5 Tips To Help You Buy The Right Gas Mask

Picture this. An earthquake beyond any seismologist’s wildest dreams rocks southern California. The freeway systems collapse throughout the Southland, and the San Onofre nuclear power plant is nothing but rubble upon the beach. Your air is filled with nuclear radiation particles.

Imagine this. A terrorist network strikes an Eastern city with chemical warfare. In the Midwest, a smallpox outbreak occurs. What can you do to protect your family from breathing in these dangerous inhalants? Strap on a gas mask so you can breathe clean air. Before you make the investment in masks for your family, consider these five tips to ensure that you make a wise purchase.

  1. Use caution with surplus masks

    If you want a high-quality, military- grade mask, you may be ready to hop in the car and head to your military surplus store to snag one for each member of your family. But be sure the masks are still within code, says survival expert Marty Dent of Seattle. “Some military masks have been used and used masks are probably not going to be airtight to your face,” he says. “Plus, these masks are often out of date and past their usefulness.
    In some models, the filter can be replaced to make the mask effective again, but often that is not the case and you’ll be wearing a mask that does you no good.” No matter what type of mask you use, you’ll want to ensure that it fits tightly around your face so that no fresh air can get into it through the sides, top or bottom.

  2. Know the difference between masks

    A gas mask respirator filters many different types of particles if it’s up to date, has been stored properly, and has a new and working filter cartridge.
    Depending on the type of respirator, the mask could protect you from bacteria, chemical threats and other dangerous inhalants. Standard N-95 filter masks like the type you buy at a hardware store are also helpful to have on-hand, because they also clean particles out of the air as you breathe.
    These masks, however, “do not protect against chemicals, gases, or vapors and are intended only for low hazard levels,” the Centers for Disease Control notes on its Web site.
    The best way to ensure that you can breathe clean air is to get a Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA), which is similar to what firefighters and scuba divers use. They allow you to breathe clean air from a tank. However, they are quite heavy and typically only include an hour’s worth of air.

  3. Check the label

    Depending on the type of threat that you foresee, you’ll want to ensure that your mask can do the trick. Most preppers who expect nuclear fallout will have a nuclear-approved respirator or SCBA mask, whereas you may not need such a heavy-duty mask if you are expecting debris in the air from a tornado.
    Double-check the label on any mask you’re considering purchasing so you’ll know what it guards against.

  4. Practice mask operation protocol

    If you’ve purchased a filtration mask from the hard-ware store, you know that you’ll just pull it onto your face, ensure that the elastic is tight and you’re ready.
    But if you buy a gas mask or SCBA tank, you should ensure that you know how to use it long before you’re placed in a survival situation, Dent says. Practice several times and store the mask according to the label’s directions so it’s ready to use when you need it.

  5. Don’t get a false sense of security

    The biggest problem with gas masks and protective hoods is that they give users a false sense of security, says the Department of Homeland Security on its Web site. “Improper use of masks and hoods, as well as a false sense of security as to their effectiveness, could pose a threat to public safety,” the government notes on www.ready.gov. “For example, it is difficult to obtain a proper seal with the mask if you have facial hair such as a beard or long sideburns. Protective masks do not fit small children.”

PLAN B
If you’re ever in a situation in which you aren’t sure that your mask can hold up to the poisonous air out- side, you are probably better off sealing up your home and staying inside until the threat passes, rather than taking a chance with your family in the toxic air with unfit masks, Dent says.

What if you don’t have a mask?

If you find your-self in a situation in which debris is in the air and you can’t breathe, you can fashion your own mask out of the clothes you’ve got. You can wet a shirt and wrap it around your face to cover your nose and mouth, or use other types of fabric to filter out small particles. They cannot, however, filter out everything.
For instance, the Hawaii State Department of Health notes on its Web site that “A damp cloth, or a paper, gauze surgical or non-toxic dust mask may be helpful” in screening out ash or VOG (volcanic smog) following a volcano eruption.

However, the site adds, “If you find it more difficult to breathe with the mask on, don’t use it.” In addition, such masks are not effective in removing gases such as sulfur dioxide, which can be in the air following such an event.

Who can’t use a mask?

If you’re prepping for disaster, you’ve probably got a mask at the ready for you to use when necessary. However, the CDC notes, not everyone can use such a mask. “People with lung diseases such as asthma or emphysema, elderly people and others may have trouble breathing,” the CDC notes. “Some people with claustrophobia may not be able to wear a mask or hooded respirator. Some people with vision problems may have trouble seeing while wearing a mask or hood.”

Editors Note: A version of this article first appeared in the 2013 print issue of American Survival Guide.