One of the most disconcerting sights in the 17th Century, must have been the appearance of a figure in your street wearing the plague costume, a garment consisting of an ankle-length overcoat, gloves, boots, a wide-brimmed hat and a fearsome beak-like mask filled with strong smelling herbs. But the “beak doctor” costume didn’t do much to keep the plague at bay, largely because it was worn in the false premise that the plague was passed on with “evil” smells.
We now have a better understanding of infectious diseases and how to minimise the risk of transmission with personal protective equipment (PPE), such as surgical masks and gloves. But there are still some infectious agents, which require the most protective clothing – Ebola, Marburg, Hantavirus, Lassa, H5N1 flu, to name but a few. This is why scientists have invented the personal pressure suit favoured by biodefence establishments, medical labs handling the most dangerous pathogens, and Hollywood movies depicting biological Armageddon.
These air-filled, industrial protection garments are used when handling the most dangerous pathogens, such as those kept in the highest biocontainment labs, known as BSL-4. The aim is to keep these pathogens, which are highly infectious and have no treatments or vaccines available, free from contact with any part of the human body, including the air we breathe. The positive air pressure inside the suit is designed to prevent leaks and any accidental inhalation or skin contact.
They are informally known as “moon suits”, “space suits” or “blue suits” and came out of research in the 1970s by ILC Dover, an American company which developed the first extra-vehicular-activity suits for space-walking NASA astronauts. ILC Dover was formed as an offshoot of the International Latex Corporation, the company that brought rubberised clothing to the mass market with its Playtex brand of women’s undergarments.