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How to survive gas (chemical) and viral (biological and virus) attacks – all about decontamination, respirators, masks, and other protective equipment.

Policeman wearing air purifying particulate respirator

How to recognize a gas attack

It’s true, some gases are odorless and colorless and near impossible to detect but in many cases, there are signs that a gas attack is occurring.  Obviously, look for vapors trailing from a low flying aircraft.  In many attacks, there were reports of birds falling from the sky before victims felt the impact of the attack.  Finally, watch for artillery shells landing with only small, dud-like explosions.

Protection against a gas attack without a gas mask

Any object or material covering your face will offer *some* protection – even a hand or arm. In a pinch, a t-shirt pulled over head with the neck-hole used as eye hole can be used but of course, will not offer nearly the protection of a face mask or respirator. Wetting the material may increase its effectiveness.  Tying a cloth or bandanna around the lower facial area will also help to some degree.

As soon as you recognize an attack it taking place, quickly warn others (e.g. shout “Gas! Gas! Gas!”) then hold your breath without taking a deep breathe.  Close your eyes tightly and turn your back to the wind.  Bend forward and start looking for something (likely an article of clothing) to cover your face with.  If you are close to the source of the gas, make your way upwind.  If you are not close or cannot determine the source of the gas, begin moving downwind, slowly, while trying to keep breathing under control.

If the attack uses some sort of blistering agent, seek shelter, close all windows and doors, and begin disinfecting your skin and clothing (see details below).

The importance of a respirator to survive gas or chemical attacks

Of course your best chance of surviving a gas or chemical attack will require use of a respirator or “gas mask”.  A respirator device is designed to protect the wearer from inhaling harmful dusts, fumes, vapors, or gases. Studies indicate that respirators even provide the best protection against airborne viruses. It is imperative however, that you understand the various types (categories) and qualities (ratings) of respirators in order to select one that will provide the protection you need to survive.

Understand the two types of respirators

Respirators come in two different types. An air-supplied respirator (think scuba tank) does not filter air but rather, provides the wearer an alternative source of fresh air. The second type, an air-purifying respirator, also known as a particulate respirator, forces potentially contaminated air through a filtering element that removes most contaminates from the air stream.  An air-purifying respirator is the type most often worn by surgical staff.  In a survival situation, an air-supplied respirator or a hooded (helmet) air-purifying respirator are the best choice but not as practical as a filtering-type air-purifying respirator which will be easier to carry, wear, and maintain.

The construction of a air-purifying (particulate) respiratorHow an air-purifying respirator works

Air-purifying respirators removed particle contaminates using various means. These respirators typically use curved surfaces to guide particle contaminates in a desired direction so the contaminate becomes embedded or trapped in the filter mechanism. The filter mechanism itself utilizes various materials, such as resins, waxes, plastics, and even the harmful particles themselves to attract and trap contaminate particles. The movement of air through the filter requires negative pressure (i.e inhalation) to push the particles along while using a design that decreases the resistance to airflow through the filter in order to allow the wearer to breathe without using much force.

Categories of air-purifying (particulate) respirators

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) defines categories for particulate filters for the United States. These categories will be specified on the respirator packaging (and likely on the respirator too) and should be carefully noted as they indicate the degree and type of protection the respirator provides the wearer. The standard category specification uses a variable single-character letter to specify the level of oil resistance in the filter material and a two-digit number to represent the filter’s effectiveness in removing airborne particles.

Fully contaminate body suitThe difference in N, R, and P type respirators

N-type respirators

Non-oil resistant respirators are given an “N-class” designation. N95 respirators filter at least 95% of all airborne particles and are a very popular choice. N99 respirators filter 99% of airborne particles while N100 filter at least 99.97% of airborne particles. Recognize that the numerical indicator specifies the minimum degree of protection. It is not uncommon for a N95 respirator to filter over 99% of all airborne particles, much more than its numerical indicator suggests.

R-type respirators

Oil resistant respirators are designated as “R-class” filters. An R95 respirator filters 95%, R99 filters 99%, and R100 filters at least 99.97% of airborne particles while maintaining a fairly decent resistance to oil.

P-type respirators

Finally, oil proof respirators use a “P-class” designation – P95, P99, and P100 respirators are available within this category. a P95 respirator filters 95%, P99 filters 99%, and P100 filters at least 99.97% of airborne particles while remaining oil-proof.

