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2022 Guide to CBRN Detection: Geiger Counter & Chemical Detection Papers

Even if you’ve never used a Geiger counter, you probably still know the sound…

That ominous, static crackling indicates radioactive danger nearby.

It’s an eerie, tension-inducing sound that filmmakers love to use.

You can hear Geiger counters in classic films like Godzilla, The Manhattan Project, and more recently, the Chernobyl miniseries.

You might even remember an old, blocky contraption with an analog dial. One of those old-school devices with the magic wand attached by a cord:

Fortunately, our means of detecting threats have evolved by leaps and bounds since these classic movies were made.

For radiation, there’s now a wide range of wearable alternatives, including everything from quartz and film badge dosimeters to silicon diode detectors and thermoluminescent dosimeters. Many of these take the form of badges that can be clipped onto your coat pocket, with an indicator that will change color or issue an alert if you’ve been exposed to a potential threat.

There are still Geiger counters, of course.

But today’s Geiger counters do more than crackle and move a needle on a dial. As you’ll see in just a moment, some are equipped with advanced features, customizable exposure warnings, and even LCD screens.

When it comes to chemical weapons, a handful of highly useful, purpose-built detection tools can quickly identify threats like Sarin, VX gas, or even mustard gas in a matter of seconds.

These are some of the most powerful tools in your CBRN arsenal.

Because the first step to overcoming any chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear threat is understanding it. And knowing what you’re up against.

As you’re about to see, there’s no such thing as a “one size fits all” CBRN solution.

Our gas masks are built to meet and exceed the highest standards of military performance…

But no butyl rubber mask is perfect.

So, it’s crucial to know the exact type of threat in your environment. That way, you can optimize your protection, save your best filters for when you need them, and vastly increase your odds of survival.

Even if you’re hunkering down and sheltering in place, the tools you’re about to see can help you determine when the coast is finally clear, and you can lower your guard.

This article will focus on detecting nuclear threats and chemical warfare agents (CWAs).

We will NOT be focusing on biological threats because these threats require different protective measures (as laid out in our COVID-19 guide).

We will also not be covering the detection of toxic industrial chemicals (TICs) because that’s enough for its own article in the future.

Instead, we’ll be looking at the evolution of the Geiger counter into the present day and how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has jeopardized the supply of these devices here in America.

We’ll also look at state-of-the-art detection tools that can identify specific chemical warfare threats in seconds.

And we’ll talk about the best way to get your hands on both.

(After all, what’s a better 2022 stocking stuffer than a Geiger counter?)

Let’s get started…

TABLE OF CONTENTS

  • 01

    From Manchester to Müller: The Geiger Counter’s Rapid Evolution

  • 02

    Evolving the Ultimate Pocket-Sized Geiger Counter

  • 03

    Detecting the Deadliest Compounds on Earth

  • 04

    Compact Chemical Detection Paper Strips

  • 05

    Our Top PPE Picks for CWA Protection

  • 06

    Knowing Is Half the Battle

From Manchester to Müller: The Geiger Counter’s Rapid Evolution

Imagine, if you will, a tube.

A tube filled with some kind of inert gas. Usually helium, neon or argon at a low pressure. Then we seal the tube and apply a high voltage.

Why would we do that?

Because when radioactive particles and photons pass through our tube of gas, they’ll cause it to ionize. The sealed tube amplifies the effect of this ionization, of course, via the Townsend discharge effect. When that happens, the tube becomes conductive. Measure that conductivity, and you get a rough idea of the ambient radiation levels.

Et voilà, you have yourself a Geiger counter.

The original principle was first established in 1908 at the University of Manchester, but the technology wasn’t there then. It wasn’t until 1928 that the Geiger-Müller tube made a handheld radiation detector a reality. This was nearly 15 years before nuclear weapons would even exist as we know them today.

And since they were based on such rudimentary technology, those old Geiger counters had some severe limitations. The high voltage was a significant factor, for example. The tubes needed between 400-900 volts to function, and results could be dodgy if they weren’t fine-tuned.

(Image courtesy of Blue Line Syndicate Group)

Depending on how these old Geiger counters were tuned/engineered, they might be limited in terms of the minimum or maximum they could detect. That’s how you get the infamous scene from HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries, where Dyatlov insists they detected only 3.6 roentgen:

As the technician tried to remind him, that was as high as their meters went. In reality, the radiation levels were nearly a hundred times higher.

As I mentioned, our technology has improved substantially from these early devices.

It started with the tubes. Most of today’s best Geiger counters use an SBM20-1 Geiger-Müller tube, which is the result of decades of scientific research and billions in military/government funding.

These modern tubes are much more flexible in terms of voltage and detection, able to run off tiny batteries for truly pocket-sized solutions.

