Hazmat protection needs to be exactly right for its use—and as lightweight as possible.
Protecting people from hazardous materials is serious business—and it’s complex. Fabric designed for use in hazmat suits and gear undergo careful research and rigorous testing before they are ever made into an application. Once a garment or tent is assembled, more testing is required to make sure the seams are as impermeable as the textile itself.
Jenny Houston, vice president of marketing for Warwick Mills, New Ipswich, N.H., says the most serious chemical agents have been around for a while and are very difficult to stop. One of the tests used by the U.S. government (TOP 8-2-501 Testing) tests both the principal material and the seams of the material by submitting it to chemical agents for 72 hours and then for 96 hours. “They take swatches of the material or swatches of the seam and they screen it to see if it’s impermeable,” she says. “If there’s any residue on the other side, you fail.”
But testing doesn’t stop there. The entire ensemble must be tested to make sure that where the individual pieces join together—suit, boots, helmet, gloves—there is no leakage. (See Mist Methodologies.)
In order for hazmat gear to be effective, it has, typically, also been bulky, heavy and cumbersome. That’s a problem, when the work required in the suit can be arduous, and exhaustion in a very short time is a threat. One way this issue is being addressed is to make the materials themselves lighter weight.
“A lot of work is going into trying to make it lighter, but with strong tensile strength and better durability so it doesn’t delaminate, will withstand weathering and is still flame retardant and abrasion resistant,” says Houston. “It’s very easy to make these terrible chemical agents,” Houston says. “It’s not so easy to make protection for them.”
Levels of protection
Hazmat suits are designed to protect from chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) agents, but one suit does not fit all in this case. Generally, in the U.S. suits are classified Level A, B, C or D.
Level A is the highest level of protection and consists of a fully encapsulated suit, usually with a breathing apparatus and two-way radio contained inside the suit. These suits are designed to protect from vapors, gasses, mists and particles—the only level with this degree of protection.
Level B suits protect against liquids, but not vapors, and the breathing apparatus may be worn outside the suit. Chemical-resistant gloves and two-way radio are also part of this gear.
Level C will have the same type of garment as Level B but does not require a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), although it will include an air-purifying respirator. It will not suffice in an oxygen-deficient environment.
Level D does not protect from chemical exposure. Most firefighter turnout gear is classified at this level. However, firefighters may need a higher level of protection in some circumstances. Commercial buildings and even homes can be full of materials that are toxic when they burn.
The challenge for first responders and emergency personnel is to know what the hazard could be in advance. For this reason, firefighters, police, medical personnel, hospital emergency room staff and military personnel are all trained in the use of hazmat gear.
There are many circumstances that can present a danger, and it may be surprising to note that they happen on a somewhat routine basis. Recently, firefighters in Sioux Falls, S.D., responded to an apartment fire call. There was no fire, in this case, but there was a meth lab, and investigators in hazmat suits were called in to deal with it.
In another incident this spring, the Environmental Protection Agency was called in to remove about 1,000 barrels of chemicals from a home in the state of Washington. A retired chemist had amassed the chemicals for use in his business, he said.
Even a bedbug infestation can be labeled “hazardous.” Authorities in New York City required that a motel provide disposable hazmat suits for its employees while they cleaned the invested linens.