Gas masks are flying off the shelves in U.S. and European cities due to fears about possible biochemical attacks, but experts warn that without proper fitting and training the masks could be useless or even deadly.

?They have to be used at precisely the right time and in precisely the correct way,? says Brian Davey of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in the Hague. ?The individuals that are acquiring them will not be getting them or using them in the context of a controlled program and that can only be negative.?

Without the right training, users can be lulled into a false sense of security?or even suffocated by the mask itself if, as happened to some Israelis during the Gulf War a decade ago, when they failed to remove the protective seal before putting them on.

?Far more important is that most people when they acquire a mask will probably not be guided through the process of whether it is the correct mask for the job that they want it for. They are also unlikely to get a mask with the proper maintenance history,? Davey says.

Gas masks need to be kept in good working order for maximum protection. The rubber on the mask can become stiff with time and lose its flexibility. The seal, gaskets and the filter cannister must be checked to make sure they are still working. People must also make sure the cannister is designed to filter out the right substances and has been stored properly, because its shelf life is limited.

?Respirators need to be fitted and sized properly and correctly maintained. Sizing and fitting is certainly one of the main criteria for respirators,? says Wing Commander Andy Ormerod, of Britain?s Ministry of Defense Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Center. He adds that the amount of protection varies according to the model and type of gas mask. ?They each offer some protection but there are varying degrees. The very reason why they are in army surplus stores in the first place is because generally they have reached their in-service life.? The life span of a filter canister is seven to 10 years, depending on the model. But if is not sealed it is impossible to determine how much life is left in it.

Also, some toxins work through skin absorption as well as inhalation. ?The mask will only protect against the vapors you inhale, not against the skin hazard,? says Davey. ?If you have this false sense of security?that now I?m wearing a mask I am fine?you could put yourself into a situation that gives you a bigger hazard through skin absorption.?

Listen to our September 29 Dreamland show featuring Philip Hoag, author of ?No Such Thing As Doomsday,? and our Inside Interviews with Hoag and bioterrorism specialist Dr. Paul Rega for more information.

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