Evolving the Ultimate Pocket-Sized Geiger Counter

Considering that most Americans live within 50 miles of an active nuclear reactor, it makes perfect sense to own a personal Geiger counter. Something simple and easy to use, but robust enough to last for years.

That’s where the MIRA Safety Geiger-1 comes in…

(Image courtesy of The Iridium Group)

Two buttons. Two LR44 button cell batteries to run it. And it detects radiation levels as low as 0.3 microsieverts per hour in just 20 seconds. Durable, reliable, easy to use and simple to understand. It was the kind of device that brought Geiger counters into the 21st century.

The MIRA Safety Geiger-1 was the perfect solution for bug-out bags, household protection, truck kits, or even pocket carry. You could detect subtle spikes in background radiation with a device like this.

Of course, there was just one problem with the Geiger-1.

It came to us from Russia.

So, due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, trade was halted. Our final shipment was already on the dock when the order came down. And we were no longer able to offer the Geiger-1.

MIRA Safety looks forward to restoring peaceful trade in the future and bringing back this fantastic product, but we’re not going to wait around. No one has a monopoly on those SBM20-1 tubes, and we’d already been working on improving the electronics.

Enter the MIRA Safety Geiger-2:

It looks just as cool as an iPhone and sells out twice as fast.

Only slightly larger than a ballpoint pen, our new Geiger-2 has the same internal tube and comparable detection specs — but that’s where the similarities end.

This upgraded version features a rechargeable 400 mAh LiPo. It’s a significant advantage since this type of battery is usually good for up to 300 charging cycles. A comparable amount of LR44 batteries would set you back up to $750.

The Geiger-2 also features a digital LCD to navigate onboard features, including customizable settings for exposure tolerances and long-term tracking of readings. Onboard power management features and the included solar panel also help you manage battery life.

Each of these features is easily customizable.

So, you can set personalized alarms to limit your daily exposure or manage your cumulative risk over time. The unit even has an integrated solar panel that can be used to supplement charging in a pinch.

Our Geiger-2 came along at the perfect time, hitting the market just after the Geiger-1 became unavailable. But it was still years in the making.

Working with suppliers overseas, we developed a discreet micro Geiger counter that’s perfect for hiding in plain sight. It’s an easy addition to your everyday carry and a practical protection solution for your family.

And it still serves the same essential purpose.

If your readings spike, you’re heading into an area with higher radioactive concentrations. So, stop and head in the other direction. If readings decrease, you’re going the right way. It’s a basic but potentially lifesaving tool if you ever need to use it.

It’s also lightyears ahead of those old, crackling Geiger counters from the movies.

And the same goes for detecting CWAs…

Detecting the Deadliest Compounds on Earth

Advanced chemical warfare agents can be highly deadly, even in minuscule doses.

The fatal dose for VX gas is as little as 6 milligrams.

For context, a single teaspoon contains 4,929 mg.

If vaporized in the atmosphere, that amount would be enough to kill hundreds of people. And death can occur within one to 10 minutes of ingestion, leaving practically no chance for treatment or opportunity to seek shelter.

Nerve Agents tested on US soldiers (NPR)

And as much as personal protective equipment (PPE) evolves, these threats can still be overwhelming.

Mustard gas, for example, has been in use since World War I. Yet it remains a devastating blister agent that can eat through cutting-edge protective gear in hours. The VX mentioned above and all the G-series nerve agents from Germany (Sarin, Soman, Cyclosarin, and Tabun) were invented as far back as the 1950s.

Modern gas mask filters can indeed help users to navigate these threats in the environment. But it’s still crucial to know which types of threats you’re facing. That way, you can select the correct PPE for the job.

You’ll notice that each gas mask filter is coded to show which type of threat it can protect you from:

And for each of these different filter types, there are also different levels of protection.

For example, particle filters (P) offer three different tiers of protection:

Rating Description
P1 Filters at least 80% of airborne particles
P2 Filters at least 94% of airborne particles
P3 Filters at least 99.95% of airborne particles

Many other filter ratings also have three levels, with each level corresponding to a specific concentration of toxin in the atmosphere.

Some of these threats are only harmful when inhaled, while many can do severe damage just through contact. As I mentioned above, mustard gas is a blister agent that can eat through layers of PPE, butyl rubber gloves and masks, or even your skin in a matter of minutes.

So once again, it’s crucial to know what kind of threats you’re dealing with.

And MIRA Safety has two new solutions to help you do just that…

Compact Chemical Detection Paper Strips

The MIRA Safety Chemical Warfare Detection or CWD Testing Strips are designed specifically for the detection of G-, V-, and H-series Chemical Warfare Agents (CWA).

It’s essentially the world standard for CWA or CWD paper, used by military and law enforcement units from around the globe. It’s easy to carry, deploy, and read. It’s also lightweight and affordable. And the chemical detection paper can detect some of the deadliest threats out there.

