A hazmat suit is a garment worn as protection from hazardous materials or substances. A Hazmat suit is generally combined with breathing apparatus or protection and may be used by firefighters, emergency personnel responding to toxic spills, researchers, or specialists cleaning up contaminated facilities. It is sometimes confused with or referred to as an NBC (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) suit, which is a military version intended to be usable in combat.
Hazmat suits may provide protection from:
- Chemical agents - through the use of appropriate barrier materials like teflon, heavy PVC or rubber and tyvek
- Nuclear agents - possibly through radiation shielding in the lining, but more importantly by preventing direct contact with or inhalation of radioactive particles or gas
- Biological agents - through fully sealed systems (often at overpressure to prevent contamination even if the suit is damaged)
- Fire/high temperatures - usually by a combination of insulating and reflective materials which reduce or retard the effects
Hazmat suits generally include breathing air supplies to provide clean, uncontaminated air for the wearer. In laboratory use, the external air may be provided via air hoses.
Working in a hazmat suit is very strenuous, as the suits tend to be less flexible than conventional work garments, and are hot and poorly ventilated (if at all). Therefore use is usually limited to short durations ranging from 0.5-2 hours, depending on the difficulty of the work. Level A suits for example are limited to around 15-20 minutes of work by their air supply.
In the United States, hazmat suits are included in Level A, B or C protective clothing. Level A suits are vapor-tight, providing total encapsulation and a high level of protection against direct and airborne chemical contact. They are typically worn with a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) enclosed within the suit. Level B suits are not vapor-tight and thus provide a lesser level of protection. Level B suits are worn with an SCBA, which may be inside or outside of the suit, depending on the type of suit (encapsulating or non-encapsulating). Level C includes coveralls or splash suits providing a lesser level of protection than Level B and are typically worn with a respirator or gas mask only. Level D protection also exists, but does not include a 'hazmat suit', as it only requires specific work clothing and eye protection.
Level A suits are constructed of several layers and, being airtight, include a release valve so the suit does not overinflate from exhaled air from the SCBA. Level B suits more closely resemble one-piece Tyvek coveralls used in construction, but may also be fully encapsulating suits which are not airtight. Level C suits may be coveralls of treated material or multi-piece combinations sealed with tape. This kind of protection is still proof against many non-invasive substances, such as anthrax.
Hazmat suits have long been an important device in fiction, especially science fiction, to accentuate the lethality of environments. Common dramatic situations usually involve a suit failure leading to rapid death in films such as The Andromeda Strain or Outbreak. Plot resolutions usually make the removal of a suit a pivotal moment, signifying the end of the threat.
The anonymity provided by hazmat suits has often been used to accentuate sinister motives, the scientists in E.T. are a good example of this, as are the farcical squad of hazmat encased characters in the animation Monsters Inc.
Hazmat suits are a favourite prop for MacGyver in MacGyver, which he wears when performing rescues in nuclear reactors.
In video gamesEdit
Gordon Freeman, the main protagonist of Half Life and Half Life 2 is famous for wearing his Hazardous Environment Suit (HEV Suit) throughout the game. This might however be more correctly tagged as an NBC suit (the military equivalent of a hazmat suit) and also functions as body- and power armour.
An advanced, disposable hazmat suit appears in the game Deus Ex, and can be used to temporarily ward off toxins and poisons when entering hazardous environments. In the game 007: Nightfire, during the mission 'Chain Reaction' in which James Bond infiltrates a nuclear power plant, enemies in the plant are seen wearing level A and B suits, although Bond himself does not wear a suit.
In the game S.T.A.L.K.E.R., hazmat suits are almost essential to traversing the landscapes closer to the Chernobyl power plant. Early on the player gains access to civilian-grade hazmat suits, which offer little protection against conventional harm from bullets and wild animals. Armoured military-grade suits, and combat armour with some hazmat elements (such as a sealed helmet and air supply) become available later on.
The main characters in Area 51 also wear hazmat suits to protect themselves from infection from an alien disease.