As far as I know, in developed countries protection suits used by people who treat patients with Ebola are disposed of after a shift.

From a rather ambitious costume last year, I still have a hazmat suit like this one and this full-face gas mask.

More out of curiosity than out of real concern, I was wondering whether it would be possible to use this equipment in a potential outbreak of the virus. My greatest concern would be reusing the suit, as it might not be safe after the first use.

Is there a way to disinfect the suit and mask with publicly available chemicals? For example, I could imagine a friend spraying me with a solution of chlorine. Would that be feasible and make wearing the suit reduce the risk of an infection?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ You cannot disinfect the filter of a gas mask. If these get wet, they will become more or less impassable for air. $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Commented Oct 7, 2014 at 21:18
  • $\begingroup$ Then the question would be extended to whether wiping the mask with some disinfectant would be enough, instead of pouring something over it. $\endgroup$
    – helm
    Commented Oct 7, 2014 at 21:20
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Disinfection is not so much a matter of the amount of disinfectant used but of the time it has to be active and of the active concentration. $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Commented Oct 7, 2014 at 21:23
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ And please remember that the likelihood of a real ebola outbreak in a developed country with modern healthcare system is extremely low. And in the rare event that an ebola outbreak does occur, you're probably better off avoiding physical contact with people than trying to wear a hazmat suit all day. $\endgroup$
    – user137
    Commented Oct 7, 2014 at 21:42

1 Answer 1


Notice: the only select agent I've worked with is VSV which was a USDA select pathogen (not as big of a concern for humans).

TLDR: It would provide some protection, but I would be most worried about a false sense of security. It would unlikely be up to rated standards, but it would likely be better than a t-shirt.

First let's start with ebolaviruses.

Ebola, like HIV and many other viruses, doesn't do well outside a host. This might be because the protein structures beneficial in the host are not the same as needed for stability in exposed air and room temperature. A counter example of a very stable virus would be something like human rhino virus (HRV). If HRV was compared to be like a rock, ebola would be over cooked spaghetti.

Certainly the virus has to maintain some stability in the environment, otherwise it wouldn't succeed evolutionary. As I'm sure you've heard on the news, ebola is spread by contact with contaminated fluids. I would like to point out a wonderful info-graphic that was made for public consumption, especially the image on viral life cycle:

Infographic on ebolaviruses life cycle

Assuming that you're not going splunking in bat inhabited caves in West Africa, it's safe to assume that what we are worried about is human to human transmission through infectious fluids. Ebola actual isn't that stable in water, so just soaking a surface in water and a little oil might help you out (if you don't have bleach handy). I want to be clear that I'm not recommending this, in reality you should just avoid contaminated objects. I think that we have clearly established that what we're really concerned about is infectious bodily fluid.

This leads me to the wonderful note by Jose Martin-Moreno titled "Is respiratory protection appropriate in the Ebola response?" I don't think I can express the problem better than he can, so hopefully I will be allowed a substantial quote:

This transmission [of ebola] occurs via close family contact or in health-care settings, particularly when placing orotracheal intubation or when caring for a patient who is vomiting or bleeding. Ebola is rarely transmitted via an airborne route. Although these routes of transmission are well known, most agencies, including governmental agencies responsible for repatriating western patients, apply infection-control measures appropriate for airborne diseases. Excessive precautions could offer reassurance to those responding to Ebola, yet complete respiratory protection is expensive, uncomfortable, and unaffordable for countries that are the most affected. Worse, such an approach suggests that the only defence is individual protective equipment, which is inaccessible to the general population. Moreover, the image of workers with spectacular protective clothing might contribute to the panic in some communities. If this leads people to flee affected areas it could increase the spread of infection.

With that said, all your full face gas mask is going to help with is prevention of fluids from hitting your head. You could probably take the actual filters out to breath more easily (I find breathing in them a giant pain). And as @Chris pointed out, they are easily clogged which could necessitate the need to take off the whole mask (which might be doing some good) to prevent suffocation.

Moving to hazmat suit.

It's actually good news that you don't need the air containment of the suit, as that's the hardest element to maintain. To state the obvious, the main purpose of the suit is to prevent your body from coming in contact with infectious fluids (in this case). To do that you don't need to be in positive pressure personnel suit (PPPE), or follow BSL4 considerations. The respiratory concerns from in an BSL4 environment come from other select agents, and the personal working in such a facility are going to be doing very different activities from what you should be doing as person trying to avoid an outbreak (they could be purposefully growing up purified high-titer virus stocks and running around with pointy things as an example).

Here I'm going to run into citation problems because no one (that I could find) has tested the kind of scenario I'm about to discuss, so it should be seen as informed conjecture. Assuming yous suit is actually an analog of a Tychem QC suit, it's probably not a rated OSHA unit (A-D), but that doesn't necessarily matter.

On it's first use it would likely be sufficient to protect against incidental exposure. Let's assume for the sake of argument that you didn't run into any Ebola when you used it as a costume, and don't the next time you put it on. At this point decontamination (decon) isn't the concern, failure of the material is. In other words, are you sure you don't have any holes, tears or cracks in the material? I think this is going to be the real limiting factor in the life of the suit. Using good old fashioned duct tape will be give you a few more uses, but the suits are just not designed to last through prolonged use.

Now let's assume the worst and that you get substantial blood splatter on you (while wearing your suit) from an ebola patient. And not a little that could easily be wiped of with a spray bottle of 10% bleach and a paper towel (how most decon could be done). Instead let's assume you're standing next to someone who suffers a traumatic injury on top of having ebola virus disease (EVD). I'm imagining something like a point-blank shotgun wound or, given the probability of this scenario, a falling grand piano. In this case, you're going to want to decontaminate the suit before you take it off, which is the same thing professionals are going to do.

If you're friends with your local fire department, and you live in an area with a large enough population to have a HAZMAT team, you can probably get them to at least give you a run through of how it's done in ideal conditions. YouTube videos are also not hard to find, just search JESTC and decontamination.

Presumably you would have a hard time going through several rinse and wash steps, but you would want emulate this as much as possible. With ebola, you would be fine to decontaminate with a 10% bleach solution (or if you use bargain/cheap bleach 15%). The trick is that you would want to do it a few times, and with a friend (also hopefully in a suit). Thus if you got two generic soap sprayers, filled one with 10% bleach, and the other with water, and then alternated spraying your partner with bleach and water, wiping down as you went, you should be able to decon the suit pretty well. If possible you're going to want to collect all the run off an rinsate. Again professionals tend to use actual kiddie pools for this.

But just the act of using so much bleach on the suit is going to weaken the fabric, again leading to the principle problem of failure of the fabric. Thus I would be worried that such a suit would provide a false sense of security, leading one to go into dangerous infectious environments when one shouldn't. Just avoiding and going away from contaminated individuals is going to be the best solution, regardless of a suit.

I considered going into why I think it's highly unlikely that any of the ebolaviruses would evolve to be airborne, but I consider that outside the scope of the question.


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