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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Preps: Toxic Air Contamination

In our view, Emergency Preparedness needs to focus more on limiting negative impacts to disasters than on preparing for specific events (earthquake, hurricane, etc.).  We discussed that philosophy and those Twelve Impacts in an earlier post.

We're going to drill down into one of the twelve impacts:  Toxic Air Contamination. 

As with any personal Emergency Prep plan, the operative word is, "personal".  YOU need to decide what impacts are most likely in your area, region, house or business.  It is generally a waste of resources to prepare for every single possible impact in every category.

Each individual family or group also needs to determine how indepth they want to get into establishing  warning systems, preventative measures and responses.

Toxic Air Contamination covers any airborne threat - the air is unsafe in one way or another - and breaks down into three broad groups:  NBC - Nuclear, Biological and Chemical.  The likelihood of each happening differs greatly for most Americans.  For instance, you are more likely to be contaminated by an airborne biological agent (someone sneezing on you with a cold virus) than by nuclear fallout.

Biological runs the gammut from regularly occuring infectious agents such as cold virus' and  influenza, to aerosolized anthrax being disbursed by terrorists.

Chemical can be anything from a train car full of ammonia gas being released while traveling through your town, to choking smoke from a house fire, to professionals-turned-terrorist releasing Sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system.

Nuclear could run from terrorist nuclear "dirty bombs" to attacks by other countries and the resulting fall-out.

There are literally thousands of scenarios that could occur, but it's unrealistic to plan for each of them.  Focus your plans on the potential impacts instead.


So, something bad is in the air and it's headed your way.  What to do?

N95 masks will stop many forms of airborne biological agents, but are generally ineffective against most chemicals.  They are generally recognized to be ineffective for people with facial hair, as you are unable to get a tight fit on your face.  It should also be noted that a number of studies comparing the more costly N95 masks against standard surgical masks, showed that both provided about the same level of protection.

Gas Masks at their most basic level pass the outside air through a filter system to provide the user with purified air.  Depending upon the filtration media and staging, they are generally effective against both biological and chemical airborne contaminants.  Purchasers of gas masks must recognize that many airborne contaminants - primarily chemical - can also cause harm by simply landing on the person's skin.  These masks only protect the air entering the lungs.  There are also air-assisted gas masks - such as those used by firefighters - which don't filter the air, but provide a dedicated source of air.  There are "home versions" of these masks as well.

"Protective Suits" are the most extreme and effective defense against biological and chemical airborne contaminants, as they cover you head-to-toe, and protect the lungs as well as the skin.  Generally speaking, if a suit will protect you against chemical, it will also protect you against biological, but not necessarily vice versa.  The suits are also the most expensive solution. 

You'll notice that none of these mobile solutions protects you against nuclear/radiological.  After the shock wave and fire of the initial blast, the two primary killers - gamma rays and neutrons - require deep or dense defenses.

The idea is to place as much mass between you and the radiation.  If you're in your home, go into your basement (you have the entire home above you offering some protection).  If you don't have a basement, get to the lowest floor towards the center of the home (more walls and structure to shield you).  The same goes if you are in an office building.

Here's a decent summary of chemical, biological and radiological Agents, Protection Required and Physiological Effects of exposure.

Regardless of what type of protection you purchase, be sure you are VERY clear about the ratings of the product.  Assume nothing.  For instance, not all N95 masks are equally made or rated.


Public television and radio are far and away the best warning mechanism, aside from witnessing an event in person.  Many communities also have Public Alert sirens which blare during an emergency.  My county has an automated telephone service that calls all potentially affected homes if one of the refineries (yes, we still have SOME in California!) or chemical plants has an emergency.

You can also purchase products such as Geiger counters and survey meters,  and key chain radiation monitors and alarms to have with you at all times.


Unless your plan is to live underground in your bunker 24/7, you can't prevent the impact of an event which would release NBC contaminants into the air.

Limiting your exposure through a good warning system is your best defense.  Many communities now issue, "Shelter In Place" alerts when certain emergency events occur. 

Each year, influenza immunizations are available throughout America.  You can also take potassium iodide to protect against some of the effects of radiation (thyroid cancer).

Your Plans

For your location and lifestyle, which types of impacts have a high probability of occurring?  Teachers and medical personnel might want to consider flu shots because of their constant contact with many different people.  If you live in close proximity to chemical plants, rail ways, refineries or any facilities that handle toxic items, you might want to consider a higher-grade mask or breathing system.

And you won't always be sitting in your home when the impact occurs.  Incorporate "off-site" items as well.

Don't forget to consider, "low probability, high impact" items.  If the local nuclear power plant blows up, or some nuclear country decides to fire off a burst to fry our electronics via an EMP burst, having potassium iodide on hand would be a low-cost, high-return solution (two weeks of exposure protection is about $10 per person).

Accept The Challenge

We all need clean air to breath.  There is no single life requirement that, should it be taken away, results in our death so quickly.  Three or four minutes without it, and you're dead.

How many of you have as little as a N95 mask in your car in the event you suddenly find yourself in some sort of toxic cloud?

How far away are the nearest railroad tracks?  Chemical plant?  Power station?  A manufacturing plant that uses any kind of chemical?

If an alarm is sounded, do you know what to do?  Where do you go or what do you do when a Civil Defense siren blares away?

Plan.  Now.

Copyright 2009 Bison Risk Management Associates. All rights reserved. You are encouraged to repost this information so long as it is credited to Bison Risk Management Associates.


Anonymous said...

Dear Cheif Instructor,
I am a female who was stationed on a ship in the 80's during the hijacking of the Achellie Largo and the hit on the USS Stark..we were given practice on guns and shooting at bootcamp and regularly on the ship...for watches and standing guard..everytime we went out to sea and quite regularly they would put big plastic targets on the ship (the fantail) and we would practice..shot gun, rifle and pistol...I still have my gun card..and am still a marksman..I practice all the time...the Navy taught me how to shot and do it well.Respectfully,Terrie

Anonymous said...

Sorry..I put my comment on the wrong section..I am new at this..please excuse me..Terrie

Anonymous said...

Good advice. The potassium iodide can be bought at

Anonymous said...

I bought gas masks for every member of my family. My wife and I live in a rural area, and the most likely use for them is to help us get off the mountain in the event of a forest fire. I realize they are not rebreathers but a gas mask will filter out the worst particulate contaminants from a fire. My kids live in a city in Florida, my thought on them having masks is that you can never foresee what will happen, and masks take up very little room on the shelf.

I keep a 1950's era radiation detector at home, in the event of a dirty bomb or nuclear bomb going off in Atlanta, I am down wind.

Chief Instructor said...

Terrie, I'm glad to hear that there was some regular firearms practice. It seems as though things may have changed based upon what I've been hearing. I've got my Advanced Class today with the Airman, and if I get some more information, I'll share it.

Anon, thanks for the source.

Hermit, we all have N95 masks in our cars, plus tons of them in our home preps.

I need to get on the move with gas masks. We are quite close to a freight line - about a mile and a half away. We've got a Dow chemical plant and two power plants all within 5 miles, and a military munitions depot 10 miles away (although whether munitions are still stored there is unknown).

The masks are cheap insurance.