Gas mask

Missing image
Man and horse with masks
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Hats; Bonnets; Caps
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Masks; Veils; Scarves
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List of hats and headgear

A gas mask is a mask worn on the face to protect the body from airborne pollutants and toxic materials. The mask may cover the eyes and other vulnerable soft tissues of the face, and will always form a sealed cover over the nose and mouth.

Airborne toxic materials may be gaseous (for example the chlorine used in WWI) or particulate (such as many biological agents developed for weapons such as bacteria, viruses and toxins). Many gas masks include protection from both types. The advantage of a gas mask over other breathing devices is that it does not require the user to carry an air supply (as in the use of scuba gear). However, this means that the user is dependent on the air in the atmosphere, the very medium in which the toxic materials may be present. Thus, the mask must remove them and relay cleaned air to the user.

There are three main ways of achieving this: filtration, absorption and adsorption, and reaction and exchange.



This obviously lends itself to particulate hazards. A filter works by having holes that are smaller than the particles to be removed. As many pollutant molecules and particles are much bigger than air molecules (mostly O2 and N2) this works for many applications.

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Gas masked Navy member in an exercise

However, the smaller the gap through which the air has to pass, the greater the pressure that must be exerted to draw the air through. As the user's lungs provide this pressure there is a limit as to how small these passages may be. Thus to extract many toxic gases, other methods must be used.

Absorption and adsorption

Absorption is the process of being drawn into a (usually larger) body, or substrate, and adsorption is the process of deposition upon a surface. This can be used to remove both particulate and gaseous hazards. Although some form of reaction may take place, it is not necessary, the principle may work by attractive charges (for example if the target particles are positively charged, use a negatively charged substrate). Examples of substrates include activated carbon, and zeolites. This effect can be very simple and highly effective, for example using a damp cloth to cover the mouth and nose whilst escaping a fire. Most of the harmful vapours and smoke will be dissolved in the water on the cloth, giving you vital extra seconds to escape.

Reaction and exchange

This principle relies upon the fact that substances that can do harm to humans are usually more reactive than air. This method of separation will use some form of generally reactive substance (for example an acid) coating or supported by some solid material. An excellent example is resins. These can be created with different groups of atoms (usually called functional groups) that exhibit different properties. Thus a resin can be tailored to a particular toxic group. When the reactive substance comes in contact with the resin, it will bond to it, removing it from the air stream. It may also exchange with a more harmless substance at this site.

There are two main difficulties with gas-mask design:

The user may be exposed to many different types of toxic material. This is especially true of the masks that the military use, they may literally have anything thrown at them. However if the mask is for a particular use (such as the protection from a specific toxic material in a factory), then the design can be much simpler and the cost lower.

The protection will wear off over time. Filters will clog up, substrates for absorption will fill up, and reactive filters will run out of reactive substance. This means that the user only has protection for so long, and then they must either replace the filter device in the mask, or use a new mask.

History and development of the gas mask

Contrary to some modern day opinion, there is no single inventor of the "gas mask". In fact, there were patents for such devices as early as 1887.

In the early days of World War I, the Canadian Army made field expedient gas masks to protect themselves from the deadly chlorine gas used by the Germans by urinating on rags and holding them to their faces.

One such design began as a "Safety Hood and Smoke Protector" invented by African American inventor, Garrett A. Morgan in 1912, and patented in 1914. It was a simple device, consisting of a cotton hood with two hoses which hung down to the floor, allowing the wearer to breathe the safer air found there. Morgan won acclaim for his device when in 1916 he, his brother, and two other volunteers used his device to rescue numerous men from the gas and smoke-filled tunnels beneath Lake Erie in the Cleveland Waterworks.

Dr. Cluny MacPherson of The Royal Newfoundland Regiment, while serving in Gallipoli in 1915, where he acted as an advisor on poisonous gas, used a helmet taken from a captured prisoner to fashion a canvas hood with transparent eyepieces that was treated with chlorine-absorbing chemicals.

Sexual fetish

A small but significant number of people, particularly in the United Kingdom, have a sexual fetish about gas masks. It has been hypothesized that this may be because of childhood behavioral imprinting when these devices were issued in World War II. However, this does not explain those who share this fetish who were not children during World War II. One possibility is that gas masks are for them part of a wider rubber fetishism, or that the dehumanized appearance of a person wearing a gas mask leads to erotic objectification fantasies.

The movie Gods and Monsters featured a scene of gas mask fetishism implying, within the fictionalised events, a relationship between director James Whale's sexuality and trauma experienced in World War I.

Gas masks in popular culture

Although their purpose was to protect the population in WWII, gas masks also have a sinister, faceless image. The 1940s comic book hero the Sandman wore a gas mask as part of his first costume, in part to protect himself from the sleeping gas he used on criminals, but also to inspire fear in them as well.

The unsettling image of the gas mask was also used in the 2005 Doctor Who episodes The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances, an alien infestation of wrongly-programmed "nanogenes" in 1941 London transformed people by turning them into gas-masked zombies.

External links


  • Le Masque à Gaz ( International historical gas mask gallery, with collection of safety and propaganda

nl:Gasmasker ja:ガスマスク pt:Mscara contra gases zh:防毒面具


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