Personal protective equipment (PPE)

While researching for my post on Disaster kits part one and two I noticed there seems to be general confusion on on the topic of PPE and what kind you need for different purposes. What really hit the nail on the head and promted me to write this post on PPE was when i read a guide on redcross.org that basically equated a surgical mask and an N95 mask. These two types of masks are not intended for the same purpose at all, but more on that later.

To simplify things i usually divide the threats into 3 main groups:

  • Infectious agents
  • Radiation (or rather radioactive particles)
  • Chemicals and gasses

Some of the groups require the same basic PPE. The easiest to provide protection against are by far particle borne threats such as infectious agents, toxic dust and radioactive particles.

Infectious agents:

When trying to protect against infectious agents knowledge of the specific pathogen is useful, however in most cases fairly cheap single use PPE and some procedures for putting it on and taking it off, will go a long way to protect the wearer from infection. If you want the gear with the best protection available you can easily spend thousands of dollars on positive pressure suits and a self contained air supply, and even then, all it might take to still be infected is a small tear in the suit. The downside of such suits, apart from the pricetag, is limited mobility making a tear fairly likely to occur. Instead i recommend getting the following:

  • plastic apron (outer layer)
  • category 3 and 4 chemical suit (outer layer, taped seams and with double liquid tight closing mechanism)
  • hood that, when combined with a half mask and goggles or a full mask, covers any exposed skin of the face
  • half mask and face shield for non airborne diseases and full mask for airborne diseases (there is a theoretical infection route through the eyes when dealing with an airborne disease) FFP3 or N95 filtering masks are a minimum protection level. A reusable mask fitted with a P3 filter will eliminate 99.95% of all particles.
  • absorbent inner layer (surgical clothing or similar)
  • nitrile gloves (inner layer)
  • long sleeve chemical gloves (outer layer, must provide some mechanical strength as well as act as a barrier)
  • liquid tight footwear (rubber boots)
  • chemical tape for sealing up the openings where gloves or boots meet the suit
  • large garden spray bottle and diluted bleach (used before taking off the PPE and possibly as a decontamination shower after taking off the suit)

The procedure for putting on and taking off the gear is as important as the gear itself, I will cover this in a later post.

Radioactive particles:

There are many types of radiation, some harmless and some harmfull to the human organism. It is however beyond the scope of this blogpost to delve into the specific types of radiation. For those intrested, wikipedia has a fairly easy to understand article on radiation 

In movies you often see actors wearing radiation suits to protect against ionizing radiation. The truth is, that the suits are not designed to protect against radiation itself, as this would require a lead lined suit so heavy that even the Hulk would have a hard time walking around in it. The intended purpose of most radiation suits is to protect against ingesting, inhaling or otherwise bringing back radioactive particles from a contaminated area.

Why are a few specks of radioactive dust so problematic you ask? well radiation follows the inverse-square law meaning if you half the distance to a radiation source, you quadrouple the radiation dose (simply put,  the closer the source of the radiation is to your body the more damage is done). Furthermore radioactive materials can have a very long half-life and thus emit radiation for a very long time increasing the damage done over time.

When trying to protect yourself from radioactive particles the same equipment used to protect against infectious agents can be used (see list above). The only difference is that dousing yourself in bleach is not necessary, instead a thorough decontamination shower before and after taking off the suit is highly recommended.

Chemicals and gasses:

This is the point when choosing the right PPE becomes either complicated, expensive or both. The problem when dealing with chemicals or gasses is that is that you have to know what chemical or gas you want to protect yourself from and the specific concentration of the chemical or gas in the surrounding environment. As an example a standard run of the mill natural rubber glove will offer excellent protection from acid, but very poor protection from organic solvents (ethanol / alcohol will penetrate in a matter of minutes).

I other words this is a preppers nightmare. If worried about an unknown chemical or gaseous threat the only safe bet is basically an airtight heavy duty chemical suit with its own air supply and those are quite expensive. Even with the best gear expect a limited time before the chemical might breach the suit. If you know the specific threat (gas or chemical) you can probably get by with much less as filters and chemical suits are available for a wide range of applications.

