When you own an old house and like to do any sort of work on it, you end up in some pretty dirty and disgusting situations. From cutting holes in plaster to handling insulation, I always seem to be into something that is turning my snot black and face gritty. TMI?

The dirt on my skin is something I can deal with, but the grime that I breathe in can be too much to take. Add the potential health concerns that come with inhaling dust, dirt, or fumes from concrete, paint, stain, or any number of chemicals that we use in our various paint stripping endeavors, and you get something you really shouldn't mess around with. Since day one, protecting our respiratory system has been something that we have been cognizant of when it comes to work on the house. As a result, I want to use this week's Toolbox Tuesday to discuss the respirator mask that we use on any project where poor air quality or the inhalation of airborne particles are a concern.

This is actually something I've been sensitive about for some time. When I was working at a window shop over the summer between high school and college, I had the unpleasant task of removing glazing from about 800 window sash out of a nearly 100 year old building in Cleveland. Though the windows had already been stripped of their paint and their putty softened through the chemical paint removal process, it was up to me to clean away the putty and remove the old panes of glass, hopefully without breaking them.

Before I started working, I had a mandatory blood lead level test to determine my baseline lead exposure. My lead levels were fine at the beginning of the summer, actually the lowest on the entire team. My thankless putty removal job went on all summer, and I wasn't required to wear any sort of mask during that time. And at the end of the summer I was retested and surprised by the results. My lead levels had jumped from 2.25ppm to about 14.5 micrograms per deciliter. For reference, a number of about 20 micrograms per deciliter or higher is cause for concern. It seems the glazing putty had an unexpected lead content that the company's owner wasn't aware of.

In our home renovation, I wanted to make sure I was always aware of the risk of lead and other airborne hazards, and to protect myself and Wendy from them as much as possible. So I made sure to purchase a mask that would work far more effectively than those flimsy paper masks you often see at the store.

To protect our breathing we chose the MSA Safety Works canister style mask. This mask has a rubber gasket style element that surround and seals to your face and over your nose. When you breathe out your exhale leaves through a one way area in front of your mouth, and when you inhale air comes in through the canisters on either side of the mask.

The mask has two strap components, one that runs behind your head, and the other above and near the back of your head. These straps are fully adjustable and form an extremely tight and air proof seal to ensure your incoming air comes only from the canisters and not from around the gasket.

The canister aspect of this mask is the best part. You place the canister of choice on the mask and then breathe normally until the canister begins to lose its effectiveness. You can tell when this is as it becomes more difficult to draw air in. Once the canister becomes too dirty or restrictive (or if it has just been a long time) it's time to replace them with new ones. This means you don't need to toss the mask out when you've used up the life of the canister, which is far more economical long term.

Now the are a lot of canister style masks on the market, especially for painters, but the mask we have is a little different than most. Most have a single canister with a micron rating and type of particle or dust it protects against. However, the mask we have has varying levels of canisters, each suiting a certain situation. As I mentioned, I'm particularly sensitive to the lead paint issue in our house, so we chose the canisters that will protect against airborne lead dust. There aren't a lot of masks out that can do this, especially when you look at the whole family of products available.

We're quite happy with the masks we have and have been using them for nearly nine years now. They definitely weren't the cheapest, but they are quite effective at what they do. I can wear this mask when I'm in the attic for hours and never feel the effects of the cellulose insulation, we can wear it when painting or staining and never smell any of the fumes, and you will never find me stripping or sanding old paint without wearing this mask -- it's my standby.

And the best news of all is I've periodically gotten my lead levels tested each time I have a checkup and they've progressively fallen over the years. Wendy has also had hers tested semi regularly and her levels are staying quite low as well. I'd say we can put one in the win column for this mask. Well actually, let's put two in the win column because a respirator also makes for one sexy accessory, especially when coupled with an awesome facial expression like the one I'm making in the photo below.

Do you have a favorite mask or respirator of choice for your home improvement projects? Any other DIYers out there that regularly have your lead levels tested? We'd love to hear your preferences in this matter.

Did you enjoy reading this post? Want to learn more about our first-hand experiences with other tools, devices or items used throughout our renovation? If so, check out our complete list of product reviews in our Toolbox Tuesday section

Note: We weren't compensated for this review. We simply want to share good products when we see them, and hope that learning from our mistakes can help save you time, money and frustration.

Comments 7


1/10/2012 at 10:02 AM
Ha, I've got a picture of me almost exactly like the first raccoon eyes picture of you there.

I use a similar MSA model mask, though the cartridges on mine are a heck of a lot smaller but work the same way. I wonder what the difference is? I love mine and never work without it. Good idea on the baseline lead testing. We should probably do that for Rachel since she's pregnant now. They'll draw blood next time she's at the doc. Need to make sure they're not elevated already, though we've been really careful from day one.
I've seen the different size cartridges, and each has a different rating for what it can eliminate from the air. It's usually based on size of particles. The ones I have I know are good for lead, but I can't say on others, I know it says on the packaging.

Lead blood test is always one of those things you have to ask for and then the doctor is always like "and why do you want this?" But then you can just say, "hey, I live in DC, there's lead in our pipes." :-)
1/10/2012 at 10:40 AM
How easy is this one to breathe through? The respirators we have make us feel like we're slowly being suffocated!

You've done some excellent work here, by the way!
Thank you!

Yes, you can breathe pretty well through these masks. Obviously it isn't like you're breathing without one, but I've used it for hours at a time without issue. As time goes by you can slowly notice a change in difficulty when the filters begin to clog up. I had one unused, and one very used and switched between them to test the difference. It's amazing how much easier the new canisters let me breathe.
1/10/2012 at 11:20 AM
We have masks, but I admittedly only wear mine if I'm working indoors.

I always worry about keeping the furballs safe. We use plastic sheeting to keep them out of areas we're working on, but I'm still a worry wart.
We completely understand your concern, after all, we consider our furballs our children. Luckily we completed the paint removal on our stairs before we moved in, so Mel wasn't exposed to the mess. And most of the other stripping we complete in the basement, where it's a no pets zone. It will be a lot harder when we start our major kitchen overhaul, but since our house is a shotgun, I guess we'll just have to ban them from the back half of the downstairs. Lulu will NOT be happy about that though!
I know what you mean. I've just slowly forced myself to almost always put it on whenever I'm sanding, scraping, grinding, pretty much anything. Same with safety glasses. I used to hate them but Wendy nagged me so much for so long that I eventually just wear them whenever I should. Now I've been hit in the glasses by debris so many times that I'm glad I always wear them. I figure I'll be the same level of thankful 20 years from now when I haven't gone crazy and cut my ear off from lead poisoning.
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