Pros and Cons of Getting a Gas Mask

ByABC News
September 26, 2001, 3:49 PM

B O S T O N, Sept. 27 -- Heightened concern of another possible terrorist attack, this time using biological or chemical agents, is driving many people to buy what they believe is their only protection a gas mask. But experts question how effective they are and if they could be used in time.

"I believe individuals buying gas masks to protect themselves against an unspecified biological or chemical attack is pretty useless," says Dr. John Clements, professor and chair of Immunology and Microbiology at Tulane University.

Biologically the biggest threat is Anthrax, which Clements believes would most likely be released unrecognized into a populated area. So gas mask or not, some people may not even be aware of the attack.

"The infection takes one to six days to start showing symptoms, and you are not going to be aware that you were exposed for some time," he says, adding: "The potential for person to person spread is low."

Plus, Clements says, the chemical agents of greatest concern are nerve gasses, such as Sarin, for which even a gas mask does not give full protection.

"It is true that they are most effective when inhaled, but they are very effectively absorbed through the skin as well," he says. "In a closed environment, such as a building or a subway tunnel, high enough concentrations would be achieved to make a mask pretty much useless."

They Can Make Things Worse

Another problem with gas masks is, "They do not fit children," says Samuel Watson, director of the Biomedical Security Institute at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health.

Plus, "they may make people's heart or lung conditions worse, and some people [about 2 percent] are too claustrophobic to use a mask."

Experts also point out that there's more to using a gas mask than just putting it on. It's important to receive proper training and maintenance.

The charcoal filters break down with time, the gaskets deteriorate, and they must be the right size for the individual that plans to use them," explains Clements.