From CWAs to Biological Hazards: Your Ultimate CBRN Gear Guide
Though CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear) protection gear is easy-to-use and potentially life-saving when used correctly, it can be difficult to fully understand.
With the right gas mask and filter, you can survive anything from exposure to deadly viruses to nerve agent attacks, industrial accidents, and even nuclear fallout.
You can breathe clean air for a full twelve-hour day from a single gas mask filter, giving you plenty of time to navigate your way through a disaster and escape to safety.
But if you choose the wrong type of CBRN protection—you may as well not be wearing any gas mask at all.
Military units and police agencies solve this critical problem by keeping CBRN/PPE professionals on staff. These gear experts can manage inventory, select the correct type of protection, and then orchestrate decontamination efforts after the fact.
As a result, most military operators (and fortunate police officers) merely have to check their gear, don their mask, and go about their mission. Meanwhile, civilians and officers from smaller police departments are left to fend for themselves when it comes to choosing CBRN protection.
We’re here to help.
In today’s special guide, we’re taking a deep dive into each specific type of CBRN threat. We’ll look at how they’re categorized, how exposure can affect your body, and what type of protection is best-suited to keep you safe.
This guide will include virtually all the information you’ll need to make an informed decision when selecting protective gear for any potential disaster scenario.
Let’s dive in…
Table of Contents
What’s in a Name? CBRN vs. NBC
Practical Chemical Protection 101
Decoding Filter Protection
Dealing with Biological Threats
Survival Gear for Radiological and Nuclear Threats
Understanding Your Gear’s “Blind Spots”
Knowing is Half the Battle
Frequently Asked Questions
What’s in a Name? CBRN vs NBC
First off, we should clarify a few key abbreviations.
“PPE,” as you probably already know, is short for personal protective equipment.
Due to mask mandates and other pandemic-era protections, we all became intimately familiar with PPE over the last few years.
But the phrase also applies to more effective forms of protection. Gas masks, hazmat suits, protective gloves, and even chemtape—all of this gear is technically PPE as well.
People use the abbreviation CBRN, meaning types of threats your PPE is designed to protect you from. Specifically: chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear.
🔶 Chemical threats include common chemical warfare agents (CWAs) like mustard gas, phosgene gas, or cyanide gas, along with far deadlier nerve agents like VX, s,arin, and novichok. Toxic industrial chemicals (TICs) like those found after a chemical plant explosion or a train derailment are another key threat in this category.
🔶 Biological threats include deadly viruses and bacteria, in addition to bioterrorism agents like Anthrax and Ricin toxin.
🔶 Radiological threats include highly radioactive materials that can expose you to large doses of radiation from an external source. A dirty bomb, for example, would disperse highly radioactive material across a small area.
Bear in mind that manufacturers of protective gear haven’t always accounted for radiological threats. In the past, the abbreviation “NBC” was used as shorthand for nuclear, biological, and chemical threats.
Though the phrase “NBC threats” isn’t used as frequently these days, you’ll still see it out there. The two terms (CBRN vs. NBC) are virtually interchangeable since radiological threats are extremely infrequent.
🔶 Nuclear threats include those present in the aftermath of a nuclear detonation or a reactor meltdown. Radioactive isotopes can be pulverized into ultra-fine, almost microscopic particles that come back down to earth in the form of nuclear fallout.
Thankfully, the usage of CWAs, nerve agents and nuclear weapons is practically outlawed by the international community. Constituting a war crime, their usage would be met with instant backlash.
At the same time, major industrial accidents are practically a weekly occurrence in the US.
And with multiple ongoing wars in nuclear hotspots, now is a better time than ever to make sure you’re geared up for the worst-case scenario. We’ll start at the top of the list.
Practical Chemical Protection 101
In toxicology, there’s a metric called the “LD50,” or the lethal dose for 50% of a test sample.
Virtually every substance has an LD50.
Caffeine, for example, is estimated to be deadly at 150-200 mg per kilogram of subject weight. Even water has an LD50—with as little as six liters drank over three hours causing the death of a human.
In other words, anything can be toxic.
CWAs are specifically engineered to be as deadly and devastating as possible. But there’s also a whole host of potentially deadly “everyday” chemicals used in factories and processing plants across America.
Chemical threats are considered to be hazardous if they're corrosive, flammable, reactive, or if they exhibit toxicity. If they can cause damage to humans in real-world concentrations, either through skin contact, ingestion or inhalation, then they’re deemed a threat.
Everyday industrial chemical threats are often seen in the form of inorganic gasses, commercial/industrial chemicals (TICs), petroleum substances, and other chemicals (like pesticides, chlorine, etc.).
Americans are exposed to TICs more often than most of us realize. Just within the state of New York, the Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) claims to receive 16,000 reports of chemical releases each year.
During a single year in New York City, the local Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) responded to nearly 3,600 incidents—including more than 350 incidents involving abandoned chemicals.
Similar accidents likely happen in your own home state more often than you realize.
Meanwhile, exposure to CWAs is far less likely… and it would be far more deadly.
