Every emergency kit should include an air filtration mask. A proper mask can help protect you from contaminants such as smoke, dust, chemicals, and biological agents. Not all masks are created equal and you must have the proper mask for the situation.

During the COVID-19 pandemic many people wore face masks. Most of these masks provided very little protection to the wearer but did give some protection against spreading the virus to others. “Normal” masks purchased at retail outlets are effective for filtering larger dust particles like those generated by using power tools. Filtering biological contaminants requires more effective face masks.

N95 masks, manufactured by 3M, are routinely used in the medical community and are effective at filtering biological and non-biological contaminants. These lightweight and relatively inexpensive ($1 – $5 each) masks are highly effective and offer two-way filtering (more on this later). They are intended for single use and are relatively fragile. I actually reuse mine but only when working in the garage to filter sawdust. Do not reuse them if there are biological threats. An N95 mask rating means that the mask filters at least 95% of particles down to 0.3 microns (COVID is about 0.125 microns).

There are excellent masks that filter like an N95 mask (or better) but have a much longer life. These masks have a flexible mask with replaceable filters. Prices typically start at about $35. I purchased some from RzMask and I also found FilterFast with another type of mask. I recommend having this type of mask in your emergency kit and vehicle kit. Note that many of these masks are one-way masks (more on this later).

The best filter is a respirator with replaceable filter cartridges. These masks are used by professionals that work around nasty chemicals or biological agents. There are different filter cartridges for the type of contaminant being filtered. For an emergency kit you probably want a filter for organics and vapors. These respirators will not be cheap and they can be a bit uncomfortable to wear but they are the HIGHLY effective. Some of these masks filter about 99% of particulates down to .1 microns.

Paper masks, pleated cloth masks, and similar masks can be somewhat effective in protecting others if you are sick but they provide minimal protection for you. If you have nothing else then use them because they do offer some protection. With any mask you must avoid touching your face and adjusting the mask. Each time you break the seal on the mask you risk inhaling contaminants.

One-Way and Two-Way Masks

Most people are familiar with the paper or fiber masks that fit over nose and mouth. These are two-way masks meaning that they filter both incoming and outgoing air. One-way masks have a valve that opens when the wearer exhales making breathing much easier. One-way masks were designed to protect the wearer from outside contaminants. If the wearer is sick then these masks offer little protection to those around the infected mask wearer. If you want to protect yourself then either a one- or two-way mask will work. If you want to protect yourself and others then use a two-way mask.

Comfort and Wearing a Mask

Filtration masks can be a bit uncomfortable to wear. When breathing in a mask you must inhale and exhale through the filter material making breathing more difficult. The mask must conform to the contours of your face and there cannot be gaps between your skin and mask. Gaps allow the contaminants to enter.

When wearing a mask you must also be careful when applying and removing the mask. If your mask filtered harmful chemicals or biological agents then you do not want to touch, breathe, or spread those contaminants when removing the mask. Remove a mask from behind and do not touch the front of the mask. Discard the disposable mask in a closed bin and then thoroughly wash your hands.

Biological Contaminants

A cough or sneeze expels respiratory droplets that can spread infection. These droplets can be less than the diameter of a human hair. A cough or sneeze can travel at up to 100 MPH. Droplets from a cough can travel up to 18 feet. Droplets from a sneeze can travel up to 24 feet. The contamination can also remain on surfaces so it is important to not touch your face, eyes, mouth, or nose in areas that might be contaminated.

If you are wearing a mask in a contaminated area then the mask will be filtering those contaminants. This means that the outside of the mask will be contaminated and you should be very careful when handling the mask. When removing the mask be sure to not touch the mask. Handle the mask carefully so that the contaminants are not dislodged from the mask.

Don and Doff the Mask

You must be very carefully when you don (put-on) and doff (take-off) an N95 mask. Key things to remember:

  • The mask must be tightly sealed with no air leaks
  • Disposable N95 masks are single use only
  • When removing a mask assume that it is contaminated
  • Discard used masks safely
  • Thoroughly wash hands after removing the mask

Here is a short video showing how to don and doff an N95 mask (RegisteredNursesRN). Assume that the mask is contaminated and treat it very carefully. Do not touch the outside of the mask once you put it on.