Throughout history, individuals have needed to deal with air pollution as well as smog, owing to excessive coal use in the residence as well as manufacturing, air pollution from mining and increased emissions from industrial processes. Since the 14th Century, London has been affected by thick smog, which Londoners refer to as “peasoupers.”

Civilizations learned to deal with air pollution by using respirators in different forms whether basic or technologically advanced.


Pliny the Elder, Library of Congress [Public domain]
Pliny the Elder, Library of Congress [Public domain]
Pliny the Elder, an inventor in the first century A.D., came up with the idea of using an animal bladder to protect Roman miners from inhaling load oxide dust.  His idea is the very first recorded idea for a respirator.

Other early inventors were composed of Leonardo da Vinci who recommended using a wet woven cloth over the face to protect against the toxic chemicals used in chemical warfare.

Lewis Phectic Haslett invented the Haslett Lung protector which allowed a mouthpiece fitted with two clapper valves that utilized a wool filter to keep out dust.

Expanding on the need for industrial worker’s lungs being protected, inventors offered other solution in the centuries that followed.  The first U.S. patent, US 6529, for an “Inhaler or Lung Protector” was recorded in 1848 and was for the “Haslett Lung Protector” which utilized one-way valves moistened with sheep wool to filter dust.

Inventions are always improving.  In 1879, Hutson Hurd’s design improved on the design of the Haslett Lung protector and invented the design of the cup-shaped mask.  The Hutson Hurd’s H.S. Cover Company manufactured these cup-shaped masks well into the 1970s.

As even more, innovative scientific minds gained interest in air purifying devices, a race occurred to develop respirators that could protect against a broader range of air pollutants, such as hazardous gases.

A Scottish chemist, John Stenhouse, decided to use charcoal in a wide variety of air-purifying devices.  He invented the first respirator that captured toxic gases from the air.  He especially wanted

John Stenhouse's mask, Public Domain
John Stenhouse’s mask, Public Domain

to protect firemen and first responders.

British physicist John Tyndall took Stenhouse’s mask, added a filter of cotton wool saturated with lime, glycerin, and charcoal, and invented a ‘fireman’s respirator,’ a hood that filtered smoke and gas from air, in 1871; Tyndall exhibited this respirator at a meeting of the Royal Society in London in 1874.

Also in 1874, Samuel Barton patented a device that ‘permitted respiration in places where the atmosphere is charged with noxious gases, or vapors, smoke, or other impurities.’  The first to include rubber and a metal hood structure, the Samuel Barton Respirator had a filter located in front and two eyepieces made of glass. The metal canister design contained lime, glycerin-soaked cotton wool, and charcoal.

Respirator Inventions World War I

After World War I,  the military became much more involved and developed an intense interest in the use of respirators primarily as a defense mechanism against chemical warfare. Because of the military interest and money, the advances in the creation of inexpensive, useful filters increased in the 1930s.  The filters were initially made with resin-infused dust and were further developed using fine particulates of glass fiber that could eliminate particulate matter.  The design of the filter helped with the breathing ability that was not inhibited by the filters.

Great Smog of 1952, N T Stobbs [CC BY-SA 2.0]
Great Smog of 1952, N T Stobbs [CC BY-SA 2.0]
After World War I, the United States and the United Kingdom faced some of the worst air pollution cases in history. In December of 1952, the “great smog” or “big smoke” caused the city of Long to be engulfed in a thick layer of air smog which lasted for five days and resulted in 12,000 plus fatalities and 100,000 reported cases of respiratory illness.  The smog was caused by the cold weather, lack of wind and the subsequent use of too much coal to heat the country.

In 1943, Los Angeles, California (LA), long known for its poor air quality, suffered from its first smog incident. LA’s factories and massive vehicle industry were to blame for the smog.

The greater the fine, the more public exposure, the more advancement of air pollution initiatives will continue.  Labor laws, like the OSHA’s Respirable Crystalline Silica Standard standard for both Construction and General Industry, will help protect workers and respirators will continue to advance.

The Future of Respirators

According to the World Health Organization, the top three of most air-polluted cities in the word rated by Particulate Matter (PM) concentration are 1) Kanpur, India, 2) Faridabad, India, and 3) Gaya, India.  Other countries have issues including Pakistan, Uganda, China, and Qatar.  Global air pollution

The pain of Kanpur, NDTV
The pain of Kanpur, NDTV

problems and continuing climate change will put pressure on developing countries and will allow more advancements in the use of respirators.

Respirator technology is becoming sleeker and most people wear primitive forms of respirators, like surgical masks, for protection.  Surgical mask only work for airborne viruses and not air pollutants.  In Japan, young people are even using surgical masks as a fashion accessory.  The human factor of respirators will depend on the comfortable fit, the mood of the wearer, and the actual protection the respirator provides.

The need for raising awareness of protecting your lungs from air pollution continues to be profound.  Surgical masks will not work to eliminate PM, and in industrial situations, a Dust Particle Monitor like the DustCount is necessary to determine when respirator masks are needed.

This blog was written by Linda Rawson, who is the founder of DynaGrace Enterprises (, an authorized distributor of the Nanozen DustCount 8899.  For further information, please connect with Linda on LinkedIn, or contact her at (800) 676-0058 ext 101.