Are Old Gas Masks Safe to Use? Can They Protect You?

Gas masks aren’t cheap. In fact, buying one can easily cost you hundreds of dollars, particularly the really good ones. Considering the price, you might be tempted to use an old gas mask or even a surplus gas mask.

Old gas masks are considered unsafe, particularly those produced in the second world war. Those masks were typically made with asbestos, and using them can increase one’s risk of developing health problems like lung cancer.

To know more about why such masks are potentially dangerous to your health, read on.

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The Problem with WW2 Gas Masks


The second world war prompted the production of millions of gas masks. At first, there were no issues. In fact, they were quite handy during the war.

However, after 1937, the gas masks produced contained the potentially harmful chemical blue asbestos.

Military personnel and those in service weren’t the only people exposed to the WWII gas masks. From 1937 to 1942, civilian gas masks were released too. 

The problem?

Those gas masks also contained asbestos- white asbestos or chrysotile to be exact. They were released not just to adults but children and babies too.

During that time, people thought that asbestos in filters wasn’t really something to be concerned about. However, as years passed, they turned out to be more than problematic.

Here’s why:

As a gas mask filter goes through the aging process, it turns brittle. Once that happens, asbestos fibres can easily get into the air you breathe in. They can also settle on the surface of the gas mask and even the bag you’re keeping it in.

The problem with asbestos?

A lot.

This became evident after factory workers who made the gas masks showed an abnormally high number of deaths after the war. 

Their diagnosis? Cancer.

Why Do Gas Mask Filters Contain Asbestos?

Gas masks are designed to have a filter cartridge in them. It can help protect against inhaled airborne substances and certain dangerous chemicals that can get into your skin and respiratory system.

Asbestos is a kind of stone that you can pull apart. It gives you that woolly consistency, producing fibers that are soft enough to work as a filter material. It was a good choice back then since it’s also resistant to corrosion and certain chemicals.

The Problem with Asbestos


By now, you’re probably wondering: Why is asbestos dangerous?

As mentioned earlier, asbestos was used as a filtering material before because it can be pulled apart into really thin- like microscopically thin- fibers. They are so small that they can stay in the air even after several days of being released or disturbed.

When you use an old gas mask with asbestos filters, you can inhale the fibers. Once that happens, the asbestos fibers can travel into your lungs and get lodged in your lung tissues.

There, it can cause several diseases. The list includes scarring of the lung tissue or asbestosis and mesothelioma, cancer of the lung cavity’s lining.

It doesn’t matter whether you get exposed to white or blue asbestos. All kinds of asbestos are considered dangerous once they get into one’s lungs.

What’s even scary about it is the fact that there’s no telling if there’s asbestos in the air or if it’s already in your lungs. There’s no coughing or sneezing. You won’t even feel your throat itch as you breathe. You won’t see the fibers or even feel them.

Take note that you’re at risk no matter how much asbestos you get exposed to. Obviously, the more asbestos you get in contact with, the more at risk you are of developing asbestos diseases.

Another thing you have to be worried about is the onset of symptoms. It generally takes anywhere between 20 to 50 years after asbestos exposure before one gets diagnosed with mesothelioma.

Typically, people develop or show signs and symptoms of the disease when they’re already in their 60s or 70s. 

This is one good reason why the Health and Safety Executive advised that all vintage gas masks should be considered positive for asbestos unless proven otherwise.

How To Tell If A Gas Mask Filter Has Asbestos

This can be a bit challenging since asbestos doesn’t have a distinct smell or feel. However, as a general rule, you should avoid wearing any gas mask produced during the war.

And if you’re going to argue about the amount of asbestos an old gas mask may have, don’t.

You see, no amount can be considered safe. Even breathing a really small amount of asbestos can make you sick with mesothelioma.

The families of asbestos workers developed mesothelioma just from the dust on the workers’ clothes.

Common WWII Gas Masks To Avoid

In general, it’s safe to say that vintage gas masks aren’t safe to use anymore. However, if you want to get a clearer idea of which vintage gas masks to avoid, then the list below should help you out.

Take note that the masks listed below aren’t the only vintage masks you should avoid. They are simply the common masks you’re likely to encounter, particularly in sites and surplus stores that sell old WWII gas masks.

A warning: It’s considered illegal to buy or sell post-war masks and accessories if they contain asbestos.