Mustard gas is a notorious blister agent that can cause instant damage to the skin, eyes and even your gear. To this day, mustard is used to test the durability of hazmat suits and protective gloves—because nothing else can compromise your protection (or your airways) quite so fast.
Phosgene gas, cyanide gas, and other chemical warfare agents (abbreviated as CWAs) are either choking agents (which cause inflammation and damage directly to the lungs) or systemic agents (which infiltrate the bloodstream and do damage to other bodily systems).
Nerve agents like VX and sarin are some of the deadliest threats on the planet.
In some cases, a lethal dose of nerve gas could be as little as 10 milligrams per person.
Practically a single drop of VX is enough to completely shut down your body’s nervous system in a matter of minutes. If these nerve agents are aerosolized and dispersed in the atmosphere, they could kill thousands before one even knew what was happening.
So what can you do to stay safe?
Decoding Filter Protection
Protection from toxic industrial chemicals is certified using different standards from those used for chemical warfare agents.
For incidental chemical exposure, filters are given a color-coded “ABEK” rating.
In this case the letters aren’t an abbreviation, but a placeholder for specific harmful gasses and vapors:
A simple guide to ABEK classifications. (Image courtesy of BugOutBagBuilder.com)
You’ll note that a few of the ABEK categories are dictated by the threat’s boiling point.
This is due to the type of filter media used.
Some organic gasses have a boiling point that’s too low for any filter media to effectively remove them, but these gasses are generally non-toxic in real-world concentrations.
If you’re wondering whether your filter will protect you from a specific gas, you can start by looking up whether it’s organic, then checking its boiling point.
So, for example, the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio released large quantities of isobutylene into the surrounding environment. Isobutylene’s boiling point is too low to filter out using conventional masks, and most of the chemical was burned off at ambient temperature.
When filters are designed for military use, they’re tested against individual CWA threats one-by-one, in addition to standard multigas testing and ABEK certification.
For protection from the full range of chemical threats, you’ll want to start with a gas mask filter like the NBC-77 SOF—which is certified for protection from both industrial threats (ABEK certification) and CWAs.
The NBC-77 SOF is our most popular gas mask filter, and with good reason. It’s certified to protect you from the full range of CBRN threats, it’s got a twenty-year shelf life, and it’s been proven through years of professional use in the field. We could easily recommend this filter for protection in all categories.
Another key consideration with chemical threats is direct exposure.
Nerve agents, mustard gas, and other threats can do serious damage even with minimal physical contact. That’s why we also recommend full-body protection in the form of a hazmat suit or our newer MOPP Suit.
Most hazmat suits are completely impermeable, keeping CBRN threats out while keeping you safe inside the suit. But a fully impermeable suit can’t “breathe,” which can limit your performance while fully suited up (especially in warmer climates).
That’s why the MOPP Suit is semi-permeable—effectively allowing the suit to “breathe” while preventing direct exposure to potential CBRN threats. That steady airflow reduces fatigue and enhances your performance, giving you greater flexibility to accomplish your mission regardless of the environment.
Dealing with Biological Hazards
Deadly biological hazards include viruses, bacteria, and other toxins that can either be found in or refined from natural products.
This category also includes naturally-occurring bioterrorism agents like Anthrax, which was used in a series of still-unsolved 2001 terrorist attacks. Ricin is another biological threat, found naturally in castor beans, which was used in the 1978 assassination of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Makarov.
Biological threats can be inhaled, ingested, injected, or even absorbed on contact in some cases.
The worst biological threats are often studied in laboratories only under the strictest of CBRN standards. Many of these high-security laboratories even have built-in safeguards that would destroy their samples in the event of a potential leak or break in containment.
That’s because the lethal dose for some of these biological threats can be minuscule.
Indeed, in some cases, just a single droplet or a single spore can be enough to trigger a deadly infection that spreads all on its own.
Due to recent mandates and health scares, Americans will often reach for a cloth mask if they want protection from biological threats. But a cloth mask isn’t exactly reliable protection.
For example, viruses like the flu and COVID-19 are roughly 100 nanometers in length. By way of comparison, the average human hair is about 45,000 nanometers wide.
A woven cloth mask simply can’t be expected to consistently filter out a virus that’s microscopic by comparison.
Of course, bacteria and viruses are also transmitted via droplets and aerosols—like those fired out by a sneeze or a coughing fit. So a cloth mask is better than nothing. But if you’re looking for true protection from airborne bacterial threats, you need P3 particle filtration.
P3 particle filters remove at least 99.95% of the particles from the air with sub-micron efficiency, meaning they can reliably filter out airborne biological threats across the board.
For practical protection from biological threats, we recommend the P3 ParticleMax Filter.
These gas mask filters come six to a package, they’re ultra-lightweight, and they use ultra-low-particulate-air (ULPA) filtration elements for maximum effectiveness. These filters are great for protection in the event of a major health scare. But they can also be used for day-to-day tasks, reducing your exposure to common threats like sawdust, insulation, or even asbestos.
While a smaller respirator can protect you from biological threats, we recommend a full-face gas mask for tackling the full CBRN spectrum.
