There are many different levels of protection out there. Military gear is specifically designed for CWAs. There are three general levels of protective equipment– level A, level B, and level C. Military gear is somewhere in between level B and C because it is designed for specific chemicals.
Level A gear is fully encapsulated, typically a chemical-resistant plastic suit with a Self Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) or provided air through a pressurized air system and a hose. This provides both splash and total vapor protection. However, the downfalls to this nearly complete protection are:
- It is cumbersome to wear,
- Depending on the chemical, you will have a certain time the suit is effective. Chemicals will eventually burn through Level A,
- SCBA only lasts 40 minutes to an hour, depending on the person, so you have limited down range time,
- If you have a hose system providing air, your movement and effective distance is curtailed,
- The gear is EXPENSIVE and the suit itself is only for one-time use, although the SCBA can be re-used.
Level B gear has either a splash resistant suit or something similar to what firefighters use that provides flame protection, and an SCBA or hose system. (Firefighter’s specific gear is typically referred to as “bunker gear” and is designed for fires.) The same limitations affect level B as level A gear, with the addition of much more limited splash protection. Also note, both Level A and Level B gear have self-contained air sources, not field protective masks, so you CAN be sure that the air is good to breathe (assuming your gear is working correctly).
Level C gear has much less protection, but it is much easier to work in. You still would probably have some limited splash protection (a plastic suit), but now you would be using an Air Purifying Respirator (APR), which is what most people think of as a “gas mask”. APRs filter air; they do not provide it. So, if the chemical depletes or displaces oxygen, you cannot use an APR. In addition to this, any one type of filter is not necessarily good for every type of contamination. A mask you purchase online with a filter, often times an Israeli one or perhaps somehow you get your hands on an M-17, M-40, or M-50 or a civilian equivalent, can only filter certain chemicals out. In fact, some chemicals will go right through these filters, while others can degrade them over time, and still others can even react with the filters in a bad way! What all of this means is that there is no reasonable way for you to protect yourself against all of these types of chemicals with one suit type and with one particular mask and filter.
One note I would like to discuss, for those who desire to purchase a mask with a filter (other than the fact that none of them will protect against everything), is this: When I have looked through some sites where you can buy old military masks, I have not found anything stating with any sort of credibility WHAT type of chemical any particular filter is good for or when the filter was made. There are military publications that say what American filters are good for and how long they are effective, but I have not found anything unequivocally saying what other military’s filters are good for and how long they are storage safe. The only exception to this is when I go to an industrial manufacturer site; an example of this is 3M, though I have never bought a mask of theirs and am not getting any money from them, so I’m not making a recommendation. With these industrial filter and mask combinations, the manufacturer has details on what exactly they will filter out. If I were to purchase a mask for a specific reason, I would trust a new manufactured mask with provided specifications and capabilities more than a used military mask and a 30-year old filter. Remember, we test our masks in the military regularly and discard millions of dollars worth of expired equipment every year to ensure our stuff works right. Who knows if that is happening at places you can purchase masks from!
One more issue I would like to briefly discuss, before I go into my recommendations for what you can reasonably do to protect yourself, is detectors. I am NOT going into specifics on these because I cannot make a recommendation unless I know what chemicals one would be looking for. I have gone over two great tools used by HazMat personnel– the ERG and the NIOSH. There are many more references out there; considering there are hundreds of thousands of chemicals available, the two small references I recommended only contain the most likely chemicals one would encounter. For a truly effective response, HazMat personnel rely on vehicle identification and placard identification only as the first step in figuring out how to mitigate a response. Once an incident has been identified and people have been evacuated out of the initial evacuation area, the work really begins. HazMat teams would take a set of detectors down range to check for the many variables which could present themselves in a hazardous environment. Again, there is no one magic detector you can purchase to actually provide confirmation of the type of material one is dealing with. Consider this; you have a labeled vehicle and from looking at it you think you know what the threat is, but does everyone actually follow the laws perfectly? Absolutely not! There could be dozens of other chemicals in that vehicle. In fact, in certain cases only the most dangerous chemical is labeled, and that practice can be legal! This is why publications such as the ERG are good for getting a general idea of what could be out there, but it is NOT good as a definitive determination of any given incident. HazMat teams need to have detectors capable of reading the oxygen level, explosive levels, corrosives, radiation, and something to actually determine what chemical was released. (You would use observation to determine likely chemicals, then bring detectors capable of verifying the presence of those chemicals.) There can be false positives; there can be mistakes in taking readings; and certain equipment has threshold values for determining chemicals that may be above dangerous levels. In certain situations, detectors need to be what is called “intrinsically safe”; in other words, they do not produce a flame or spark, which would be bad in an explosive environment. (Not all detectors are intrinsically safe; in fact, some use fire to detect things.) In other words, it is not practical for you to try and stock up on a detector to protect yourself from every possible chemical going through your area. You have to have a background in HazMat and know the specifics of an incident to determine which devices are appropriate for the mission, and that is not possible to instruct in a short blog article.
