A gas mask is a mask worn on the face to protect the body from airborne pollutants and toxins. The mask may cover the eyes and other vulnerable soft tissues of the face, and will always form a sealed cover over the nose and mouth.
Toxins may be gaseous (for example the chlorine used in WWI), or particulate (such as many biological agents developed for weapons). Many gas masks include protection from both types of toxin. The advantage of a gas mask over other breathing devices is that it does not require the user to carry an air supply (as in the use of scuba gear). However, this means that the user is dependent on the air in the atmosphere, the very medium in which toxins may be present. Thus, the mask must remove the toxins, and relay cleaned air to the user.
There are three main ways of achieving this: filtration, absorption and adsorption, and reaction and exchange.
This obviously lends itself to particulate toxins. A filter works by having holes that are smaller than the particles to be removed. As many pollutant molecules and particles are much bigger than air molecules (mostly O2 and N2) this works for many applications.
However, the smaller the gap through which the air has to pass, the greater the pressure that must be exerted to draw the air through. As the user's lungs provide this pressure there is a limit as to how small these passages may be. Thus to extract many gaseous toxins, other methods must be used.
Absorption and adsorption
Absorption is the process of being drawn into a (usually larger) body, or substrate, and adsorption is the process of deposition upon a surface. This can be used to remove both particulate and gaseous toxins. Although some form of reaction may take place, it is not necessary, the principle may work by attractive charges (for example if the target toxin is positively charged, use a negatively charged substrate). Examples of substrates include activated carbon, and zeolites. this effect can be very simple and highly effective, for example using a damp cloth to cover the mouth and nose whilst escaping a fire. Most of the harmful vapours and smoke will be dissolved in the water on the cloth, giving you vital extra seconds to escape.
Reaction and exchange
This principle relies upon the fact that substances that can do harm to humans are usually more reactive than air. This method of separation will use some form of generally reactive substance (for example an acid) coating or supported by some solid material. An excellent example is resins. These can be created with different groups of atoms (usually called functional groups) that exhibit different properties. Thus a resin can be tailored to a particular group of toxins. When the toxin comes into contact with the reactive substance, it will bond to it, removing it from the air stream. It may also exchange with a more harmless substance at this site.
There are two main difficulties with gas-mask design:
The user may be exposed to many different types of toxins. This is especially true of the masks that the military use, they may literally have anything thrown at them. However if the mask is for a particular use (such as the removal of a specific type of toxin in a factory), then the design can be much simpler and the cost lower.
The protection will wear off over time. Filters will clog up, substrates for absorption will fill up, and reactive filters will run out of reactive substance. This means that the user only has protection for so long, and then they must either replace the filter device in the mask, or use a new mask.
History and development of the gas mask
Contrary to some modern day opinion, there is no single inventor of the "gas mask". In fact, there were patents for such devices as early as 1887.
One such design began as a "Safety Hood and Smoke Protector" invented by African American inventor, Garrett A. Morgan in 1912, and patented in 1914. It was a simple device, consisting of a cotton hood with two hoses which hung down to the floor, allowing the wearer to breathe the safer air found there. Morgan won acclaim for his device when in 1916 he, his brother, and two other volunteers used his device to rescue numerous men from the gas and smoke-filled tunnels beneath Lake Erie in the Cleveland Waterworks .
A small but significant number of people, particularly in the United Kingdom, have a Censored page about gas masks. It has been hypothesized that this may be because of childhood behavioral imprinting when these devices were issued in World War II. However, this does not explain those who share this fetish who were not children during World War II. One possibility is that gas masks are for them part of a wider Censored page, or that the dehumanized appearance of a person wearing a gas mask leads to Censored page fantasies.