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Save Your Breath

Lowell Forristall is no stranger to the uncomfortable, and potentially chronic repercussions of agricultural airway hazards. After an incident or two, the Carson, Iowa, farmer began wearing a respirator.

“I was sick for three days after cleaning a soybean bin,” he says. “I also have some lung scarring from handling corn.”

A growing number of farmers today wear personal protective equipment. However, Carolyn Sheridan, AgriSafe Network clinical director and Spencer (Iowa) Hospital AgriSafe director, still fields a lot of questions about how to care, store, and replace respirators and masks.

The two types of two-strap particulate respirators/masks (Figures 1 and 2) are disposable. Figure 2 has an exhalation valve, designed to help reduce moisture buildup, an issue if you wear glasses.

“You may be able to wear a two-strap mask more than once, depending on the temperature, humidity, and exposure levels,” Sheridan says. “But they’re designed to be worn one time.”

Signs of wear and tear may be obvious. “Sometimes the exhalation valve is curled up, or one strap is stretched out,” she says.

Half mask reusable respirators eliminate dust, gases, or fumes. They’re available from several companies, including North and 3M.

“The straps, cradle, and valves can be replaced when they wear out,” Sheridan says. “That makes them more economical.”

Half masks are worn with cartridges or filters. “The reusable half mask with filters is a good all-around respirator if a cartridge isn’t needed,” Sheridan says.

Replace a particulate filter when:

  • It’s difficult to breathe comfortably.
  • It’s dirty or physically damaged.

A gas or vapor cartridge has an expiration date, but its life span is determined by use conditions. “If you can smell or taste what you’re being exposed to, replace it before continuing,” Sheridan says. (It does not protect you from pit gases.)

Cartridges include a prefilter. “The prefilter can be replaced several times before you ever have to replace the cartridge,” she says.

To clean a half mask, remove the filters, cartridges, or canister. “Half masks should be washed daily – or at least once a week – with warm water and a mild detergent,” she says.

Storage also requires thought and planning. “It’s best to store used respirators in a bag that’s breathable,” she says. “If you store a mask in a container with a lid and the mask is moist, it could grow bacteria or mold.” Availability and convenience also are important factors.

For more on selecting the right mask for a job, getting the right fit, and proper care and storage, visit the AgriSafe Network website at

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