Monday, January 9, 2012

Technology Spotlight: History of Protective Masks

Protective masks have seen a tremendous change over time as the threat and use of chemical and biological (CB) agents has increased. In 1917, when the United States took part in World War I, the soldiers were ill-prepared for the chemical warfare used at the time. Since then, the protective mask has seen several generations of evolution from off-the-cuff improvised designs, such as bandages or scarves wrapped around the nose and mouth, to the M50 Joint Service Purpose Mask series, which contains end- of-service-filter indicators that can be removed and replaced.

Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC) has played a significant role in the maturation and improvement of this essential piece of equipment for the Warfighter over the years. In particular, ECBC’s Protection Factor and Toxic Chamber Branch (PFTC) has played a large role in ensuring that protective masks developed at ECBC are of the highest quality.

"Many masks have come through here. The M40 has been tested in ECBC's Protection Factor Test Chamber facility for over ten years, testing on close to 10,000 people. For the M45, we tested 1,000 people before fielding the product," said PFTC Branch Leader Alex Pappas.

A combination of the team’s rigorous test procedures and ECBC’s unique Protection Factor Test Chamber facility have helped to maintain the quality of protective masks developed by ECBC.

The facility is designed to evaluate chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear protective capabilities of respirator systems such as masks and clothing. In order to simulate exposure to chemical agents, volunteers don test items and enter a test chamber

The air inside the protective equipment is sampled for challenge aerosol particles while the subject undergoes a series of exercises intended to evaluate worst-case operational conditions.

"There is a standard set of exercises used during testing but we work with the customer to tailor specific exercises to their requirements, pending approval by the Human Use Committee," said PFTC Chemical Engineer Steve Yurechko.

Sampling is accomplished through a length of silicon tubing that is connected from the mask and/or suit to the laser photometers. Finally, the protection factor number (also known as "fit factor") is graphically displayed real-time on a computer monitor.

This protection factor number carries a weighty amount of importance in PFTC’s work, and has been a cause for innovation at times in the past. Heeding to the old adage that "necessity breeds innovation," Pappas recalls several innovations and technologies in protective masks that his team was responsible for, which were direct responses to this "fit factor."

"The higher the protection factor number, the greater level of security afforded by the mask," Pappas said. "PFTC helps ensure that the Warfighter is getting the best possible respirator. Many masks have come through here and we work to ensure each mask meets our standards of quality, meeting or exceeding the protective factor number that a particular mask is required to have."

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