A note on filtering masks (respirators):

When dealing with particle contaminants (infectious agents and radioactive or toxic particles) filtering masks are often used. I have seen a lot of suggestions for using a surgical mask for this purpose probably because they are cheap. However surgical masks are intended to protect patients from saliva droplets from the wearer and as such the mask offers little or no protection for the wearer. FFP3 masks and N95 masks are designed to make a tight seal to the wearer’s face and filter out particles from the incoming air. If you want to step up that protection a half or full mask fitted with a P3 filter will, if fitted to the wearer, do better than the single use masks. Keep in mind though that no filter is 100% effective.

A wide range of filters are available for half or full masks that enables you to filter out harmful things such as organic solvents, mercury or inorganic gasses etc. 3M has a good guide for selecting the appropriate filter for a specific purpose.

In conclusion:

For any PPE to be effective you have to know the threat. Sure you can the top of the line gear if you have enough money, but in most cases you will be cumbered to an unnecessary degree by heavy gear. Even the very best PPE will only protect you for a limited amount of time and will not be effective against all threats (radiation for example). When dealing with infectious agents or threats where even small exposures pose a substantial health risk, the proper procedure for putting on and taking off the gear is as important as the gear itself.

Disaster Kit – Part 2 (shelter in place)

In part 1, I covered the disaster kit for bugging out. In part 2 I will be covering the basics for sheltering in.

The scenario

A major disaster just hit your area and has taken out power and landlines. The water supply is still up, but running on backup power. You have spent years building that model railroad in the basement and there is no way in h*ll you are leaving it for looters to ransack. Time to batten down the hatches and prepare to shelter in place.

There are plenty of scenarios where sheltering in place, is the most sensible choice. It’s likely that the roads are closed or overcrowded with other people trying to leave the area. Scenarios where you expect the disturbance to be over relatively quickly, like weathering a storm and the aftermath, are also prime candidates for using the shelter in place tactic.

The following is what I believe you will need (partly compiled from ready.gov and redcross.org):

If you already read part one of this guide, you will notice that some items are on both lists. This makes it possible to read them independently.

  • First and foremost, fill up on water as long as the resource is still available. All containers capable of holding potable water should be filled to the brink. Needed amount of water: One gallon per person (about 4 liters) per day (minimum 14-day supply for sheltering in place)
  • Food: Non-perishable, easy-to-prepare items (14-day supply for sheltering in place)
  • A way to prepare food (camp stove or similar, remember fuel aswell)
  • Headlamp and/or flashlight (I recommend a good headlamp to keep your hands free)
  • Candles or other illumination source
  • Plywood panels for covering windows and/or doors (mostly useful in storms and for complicating entry from the outside)
  • Battery-powered or hand-crank radio
  • Extra batteries
  • First aid kit
  • Medications (30-day supply) and medical items
  • Sanitation and personal hygiene items
  • Copies of personal documents (medication list and pertinent medical information, proof of address, deed/lease to home, passports, birth certificates, insurance policies)
  • Family and emergency contact information
  • Cell phone with chargers (for mains and for the car, you might not be driving anywhere, but if mains power is unavailable, a car battery might save you)
  • Powerbank for charging phones
  • Extra cash
  • Map(s) of the area (preferably with points of interest like water sources already plotted)
  • Duct tape and plastic sheeting (for sealing up windows and/or doors from harmful particles)
  • Alcohol based disinfectant
  • Household chlorine bleach (usable for disinfectant)
  • Personal protective equipment (PPE) is useful for guarding against infectious or otherwise harmful agents, but keep in mind that most are single use and prolonged exposure to chemicals or radiation will likely mean that your PPE is less effective or has no effect at all
  • When sheltering in place hypothermia is usually less of a concern, but if you have a heatsource that works off grid a small stockpile of fuel for that heatsouce might prove invaluable, especially in cold climates. Most people will already have warm clothes and blankets available in their homes
  • If you have babies, children or animals in the house consider special needs (formula, diapers, petfood etc.)

I intentionally left out weapons from the list even though some kind of defensive capability might be sensible to have. Where I live there is very strict regulation on weapons of any kind, even simple “weapons” such as slingshots, clubs or long bladed knives are illegal to own. If you decide to acquire items for self defense, be sure to obey local legislation, and keep guns or similarly dangerous items locked safely away from curious children.

As with part one the list above is by no means complete, but represents what I try to have available for me and my family in case of emergency. Depending on the type of disaster and the climate you live in the most valuable items might differ from the list above.

What do you believe needs to be in a “shelter-in-place kit”?