The gas mask may seem like a simple piece of equipment, but there’s quite a lot that goes into the design and manufacture of this essential safety gear. It protects against a range of dangers, from poison gases to airborne chemicals and pesticides. Depending on the type of mask, it will have different functions and filter materials that are effective against different types of threats.
The earliest gas masks were little more than flannel head and neck coverings with a peephole, but they were modified to include canisters of absorbent compounds such as sodium thiosulfate (to neutralize chlorine) and activated carbon (which bonds with nerve gases and other poisonous chemical substances). The masks were connected to a canister of oxygen via hoses, which allowed wearers to breathe safely without needing to remove the mask or having it fill up with noxious fumes. The canisters were color coded in a system started by the Germans to distinguish the kinds of gases they contained; green-coded shells carried pulmonary agents such as chlorine, phosgene, and diphosgene, while yellow-coded ones held irritants such as chloropicrin and American-developed Adamsite (diphenylchlorarsine).
Today’s modern gas masks are typically composed of a tight-fitting facepiece that contains filters, an exhalation valve, and transparent eyepieces, along with straps to hold it against the wearer’s head or shoulders, and can be worn in association with a protective hood. Some can also be connected to a tank of pressurized oxygen, which allows the wearer to continue breathing while wearing the mask. The filters, which can be replaced, clean the air that is drawn through them by the wearer’s inhaling, but they do not add oxygen to it; they merely remove contaminants.
Some of the most advanced gas masks feature a variety of features, including voice amplifier, drink device, universal drinking straw for water bottles, and various size options. Some are even compatible with ballistics grade resistant hoods, making them suitable for use by military personnel and first responders in potentially life-threatening situations.
As of this writing, the demand for protective gear has spiked significantly after the alleged chemical attack on civilians in Syria. Local post offices in Israel, where the government has urged citizens to stockpile gas masks, have reported seeing 300 percent increases in requests for them. Residents in other countries, including Israel and the United States, have participated in government-coordinated defense drills to prepare for similar attacks.
The mask has become a symbol of the dangers of biological and chemical warfare, and of humanity’s willingness to go to extreme lengths to wage war. It has also been associated with police use during demonstrations and comes to embody notions of civil unrest, rioting, and government control. Its prominence in popular culture has even made it a recurring motif in the works of graffiti artist Banksy. In the past, some critics have questioned how well current gas masks are capable of protecting people from lethal chemicals, but research being conducted at the Berkeley Lab could help improve them. gas masks