Our most popular civilian gas mask for CBRN protection is the CM-6M:
It features an ultra-wide panoramic visor, tough but flexible butyl rubber construction, and an integrated hydration system for long hours of use. The CM-6M is compatible with all our gas mask filters, and it’s suitable for protection from any CBRN threat out there.
Survival Gear for Radiological and Nuclear Threats
We’re choosing to group these last two categories of threats together for a few key reasons.
First, the threat profile of each category is relatively similar.
Second, the gear you’ll use to conquer each threat is pretty much the exact same.
And third, the likelihood you’ll ever face a true “radiological” threat is extremely low.
After all, dirty bombs are still strictly conceptual. None have ever been used in practice.
Just as a quick reminder, a dirty bomb is a device that uses radioactive material but does not trigger a nuclear explosion. Instead, it uses a conventional explosion to fragment and disperse radioactive material over a localized area. At least in theory.
Dirty bombs would be easy for terrorists to assemble using radioactive material extracted from hospital equipment. (Image courtesy of BBC)
A reactor meltdown would likewise eject massive amounts of radioactive materials across a much larger area. It would likely also have the effect of ejecting massive amounts of irradiated ash, waste, and debris into the air—leading to nuclear fallout that could spread across hundreds of miles.
The same massive plume of fallout could in turn have been sparked by a nuclear detonation.
So nuclear threats are best-viewed as a continuum of threats, and your proper response will depend on both the immediacy and the intensity of the event. Radiation is the real threat here (we’ve covered the effects of radiation in depth in previous articles).
Common radioactive byproducts of these event include isotopes like caesium-137 and iodine-131—the latter of which can quickly accumulate in your body’s thyroid gland with a high likelihood of causing cancer.
That’s why we recommend for everyone to stock up on potassium iodide tablets.
These pills work by flooding your body’s thyroid gland with safe iodine, which naturally prevents it from absorbing any radioactive I-131 from the surrounding environment for up to twenty-four hours.
Remember that even if you’re hundreds of miles away from a nuclear meltdown or explosion, the risk of I-131 exposure is still there. And potassium iodide tablets can help buy you the time you need to get to safety.
If you’re dealing with direct exposure to nuclear fallout, then you’ll need a filter with both a “P3” certification (to prevent the inhalation of radioactive particulate) and a “Reactor element” (specifically to address radioactive iodines like I-131).The NBC-77 SOF is once again our top choice here, since it offers both of those certifications. You’ll also want full-body protection from something like the MOPP Suit to avoid topical exposure to radioactive fallout. Finally, you’ll require heavy duty boots, rubber gloves, and enough Kappler chemtape to seal up the junctions of your suit.
Understanding Your Gear’s “Blind Spots”
The more you know about CBRN PPE, the more you understand what will be possible in the event of a disaster or terrorist attack.
For example, if you’re dealing with a major health crisis and the only filters you have are NBC-77 SOF, then you’ll likely still be fine since these filters are P3 certified (like the ParticleMax).
On the other hand, a ParticleMax filter won’t protect you from a nuclear meltdown, since it lacks the crucial “reactor” filter element.
Maybe you chose traditional impermeable hazmat suits instead of MOPP suits, and as a result your group’s range in the field is limited.
You might have all the right protective gear—gas mask, filter, and hazmat suit—then get into the field only to realize that you don’t have any way to communicate with those on your team. (We recommend the Gas Mask Microphone for that, it installs in a few seconds.)
Each piece of CBRN gear is a tool. And the more tools you have, the more options you’ll have when it comes time to use those tools.
Some of these tools might seem like “optional upgrades,” only to become absolutely necessary for real-world use—like the MB-90 Powered Air-Purifying Respirator (PAPR).
The PAPR plugs into your existing gas mask and filter combo, adding a battery-powered blower to the mix and flooding your mask with fresh air. This makes breathing extremely easy, and adds a positive pressure to the inside of your mask that can help keep threats out.
But the PAPR does more than reduce respiratory fatigue…
You see, some people simply don’t have the lung power to operate a traditional gas mask on their own. Younger children, older family members, or anyone with a history of respiratory illness.
The rule of thumb is that anyone who can’t inflate a balloon on their own can’t operate a gas mask without assistance. And the MB-90 PAPR can provide those people with the assistance they need.
Alternatively, the same piece of gear can be used to enhance performance for an able-bodied member of your party, allowing them to move faster for longer under greater physical stress.
Where budget permits, CBRN gear is the type of thing you want to “have and not need” rather than “need and not have.” And while it’s good to have enough protection on hand to deal with baseline threats, additional CBRN equipment can expand your options when you need it most.
Knowing is Half the Battle
It can be a little overwhelming to review all the horrible ways CBRN threats could potentially kill you.
(Trust us, we know. We do this for a living.)
At the same time, you’re better equipped than ever before to prepare for this threat… and overcome it, if need be.
Americans have better access to affordable, professional-grade CBRN PPE than they’ve ever had in the past. This is true for concerned civilians from all over the globe, as well.
You can now conveniently and affordably prepare to protect every member of your family (pets included) from a potentially cataclysmic terrorist attack. Up until just a few years ago, that’s something that no civilian in history has ever had access to.