Protective air-purifying respirator with valveChoosing the best respirator for your protection

So which type of respirator is the best choice in a survival situation? The N-Class respirators are extremely popular. Of course the N100 will be more effective than the N95 but naturally the N100 will cost significantly more. A 2012 laboratory study tested masks protection against flu viruses and found that a N95 respirator sealed properly to the face of a mannequin stopped 99.8% of the viral contaminants, including SARS, MERS, and COVID-19 viruses). Importantly, they also found that a poorly fitted or unsealed respirator blocked only 69.9% of the flu viruses entering the mannequin’s mouth.

Protection against viral attacks

Difference between a face mask and a respirator

It’s important to understand the difference between a respirator and a face mask (the cheap disposable masks). A normal facemask is designed to block *large* particles such as splashes and sprays. They do not form a tight seal around the nose and mouth so they cannot protect from very small particles such as virus particles (e.g. SARS, MERS, COVID-19) that can be breathed in by the user. Often these masks are designed to protect the patient from particle sprays emitted from the wearer and not the other way around.

A NIOSH rated N95 particulate respirator and surgical maskPro viral protection

Ideally, a full set of professional respiratory equipment would be used in a viral or gas attack. This would include boots with closed toes, preferably rubber boots, and long-sleeved gowns made from impermeable material. Cover with waterproof apron is also desirable if possible. A hooded coverall made with materials resistant to contagious liquids will offer the best protection against viral contaminants. Additional layers (layer on layer) of protection prove quite effective too.

Proper sealing of protective gear

Proper seals are the critical to effectively block gas or viral contaminants. An improperly sealed mask can drop its effectiveness by 40% or more. Proper sealing applies to other protective equipment as well. Use tape to seal any gaps between sleeves and protective gloves. Shoes, which remain in constant contact with surfaces, are often covered with extra protection.

Disinfecting viral contaminants and how to make a homemade disinfectant solution

With protective clothing still on, you should disinfect before removing any of your gear.  First decontaminate your gloves and mask. If wearing a jacket, take if off and place it on the ground with the inside facing upward.  Step onto it and continue decontaminating.

In addition, surfaces of exposed areas should be a concern.  Viruses can survive on hard surfaces for up to two days and can survive on unwashed hands for thirty minutes or more. Most flu viruses can be inactivated and removed with normal household detergents. This may not kill the virus, but will remove them from the surface being cleaned. Disinfecting provides an opposite effect – disinfecting uses chemicals to kill germs but does not necessarily remove them from the infected surface.

Here is how the CDC (Center for Disease Control) recommends you clean and disinfect correctly: Assuming EPA-registered cleaning solutions (your first choice) are not available, the contaminated surface can first be washed with household cleaner to remove germs. Then rinse the area with water followed by an EPA-registered disinfectant to kill germs. If an EPA-registered disinfectant is not available, use a fresh chlorine-bleach solution. To make and use a homemade disinfectant solution:

  1. Add 1 tablespoon bleach to 1 quart (4 cups) of water. For larger quantities, use ¼ cup bleach for each 1 gallon of water.
  2. Apply the solution to the surface using a cloth.
  3. Allow the solution to stand for 3-5 minutes.
  4. Rinse surface with clean water.

Handling remains of infected bodies is extremely dangerous and should only be done by professionals trained for the task. Do not handle contaminated remains – period. If you must, wear protective equipment and burn clothing that may have been contaminated.

Special note about chemical weapons

Chemical weapons are categorized as nerve, blood, blister, and incapacitating agents. They may not be gases but rather, air borne particles and some don’t even have to be breathed in to be effective. To complicate matters further, not only are they spread differently, they are likely to be treated differently too. Nerve agents for instance, can sometimes be survived if you simply flee, get fresh air and remain calm while blister agents may be washed off with soap and water (and possibly even deactivated with sunshine).

Remember too that chemical traces can remain for a long time,  Sarin’s shelf life ranges from several weeks to several months.

Men's facial hair guide for respirator fit

For more details on surviving man-made or natural attacks, view our comprehensive article: How to survive man-made hazards – surviving nuclear, biological, and chemical attacks.

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