Lead Poisoning In The Military

How to choose the best mask to prevent military lead poisoning

When you choose a career in the military, the risks of active combat are clear. Dangers associated with assisting in emergencies, such as earthquakes, floods, or disease outbreaks are also likely on your radar. But there’s another hazard threatening service members’ health, which most know nothing about. 

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

If you work in the military or police force, the risk of lead poisoning is significant because you’re exposed to large quantities of this substance when firing ammunition or tearing down structures that contain lead-based materials. These activities cause lead-bearing particles to be aerosolized, allowing them to be easily inhaled. In fact, a U.S. study of lead exposure in outdoor firing ranges showed that although most trainee soldiers’ blood samples did not contain lead before they participated in basic training, after both basic and advanced training, 21% and 89% respectively had detectable blood lead levels (BLLs).

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 firing on the range without any respiratory protection, particularly since Joe claims masks are not mandated 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”

It’s only when BLLs are too high by military standards that service members are pulled off the job, but in many cases they’re already suffering 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

Taking precautions to protect against lead exposure, such as using lead wipes to clean your hands and equipment, are definitely important. However, these measures aren’t sufficient enough to stop inhalation. Since masks aren’t part of regular military gear, it’s critical to take prevention into your own hands and do more to protect yourself.

While many types of respiratory masks exist, they’re not created equal. That’s why you need to select a mask that provides military-grade protection without interfering with job performance. The mask should meet the following requirements:

  1. Complies with regulatory standards

It’s essential for a respiratory mask to protect against harmful particles. A NIOSH-approved filtering facepiece respirator with an N99 class filter means that it filters at least 99% of dangerous airborne particles as small as 0.1 microns, including mineral and metallic dusts (e.g. coal and lead), biohazards (e.g. moulds, spores, and bacteria), chemicals (e.g. paint, pesticides, and smoke), and more. This type of protection also requires the mask to fit tight against your skin so that it will prevent your lungs from inhaling any air that doesn’t pass through the filter first.

2. Protects against training scars

Bad habits developed during training could cause injury or even death. It’s critical that the PPE you use integrates properly with head, eye and ear protection and does not compromise performance. A military-grade mask should have a low profile to minimize cheek-weld interference and support consistent and accurate shooting. Additionally, the shape of the mask should facilitate proper placement of glasses or goggles and be constructed with a downward facing exhaust valve to prevent glasses from fogging up. The mask should also be compatible with headsets.

3. Passes rigorous field-testing

To verify the mask is durable and can withstand harsh conditions in the field, it’s important the manufacturer can verify proper testing has been done to prove it is structurally sound. Additionally, the mask should undergo temperature analysis to ensure it can tolerate both hot and cold conditions as well as move from one temperature extreme to another. Finally, tension tests on the straps are necessary to ensure they will not snap in the middle of a high-risk situation

4. Provides comfort and breathability for extended periods of time

Distractions on the job can mean the difference between mortality or survival. It’s critical the mask uses materials that feel comfortable against your skin and that straps don't cause chafing or interfere with various kit setups. Additionally, the respirator needs to have large air valves that make it as easy as possible to breathe so the mask can be worn for long periods of time without irritation. 

5. 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.

6. 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

7. 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.

8. 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.

9. 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.”