Personal Protective Equipment
What is Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)?
Personal protective equipment (PPE) refers to the respiratory equipment, garments, and barrier materials used to protect rescuers and medical personnel from exposure to biological, chemical, and radioactive hazards.
- The goal of personal protective equipment is to prevent the transfer of hazardous material from victims or the environment to rescue or health care workers.
- Different types of PPE may be used depending on the hazard present. The types of hazards addressed here include biological warfare agents (BWAs), chemical warfare agents (CWAs), and radioactive agents.
- The most common routes of exposure to these hazards include inhalation (breathing, from the air), skin contact, and ingestion (eating or drinking).
The use of personal protective equipment by the general public for protection against chemical and biological agents is controversial. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) does not recommend that the public purchase respiratory protective equipment (gas masks) for several reasons.
- The likelihood that any person will be involved in a chemical or biological attack is extremely low.
- The CDC believes that gas masks may cause a false sense of security for the public.
- Masks that aren’t used properly or that do not fit well do not provide adequate protection and may in fact be harmful to one's health.
How Exposure to Chemical or Biological Agents Occurs
- Routes of exposure to biological warfare agents: Exposure is most likely to occur when victims breathe (inhalation) biological agents released into the air (aerosols). Very tiny particles are inhaled and gaun access to the body through the lungs. Mucous membranes or breaks in the skin also are vulnerable sites and require protection against biological warfare agents. However, skin contact does not pose a significant risk, because intact skin provides an effective barrier to all biological agents except trichothecene mycotoxins. Insignificant amounts of aerosolized particles stick to clothing or skin. It is difficult to get particles into the air once they have been released and landed (this is called secondary aerosolization). People are sometimes exposed by ingestion, which may occur with hand-to-mouth contact or by swallowing contaminated secretions. Follow these eMedicine links to anthrax, smallpox, and plague to learn more.
- Routes of exposure to chemical warfare agents: Exposure to chemicals and chemical warfare agents occurs by inhaling chemical gas or vapor. Exposure also occurs by direct contact of the eyes or skin to chemical vapor or liquid. Mucous membranes are particularly vulnerable, because moisture promotes the absorption of many chemicals. Ingestion is a minor route of exposure.
- Routes of exposure to radioactive agents: People exposed to beams of ionizing radiation (for example, patients receiving diagnostic X-rays) do not emit radiation and therefore pose no radiation danger to others. In the setting of an explosion, fire, or spill of radioactive material, however, victims can become contaminated with radiation-emitting material. External contamination occurs when radioactive material gets on a victim's clothing, skin, or hair. Victims also can become contaminated internally if radioactive material enters the body through the gastrointestinal tract, an open wound, or, less likely, inhalation of highly radioactive dust. In any situation, the goal of personal protective equipment is to prevent the transfer of radioactive material from the victim to the rescuer until the victim is decontaminated.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 7/27/2016
Jeffrey L Arnold, MD, FACEP
Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD
Raymond J Roberge, MD, MPH, FAAEM, FACMT
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