TikTokers are going viral with prepper content surrounding chemical weapons and they are providing misinformation. With rumors of chemicals weapons being used in Ukraine, some have taken to sharing their thoughts on social media. In particular, some users are discussing the use of ageing, surplus gas masks in the event of a chemical weapons attack. Why is this dangerous advice?
Old gas masks were manufactured with a specific threading pattern and size. Most modern filters will not be compatible. Forcing the threading will only result in a poor seal and improper filtration. Modern masks are manufactured with interchangeable canister filters that can work in a wide range of environments. GOST threading is the Russian standard and 40mm NATO is the current standard type of threading utilized globally.
Canisters must be replaced regularly if used, each are rated for particular environments and time in that environment. However, when purchasing old, surplus masks you will often find they come with the original canister. DO NOT use old canisters, even if you are just testing the mask. Post WWII gas mask canisters often contained asbestos. Those filters were manufactured in the U.S. and most international surplus masks also had asbestos in their filters. Handling, breathing, removing or attempting to repair old canister filters all carry a high chance of asbestos exposure.
Storage and Material Age
Surplus gas masks, no matter where they were manufactured, have no guarantee on where they were stored or how they were handled. Gas masks have been manufactured with rubber, butyl and other polymers that crack, discolor or lose elasticity over time. If they were stored in dry or sunny environments, this could have accelerated that material ageing process.
The filters for these masks have the same issue. If they were stored in humid environments the powders and charcoal inside of them could be hardened or made solid. Rendering them both nearly impossible to breathe through and useless for filtering.
Improper Donning and Fit
Modern users in chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive (CBRNE) environments undergo fitness testing, respirator fit testing and training to properly don their masks. Casual wearers do not. Most modern gas masks also have sizing that is based on the shape and size of the user's face. Simply picking up a gas mask online or grabbing one from a local surplus store does not guarantee it will fit you properly. You might think "I will just try it on". Even if it feels right, there is no guarantee it will actually seal and filter like it is supposed to. Wearing an ill fitting mask is virtually the same as not wearing a mask at all. NIOSH has a guide on purchasing respiratory protection for CBRNE events.
Not All Chemical Weapons Are The Same
There are 5 classes of chemical weapons and not every mask will protect you against every type of chemical weapon. Filters are graded for specific kinds of chemical weapons. For example, some filters will work for nerve agents and blister agents, but they may not help you with other types of chemical weapons that produce heavy smoke.
Heavy smoke can over encumber filters and believing that you can remain safe in this environment because you are wearing a gas mask can be dangerous. Smoke can be produced by the chemicals themselves or by nearby fires or damage after explosions. Not all masks will protect against smoke. Wearing a gas mask in low oxygen environments is a fatal mistake. If there is smoke, the oxygen in your environment could be low or compromised.
What Can You Do?
NIOSH provides a buyer's guide, along with other masks manufacturers such as Mira. Get professional training in wearing, carrying and storing your masks. Keep up with current news and events from reputable, well-researched resources and decide whether or not you might need a gas mask at all. The reality is that most people will never come into contact with chemical weapons in their lifetime.