neighborhood trailing something other than a banner?

If it's a biological agent like anthrax, your best protection may be soap and water. Nezda recommends that if a situation arises where you fear exposure, wash immediately, scrubbing everything, especially your hair -- which can attract particles -- with water and a strong soap.

Closing off the room and containing the agent as best you can while you call for help is also important. If you think the agent is in the air in a place where you have to be to use the phone, for instance, wet a hanky or a towel in soapy water and breathe through that.

Dr. Paul Rega, medical director of the University of Findlay (Ohio) Center for Terrorism Preparedness and an emergency physician at The Toledo Hospital, is a believer in carrying a surgical mask, latex gloves and water-free anti-bacterial soap.

Although that wouldn't protect you from all incidence of biowarfare, it's a practical preventive in a variety of cases. "It's not 100 percent foolproof, but nothing is," Rega says.

What To Do

For more information, check out the Terrorism Research Council or the Department of State's terrorism rundown.

The Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defense Information server has a thorough discussion of various biological and chemical threats with information about what kind of mask or clothing will provide protection.

SOURCES: Interviews with Michael Sailor, Ph.D. professor of chemistry and biochesmistry and University of California at San Diego; Susan M. Nedza, M.D., member, board of directors, American College of Emergency Physicians, and emergency room physician, Elmhurst Hospital, Ill.; Paul Rega, M.D., emergency physician, The Toledo Hospital, and Medical Director, University of Findlay Center for Terrorism Preparedness, Ohio

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