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New lab aims to improve, standardize personal safety devices for rescuers

Facility in South Park set in up wake of 9/11

Monday, September 09, 2002

By Byron Spice, Post-Gazette Science Editor

The first call, as Richard Metzler remembers it, came around 2 a.m. on Sept.12.

The National Personal Protection Technology Laboratory this spring certified the first civilian respirator -- a self-contained breathing apparatus such as this one modeled by physical scientist Terrence Cloonan -- for use against chemical and biological agents used by terrorists. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)

"What kind of respirator do we wear for asbestos?" wondered the caller, a federal emergency response official at the World Trade Center site. The collapse of the Twin Towers had lofted tons of asbestos into the air, raising concerns about the air emergency workers were breathing.

Metzler was the logical person to call. He is an expert on breathing devices for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, as well as acting director of the newly established National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory in South Park.

And the calls kept coming. What respirator works best for silica dust? Does the odor-masking Vicks Vaporub smeared on the faces of recovery workers affect respirator performance? What type of filter works best for anthrax?

These were questions that NIOSH officials had anticipated as they came to realize in the late 1990s that emergency responders would have to cope with terrorist and bioterrorist attacks. Answering those questions was one reason Congress had voted a year earlier to create the personal protective technology lab.

But last September, as Metzler fielded calls and dispatched two of his scientists to Ground Zero, NIOSH still hadn't certified a single respirator for counter-terrorism use.

Biomedical engineer Nick Kyriazi checks the performance of a self-contained self-rescuer, which provides up to 60 minutes of emergency oxygen, using a machine that mimics breathing. The National Personal Protection Technology Laboratory is studying the reliability of the devices, which are used by miners. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)

"As you can imagine, [9/11] sort of intensified the effort," said Les Boord, program manager of the lab's standards development section.

This spring, NIOSH approved its first self-contained breathing apparatus -- the sort of pressurized air tank and mask typically worn by firefighters -- certified for use against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear agents. Similar certification standards for gas masks will be released next month, Metzler said, and certification testing of gas masks will begin next year. Concepts for certifying escape hoods -- plastic hoods that would cover the head and filter air for a few minutes while a person leaves a building -- should be announced "within days," he added.

Without such certification programs, Metzler said, no one can be sure whether the various types of breathing apparatus on sale today are effective against biological or chemical warfare agents -- and that includes the various gas masks that some firms marketed to worried consumers following the 9/11 attacks.

 
 
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Even a breathing device certified for use against toxic industrial gases might not work well against chemical warfare agents, Metzler warned. Agents such as mustard gas or sarin nerve gas can permeate the rubber and plastic face masks of many civilian breathing devices, he noted.

Last December, at a NIOSH-sponsored conference in New York City to assess the lessons learned from 9/11, emergency officials complained that protective clothing and equipment was too heavy and uncomfortable for much of the recovery work. Respirators were often used intermittently or not at all and were dubbed "neck protectors" by some frustrated first responders.

"These hazards aren't short-term," Metzler said. "They go on for days and days, as we learned at the World Trade Center." So equipment will have to be designed with long-term use in mind.

When to replace filters or gloves becomes problematic as equipment is used for longer stretches, said Jay Snyder of the lab's technology branch, a self-proclaimed "gadgeteer." Repeated use -- or repeated decontamination -- can cause rubber, plastic and other materials to deteriorate. And the common method used in many industries for determining when to change a respirator filter -- waiting until you can smell the chemical through the filter -- simply won't work for many chemical and biological warfare agents. "By the time you smell it," Snyder said, "it's too late."

One technological fix Snyder's group is studying is a colored patch that can be worn on the skin under gloves or other protective clothing. The yellow patch turns brown when it comes in contact with acid, indicating a leak has developed.

The lab is working with Los Alamos National Laboratory to develop a computer program that can calculate when a respirator filter should be changed, based on the size of the user, the chemical exposure and how vigorous the user's activity is. Snyder said the lab also has begun work with Carnegie Mellon University to develop sensors that could be placed in the filters themselves; when attached to a computerized "smart face piece," the sensor could signal the user when the filter is spent.

Roland Berry Ann, one of the lab scientists dispatched to Ground Zero last year, noted that interoperability proved to be a problem -- air filters designed to fit on one vendor's respirator usually didn't fit on a respirator made by a different vendor. That became a problem with so many different agencies with different equipment all responding to the same disaster site. New standards likely will require universal connectors.

And the very definition of a "first responder" is changing, Metzler said. Utility company personnel sent to a site to turn power on or off are facing the same hazards as fire, policy and emergency medical crews, as are operating engineers who must clear debris.

Breathing devices, the last line of defense against environmental hazards, are a major focus of work at the National Personal Protective Technology Lab, Metzler said. But lab's mission is much broader, encompassing all apparel and equipment that might be used to protect workers.

An estimated 50 million American workers use some sort of protective gear, ranging from the latex gloves of a health-care worker to the fireproof clothing of a firefighter.

The lab will continue NIOSH's work of setting standards and certifying the performance of respirators. But for the first time, it also will concentrate on how these different types of protective gear work in concert with each other, Metzler said.

That might help avoid situations such as occurred last fall, when some first responders were compelled to use duct tape to seal their gloves to their sleeves and firefighters climbed flight after flight of stairs encumbered with more than 100 pounds of gear.


Byron Spice can be reached at bspice@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.

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