The Masks We Wear
In the wake of the September 11 attacks, Americans are scrambling to buy gas masks and other protective devices. Is it all in vain?
12:01 AM, Oct 4, 2001 • By DAVID SKINNER
JOHN BUCKLEY WORKS FOR Brainerd Communicators in the Metlife building in Midtown Manhattan, right above Grand Central Station. When he and his fellow employees got back to work the week after September 11, the first topics of discussion were building security and emergency protocol. In the following days, employees practiced evacuation, received Israeli gas masks (costing a couple hundred dollars each) and instruction in their use, and made plans to purchase rappelling equipment to exit the building by window if necessary. Buckley says that people at his company are not "succumbing to fear." They are "moving on," he emphasizes. But, he says, it's comforting to have all this equipment and an employer who cares about his life and limbs.
A lot of people are in the market for comfort. Supply and demand are reaching new agreements. Dutch gas masks are fetching $400 on eBay. At the surplus military store in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, the only mask left is East German, so it's at least 12 years old, and its filters are used. To get an idea of how good a used filter might be, consider that the United States issues to its soldiers only brand spanking new, vacuum-sealed filters. I'm not sure that I'd wear that mask to a Halloween party. And yet it's going for $79.95.
In case you're in the market, you may want to know that during the Gulf war, U.S. ground troops were issued M17 series masks (right now, there's one on eBay for $150, a bargain), and some received newer M40 masks. And still there are other, non-shopping challenges to the proper usage of this equipment. Putting on a mask during chemical attack requires practice. An armed services rule of thumb is that you should be able to "don and clear" the mask--meaning get the thing on right and expel all the air remaining inside the mask--in less than ten seconds. Apparently, it's not that easy. When Israel issued citizens respirator masks during the Gulf war for fear of Iraqi SCUD missiles carrying anthrax, many panicked and hyperventilated. One person died after failing to unwrap the filter.
A good mask, however, is only one of the things needed to survive nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) attacks. The nose, eyes, and mouth are the most likely points of entry for airborne materials, but skin is also permeable. According to field manuals and federal websites, the United States issues the following to soldiers entering NBC environments: a helmet cover or hood to cover the rest of your face, head, and neck; an overgarment, with several layers of rubber, cotton or vinyl, and charcoal, which is highly absorbent; vinyl overboots and protective gloves; and various auxiliary equipment like skin decontamination kits, antidote kits, and chemical agent detector paper (which you can stick to your clothing so you know if there's anthrax coming down on you).
These are the kinds of heartwarming things one learns reading military field manuals and trade journalism on NBC warfare. One also comes across stories about mustard gas in the Iran-Iraq war and the 1979 Soviet leak of anthrax at a chemical plant in Sverdlovsk. Such accounts leave you jumpy at night and melancholy in the day. And you fall half in love with easeful death when, in passing, a Marine reservist describes a training film he saw in which a goat was injected with a nerve agent that caused muscle spasms so furious they broke the goat's back.
It is no wonder the ladies with Mercedes in Old Town rushed out and bought gas masks last week. Nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare promise difficult death. In "Dulce Et Decorum Est," the poet Wilfred Owen famously described a fatality by phosgene, used by the German in the First World War:
". . . watch the white eyes writhing in his face, / His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin, / If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood / Come gargling from froth-corrupted lungs, / Bitter as the cud / Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues"
Owen believed there was nothing honorable about dying for one's country--and he was wrong about that. But he was right about the gargling. Phosgene undermines the capillaries in the lungs and then destroys the membranes of the lung sacs, which then become flooded by liquid. Such a death was called a dry-land drowning.