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Lead Poisoning in the Military

How to choose the best mask to prevent military lead poisoning

A career in the military comes with the risk of active combat. There are also dangers associated with assisting in emergencies, such as earthquakes, floods, or disease outbreaks. But there's another risk threatening service members' health, which most do not know about. 

The culprit is lead. And it’s compromising respiratory system function and making military professionals sick.

Military and police personnel are at a higher risk of lead poisoning because they are exposed to large quantities of this substance when firing ammunition or tearing down buildings that contain lead. Lead-bearing particles are aerosolized during these activities, allowing them to be inhaled easily. A U.S. study of lead exposure on outdoor firing ranges showed that although most trainee soldiers' blood samples did not contain lead before they participated in basic training, both after basic and advanced training, 21% and 89% respectively had detectable blood lead levels.

Prolonged exposure to high levels of lead can lead to severe health risks, such as anemia, weakness, kidney disease, heart disease, reduced fertility, brain damage, and even death, so it is critical to take it seriously. “Lead is so dangerous that we're not supposed to bring home our training gear. It gets washed at work,” said Joe, a Tier 1 Operator who agreed to be interviewed on the condition his real name not be used. “But we’re still exposed to a lot. The blood lead levels that the military is willing to accept are beyond what a regular civilian would be comfortable with.”

Lack of knowledge and protection against lead exposure is increasing risk

“Most military workers are not even aware lead is a serious issue,” said Joe.

This means service members regularly participate in breach training and shooting on the range without respiratory protection, especially because Joe claims masks aren't required personal protective equipment (PPE).  “I go to the indoor flat range all the time without a mask,” said Joe. “I’ll get smoked out in the first 20 or 30 minutes and just be like, ‘Okay… I’m coughing up black sh!t. Blowing my nose and it's all black.’ It's pretty bad and it’s stupid”

Armed forces personnel are only removed from duty when BLLs are too high by military standards, but in many cases they already suffer from lead exposure symptoms. “If your levels are too high, you're benched for about three to six months,” said Matt, another Tier 1 Operator who agreed to be interviewed on the condition his real name not be used. “Then you go in for testing again to see where you're at. If you have to continue to stay out of the game, then it's another three to six months. So it's pretty drastic. It happens to guys more often than not and the consequences are pretty big.”

The importance of choosing the right respiratory protection[ME2] 

It is extremely important to take precautions to protect against lead exposure, such as using lead wipes to clean your hands and equipment. These measures, however, aren't enough to prevent inhalation. Due to the fact that masks aren't a regular part of military gear, it's vital that you take precautions and protect yourself.

There are many types of respiratory masks, but they are not all created equal. So make sure the mask you choose offers military-grade protection without interfering with your job performance. The mask should comply with the following:

Complies with regulatory standards

    A respiratory mask must protect against harmful particles. With a NIOSH-approved filtering facepiece respirator with an N99 class filter, at least 99% of dangerous airborne particles as small as 0.1 microns are filtered out, including metals and minerals (e.g. coal, lead), biohazards (e.g. moulds, spores, bacteria), chemicals (e.g. paint, pesticides, and smoke), and more. As part of this type of protection, the mask must fit tightly against your skin in order to prevent your lungs from inhaling air that has not passed through the filter.

    Protects against training scars

      Bad habits developed during training could lead to injury or even death. PPE must be compatible with head, eye, and ear protection and not compromise performance. Military-grade masks should have a low profile to minimize cheek weld interference and to facilitate consistent and accurate shooting. The mask should also have a downward-facing exhaust valve to prevent the glasses from fogging up and facilitate the proper placement of glasses or goggles. Additionally, the mask should be compatible with headsets.

      Passes rigorous field-testing

        mask's manufacturer should be able to show that proper testing has been done to ensure it is structurally sound so it can withstand harsh conditions in the field. Further, the mask should undergo a temperature analysis to ensure it is able to handle hot and cold conditions as well as move from one extreme to another. To ensure the straps will not snap in a high-risk environment, tension tests are necessary.

        Provides comfort and breathability for extended periods of time

          Distractions on the job can mean the difference between life and death. The mask needs to use materials that feel comfortable against your skin and straps that do not chafe or interfere with various kit setups. The respirator should also have large air valves that make breathing as easy as possible, so that the mask may be worn for long periods of time without causing irritation. 

          Maneuvers easily with gloves

            Gloves are necessary PPE, but they can make it difficult to use your fingers, particularly when they’re cold and numb. Make sure the mask is easy to take on and off, and that the filters are easy to switch out, without removing your gloves. This will prevent you from exposing your hands to cold air that could decrease the blood flow and dexterity required for loading ammunition or operating equipment.

            Uses visible filters.

              It can be easy to forget to wear a mask or even clean it when you can’t see the filters. But, when they’re exposed, the dirt stands out and it’s easy to confirm they’re working. Visible filters also offer a powerful incentive for replacing them regularly and a strong reminder of the importance of always wearing a mask to protect against respiratory illness

              Withstands deep cleaning

                Since lead particles can remain on surfaces and continue to pose respiratory risk, it is critical the mask you choose can be sanitized in boiling water or in the dishwasher. Make sure the filters are also removable and can be replaced to keep the mask as clean and bacteria-free as possible.

                Blends in with uniforms and surroundings

                  Wearing a stark white mask in a covert operation will put safety at risk. Make sure the mask is dark in colour to camouflage with your clothing and environment in order to avoid detection.

                  Uses environmentally-friendly materials

                    Since a mask is meant to filter dangerous pollutants, it doesn’t make sense for the product to contribute to environmental issues. Ensure the mask is biodegradable so that it can decay naturally and in a way that isn’t harmful to the environment when the mask is no longer needed.

                    It’s not too late to increase protection

                    Even though it can take months or even years for lead to leave the body, the sooner you increase protection, the better chance you’ll have of limiting your exposure and risking debilitating consequences. A proper military-grade mask is the best way to prevent yourself from inhaling dangerous lead particles and other harmful substances that can compromise respiratory system function.

                    “I've been in this job for eight years and there are guys who've been on these ranges for even longer without any protection,” said Joe. “It’s kind of scary to think about what are going to be the long-term effects. But now that I know the risks, wearing a mask is my priority.”