Well-suited for anthrax protection

November 01, 2001|By Kevin Cowherd

IT WAS during another day of all-anthrax, all-the-time TV coverage - I am seriously thinking of dropping my cable service, just to get away from CNN and all those scary crawls - when the report about biohazard suits came on.

Apparently, some anxious citizens are now snapping up biohazard suits as fast as they snapped up oxygen masks when this anthrax scare first started.

But, my God, what could life possibly be like in one of these suits?

Could you actually open the mail wearing one of these babies? Could you sit down to watch your favorite sitcom? Could you toss around a football with your kid?

To find out, I called the Baltimore County Fire Department's Station 14 in Brooklandville, where the Hazardous Material Team is located.

How 'bout letting me take one of your biohazard suits for a test spin? I said when a voice answered.

"Come on out," said Capt. Bill Strong, "and we'll show you what we have."

When I got there, Strong and Fire Specialist Rick Holden showed me their top-of-the-line suit, which has been in the news lately as video cameras capture specialists sweeping buildings for anthrax contamination.

This, said Strong, was what's called a Level A suit, which completely encapsulates the wearer. (The Environmental Protection Agency rates these suits A, B, C or D, with Level A suits offering the most protection and Level D the least.)

"We call it the Boy-in the-Bubble suit," said Holden.

It's made with a space-age material called Tyvek and a rubberized coating and costs around $600. It's also the ugliest pea-green color you ever saw, which alone should be enough to scare off any deadly bacteria.

Technically, a suit like this is mainly used by firefighters for chemical spills. And since anthrax is primarily an inhalation hazard, you'd probably be equally safe in an exposed area with just a breathing apparatus.

But, hey, if people are so jittery that they're actually buying these things, the least we could do is see what it's like to wear one.

Strong and Holden helped me get into the bulky suit. They said it routinely takes two people to get someone into a Level A suit. So if you're a social leper, you might want to think twice before plunking the VISA card down on this baby.

What you do first is strap the 35-pound Scott self-contained breathing apparatus to your back, pushing the face mask tight against your cheeks to create an airtight seal.

Then you sit sideways on a chair, as your two helpers guide your feet into the suit and pull on your heavy-duty rubber boots.

Then you stand and your arms are guided into the suit, and the hood and clear plastic face shield is pulled over your head before the back of the suit is zipped up.

Finally, after thin latex gloves as well as heavy-duty rubber gloves are placed on your hands, your wrists and ankles are duct-taped to prevent any contaminated air from seeping in between your gloves and boots.

Then you're ready to rock 'n' roll.

Well, sort of.

I say this because even though I'm not the brightest guy in the world, it took me about 10 seconds to discover certain, um, drawbacks to the suit.

First of all, if you have a tinge of claustrophobia, this is not the kind of get-up you want to be in, anthrax scare or no anthrax scare.

With the face mask of the breathing apparatus caving in your cheeks and your head shrouded in a hood and face shield, there's a tremendous feeling of being enclosed.

"I call it a body bag with a window," Holden said cheerfully. He said he last wore the suit some five years ago, when the hazmat team responded to an ammonia leak in the Arbutus area.

Me, I could handle being in this thing for maybe 20 seconds before I'd be frantically signaling my helpers to unzip me.

Believe me, there are coffins that feel breezier than a Level A biohazard suit.

"The suit has a safety factor of 10,000-to-1," Strong said after I was all zipped up, meaning the odds of contamination were about 10,000-to-1.

Great, I thought. But the odds of me wearing this thing without freaking out were about 10,000-to-1, too.

Another problem I discovered with the suit is that the wearer's mobility is severely restricted.

"Try bending down," said Holden, and when I did, it was with all the alacrity of somebody's great-grandfather.

What I'm saying is, you're not going to climb into one of these suits and go down to the rec room for a game of Ping-Pong with the kids.

Then there is the little matter of a continuous air supply, which I've always had a fondness for.

The breathing apparatus supplies air for 45 minutes. But it takes 10 minutes or so to get the wearer into one of these suits, and, after exposure to a dangerous substance, another few minutes for the suit to be "de-conned," or de-contaminated. This limits the actual amount of time one could spend in the suit "working."

Yet a third problem with a Level A suit is that, within minutes, the wearer is - I'm trying to put this as delicately as possible - sweating like a pig.

Strong said the suit adds 15 degrees to the outside temperature, but it felt more like 30.

If I want to feel 30 degrees warmer, I'll move to Miami.

As Strong and Holden helped me peel off the suit, I decided there had to be an easier way to avoid anthrax.

Holing up in the basement suddenly didn't seem so bad.

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