So it might seem like I am presenting a no-win situation. There are thousands of tons of chemicals being transported over our roads every day, so what can you honestly do? First, I would recommend that you use the basic guidance I gave you at the beginning– download the ERG and become aware of what is going through your area. I would not recommend trying to purchase a mask to defend against a chemical spill (just IMHO), unless you do a LOT of research on what is in your area. There are just too many variables, and a false sense of security is just as bad as no security. Granted, if you want to specifically be prepared for CWAs, a mask may be helpful, although, I’d suggest CWA protection is not as straight-forward a task as it sounds. I could easily write another article on that. Also, if you know of one specific chemical threat in your area, for example maybe you have a chlorine plant nearby, you could purchase a mask with a filter designed for that chemical as an escape tool, but I’d purchase no more than that. Again, if you KNOW of a specific chemical, you can get a mask designed FOR THAT CHEMICAL and only use it as protection as you are EVACUATING, in the event of an emergency. The best set of recommendations, and those we preach to our teams for setting up a command post (which needs to be in a safe area so we can coordinate a response), is the following:
- GET OUT of the initial isolation distance, if there is an incident.
- Get UPWIND of the incident (where the wind is coming FROM not going to).
- Get UP HILL of the incident. If there is a large spill or release of a liquid, it will go where gravity allows it to go.
- Get UP STREAM of the incident. Again, liquids could flow into waterways, if they are not contained. Downstream is a bad place to be.
- Do NOT try to mitigate or clean up a spill. (We DO tell our teams to mitigate. This 5th recommendation is for non-HazMat folks!)
If you are in an accident with a semi-truck, or there is a train derailment near you, get out of the immediate vicinity; do not try to be a hero with chemicals. If this sounds like you should be prepared to bug out to a safe place for a period of time that could take up to days or even weeks if you live in an area with lots of chemicals being transported, then you got it! There is not much else to do in this type of incident. However, if you know the threat before something happens, you can come up with a reasonable plan to incorporate with your family so everyone has a better chance of staying safe.
This site is designed to help people consider, plan, and train for catastrophic events. It also encourages us to be as capable as possible on our own and to work together with others—forge groups of good Christian friends who are like minded to help each other out during catastrophes. With a chemical spill, I would recommend to any of you that this is one area where you do need to pay attention to local responders. (Your local fire department probably has a HazMat team; this is especially true since 9/11.) I would suggest that a threat such as this is one of the few times where I would agree with a mandatory evacuation coordinated by local responders of a specific area for a specific time, and if you have a group of like-minded individuals you plan things out with, I would recommend explaining the situation to them so you can all plan to respond to an event like this if the threat is present in your area. I completely understand that mandatory evacuations go against what many of us consider reasonable government authority. However, unless you have a lot more knowledge than I do (because sitting at home, I would NOT be able to give much more advice than this to my family to save us), deciding that you should not evacuate with a situation like this could be a dangerous and deadly decision. This seems to be one of those situations where you should trust people with the training to mitigate the situation, because there is not a magic bullet to clean up or protect against a serious hazardous materials spill. We all reap the benefits of these chemicals, which are on our highways and railways; anything you have that is produced uses chemicals at one point or another, and those chemicals have to be taken from the plant to the factory. Your pool water chemicals, your drinking water purification (assuming you’re on city water), your mechanics’ solvents, and your manufacturing chemicals are all very dangerous when they are transported in bulk on the road. We live in this society and appreciate the benefits of these chemicals, and for the most part they are very safe, but if a catastrophe happens where these chemicals are released, the best way to deal with them is to get out of the area, uphill, up wind, and up stream. It takes a large team of specialists to deal with a hazardous chemical incident safely, and there is no reasonable method I can think of to provide to anyone to be completely self sufficient and protected against any myriad possibilities of hazardous chemical incidents.