Also, not all gas masks were made with asbestos filters; some have other harmful chemicals that are dangerous when inhaled.

Czech M10 Gas Masks


These masks were issued to the East German National People’s Army and Czechoslovakian People’s Army. They were produced with a plastic mouthpiece and a set of plastic eyes. You can also find 6 elastic straps which helped ensure a proper fit.

While it’s considered free from asbestos, it’s unsure if hexavalent chromium was used in the filters.

Prolonged exposure to hexavalent chromium can cause irritation to the lungs, throat, and nose. It may even cause damage to your nasal passages, particularly the mucous membranes. It’s known to cause perforation of the septum in severe cases.

Soviet Union GP-5 Gas Masks


These gas masks were issued in 1962 to the Soviet population. Weighing only 1.09, they worked well in all weather. Plus, they were able to withstand temperatures between -40 to 114°C.

GP-5 gas masks produced after 1972 were made with activated charcoal. However, some people claim that the filters used at that time were designed in such a way that the asbestos can’t be inhaled as long as the filter layer is intact.

GP-5 gas masks were also produced with a small percentage of lead. Over time, it slowly degrades, posing health risks in the long run.

Yugoslav M-1 Gas Masks


The M-1 gas masks were considered a copy of the M-9 gas mask of the U.S. They were the standard-issued gas masks in Yugoslavia.

While they don’t contain asbestos, you should worry about the chromium they contain. Although it’s considered less dangerous, extended and prolonged exposure to the chemical can increase one’s risk of developing lung cancer.

Can You Use Vintage Gas Masks Without Filters?

The answer is no. 

Even if you remove the gas mask filters, there’s no telling how much asbestos is on the surface of your mask. Plus, without a filter, your mask won’t be able to offer any protection.

Remember, your gas mask is only effective in protecting you and your health if the right filter is used.

Will Old Gas Masks with New Filters Protect You?

Since vintage gas masks have potentially dangerous old filters, you might be thinking of just getting a new filter. While that makes sense, you have to worry about one thing:

Even if your WWII gas mask is new and inside its original box, it’s probably too worn out from age. It’s less likely to protect you from anything. Wearing it may even put your health at risk instead of keeping you from breathing in poisonous gas and other harmful substances in the air.

Additionally, old gas masks tend to break easily. After so many years of sitting, their materials are probably degraded already, making them fragile.

But what about surplus gas masks?

They might work or they might not.

The problem with surplus gas masks is that no one knows how long they’ve been kept before they came into the shop. In most cases, sellers have no idea about their history.

Considering that, just invest in a new mask and get the right filters for it.

How Long Are Gas Masks Good For?

Similar to food items, gas masks, particularly the disposable type, have best-by dates. Generally, you’ll find them on their packaging. Once the dates have passed, you shouldn’t be using them anymore.

Therefore, gas masks used in the second world war aren’t safe to use.

Now, when used in chemical and biological situations, the majority of combined gas mask filters can protect you for about 8 hours. If you’re using filters designed to protect you against specific chemical agents, you can expect them to last for 20 hours.

Wearing your gas masks, whether new or old, won’t give you any protection. Considering that, always make sure you have extra filters ready.

Reasons to Invest In A Modern Gas Mask


The number one reason to get a modern mask is for your safety. 

Although vintage gas masks were effective in the second world war, they are proven to cause more harm than good today. A modern gas mask can help you stay protected in case there are harmful chemical gases and particles in the air without worrying about asbestos and other harmful chemicals. 

Gas masks are also important to have when there are natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes. You should always have one in your emergency preparedness kit.

Other situations where gas masks can be handy include:

  • nuclear warfare
  • chemical attacks
  • riots
  • dangerous environments

What To Do With WWII Gas Masks

With the risk of inhaling asbestos fibres, you should avoid getting in contact with old gas masks. If they are damaged and you worry about the chemical, it’s best to get the help of a specialist contractor. You can contact your local authorities to get a list of specialists that can help you dismantle the gas masks and gas mask filters properly and safely.

If you are in doubt about the state of your gas masks or if they contain asbestos, don’t use them anymore. Just put it inside a sealed plastic bag and avoid touching them.

In Conclusion

Old gas masks and surplus gas masks aren’t safe to use because of the potential danger they pose. As a safer alternative, consider investing in modern gas masks from reliable brands. Just make sure to get the right filters for them to ensure optimum protection.

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