It’s functional in a wide range of temperatures ( -40°C to 60°C (or -40°F to 140°F)) with a five-year shelf life. The testing strips come in a flat-pack polyethylene bag that’s easy to handle and store.

All you do is expose the chemical detection paper to a single drop of potentially contaminated liquid, then wait one minute to see if it changes colors. If it does, you match the color to the keycard to determine the type of CWA you’re dealing with.

The process is simple, easy, and quick. You get a “yes” or “no” regarding whether you’re dealing with CWAs.

But CWD testing strips only work with contaminated liquids.

This isn’t usually a problem since aerosolized CWAs eventually settle into puddles and condensation. But it’s still a factor to consider.

The alternative — DETEHIT CWA detection strips — are both far more sensitive and far more flexible for the detection of nerve agents. 

Each DETEHIT strip comes in an individually sealed foil bag with a white cotton cloth tip covered in immobilized cholinesterase, a paper zone with chromogen substrate, and a yellow cotton cloth as the color standard.

It should be noted that DETEHIT strips only test for nerve CWAs, leaving out the H-series (mustard). 

The instant you remove the detection strip from its packaging, it begins to react with the outside air (to pick up aerosols, you would need to wet the strip with normal water). The same strips can also be swabbed on food or dipped in water to test. If it begins to react after two to three minutes, the food/air/water is hazardous. 

Immediately, you can see both the advantages and limitations of a system such as this.

On the one hand, it allows you to test not just liquids but also air and food for potential contaminants. You can better understand the threat present n the atmosphere by watching exposure time.

But you’re also dealing with a far more sensitive testing strip. One with a small foil package you’ll need to pry open in the field, in full PPE, while wearing thick protective gloves.

Both ultimately have their value. And they typically work best in conjunction. CWD strips are best for rapid identification, while DETEHIT strips are best for checking for aerosols, and to make sure your decontamination efforts are effective. 

Of course, that leaves just one question:

Once you’ve identified the threat … how can you protect yourself from it?

Our Top PPE Picks for CWA Protection

NBC-77 SOF Gas Mask Filter

MIRA Safety’s flagship NBC-77 SOF Filter is also our best option for CWA protection.

In addition to P3 particle protection and a reactor rating to protect you from radioactive Iodine-131, it can also protect you from a wide range of chemical threats at varying concentrations (A2B2E2K2HGP3 D R SX, Reactor).

(Image courtesy of The Iridium Group)

In addition to protecting you from a wide range of threats, the NBC-77 SOF also has an unrivaled 20-year shelf life.

In other words, this filter will last as long as your gas mask.

NBC-77 SOF gas mask filters cost slightly more than the alternative, but they last far longer. That’s why it’s such an excellent filter to stockpile — especially if you’re unsure what kind of threat you’ll face.

DOTPro 320 Gas Mask Filter

This is one of the most budget-friendly filter options on the market, ideal for a variety of low-concentration threats and toxic industrial chemicals:

You may notice these filters lack the reactor element and a few other critical protective measures in our NBC-77 SOF. That’s not necessarily a problem as long as you’re heading into an environment with known threats where the DOTPro 320 provides sufficient protection.

These filters also have a shelf life of roughly seven years but are currently selling at a little over a third of the price of a new NBC-77 SOF filter. (Note: TheDOTPro 320 filters will soon be discontinued! Stock up now while they’re still available.)

MIRA Safety CM-6M Gas Mask

Our CM-6M gas mask is perfect for pairing with the above filters.

With a wide panoramic visor and a host of useful features, the CM-6M can be customized to fit your needs, from communication systems to hydration packs and even prescription spectacle inserts.

It’s a robust, durable, and proven PPE solution trusted by military and government agencies worldwide, including countries such asthe Czech Republic, Norway, Portugal, Chile, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Kuwait, Latvia, and Lebanon.

MIRA Safety gas masks are engineered to meet the strictest standards for quality and reliability, marked with the CE symbol and tested to meet all requirements under EN 136:1998, Class III.

If there is a limitation to the CM-6M, it’s that the mask is only available in one size. That size might not offer a perfect fit for some larger children and smaller adults. In that case, we recommend trying a CM-7M in size small.

Aside from these three basics, we highly recommend the MOPP-1 CBRN Protective Suit as it's effective at absorbing gases and vapors, along with gloves and boots. 

Knowing Is Half the Battle

Having the right PPE to protect yourself and your family is critical.

And it’s just as important to have the right detection tools to get the absolute most out of every piece of equipment.

With a good handheld Geiger counter, you’ve got a far better chance of navigating your way to safety in the aftermath of a nuclear attack or a reactor meltdown. With CWA detection strips, you’ve got a simple tool for determining the presence of some of the deadliest threats on Earth.