The history of the hazmat suit: the outfit of choice for celebrities in a pandemic

Naomi Campbell and Erykah Badu stepped out in the humble suit this month. Here’s what it’s made of and why it offers maximum protection

AUSTIN, TEXAS - MARCH 12:  Erykah Badu receives the Soundtrack Award during the Austin Film Society's 20th annual Texas Film Awards at Creative Media Center at Austin Studios on March 12, 2020 in Austin, Texas.  (Photo by Gary Miller/Getty Images)
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With the coronavirus lingering for up to 24 hours on cardboard and surviving for several hours when airborne, naturally we all want to know the best way to protect ourselves. It seems the answer may lie in the humble hazmat suit.

This month it was seen on Naomi Campbell, a well-known germophobe already prone to elaborate preflight cleaning rituals. The model boarded a flight wearing a hazmat suit, surgical face mask, eye protectors and gloves, declaring: "I am not doing this for laughs. This is how I feel comfortable travelling."

Meanwhile, in Texas, singer Erykah Badu made fashion history by customising her hazmat with the Louis Vuitton logo, sparking the rise of what she calls "social-distancing couture".

The hazmat is a hooded, one-size-fits-all, full-body boiler suit, worn over your clothes for head-to-toe protection. Not to be confused with a jumpsuit, painters' overalls or surgical scrubs, it is also called a decontamination suit, and is a non-permeable fabric layer that prevents pathogens, germs and other nasties from reaching the vulnerable human being inside. It is designed to be incinerated after use.

The hazmat is a vital tool for those frequently in dangerous situations. Firefighters rely on the hazmat for chemical blazes, while for medical professionals, scientists and researchers it offers protection against pathogens. For those handling or cleaning up chemical spills, radioactive particles or toxic waste, a hazmat is life-saving.

However, the hazmat comes in different grades, denoted (confusingly) by two identification systems: the European system, which uses numbers and the American one, which uses letters.

European Type 5 and 6 (Level D in the US) can be considered your entry-level biohazard suit, offering protection against light sprays of liquid and airborne particles, for a limited period of time. This is the classic white, papery suit with a hood that is favoured by Campbell.

Next come Types 3 and 4 (Level C), which are water-saturation-proof and staves off liquid chemicals.

Type 2 (Level B) will protect against liquid and gaseous chemicals for a short period. To prevent leakage, the wrists, ankles and neck must be secured with tape and the face covered with a transparent, splash-resistant full face piece. However, with breathing equipment often worn over the suit, it cannot be considered airtight.

A metropolitan municipality worker wearing a hazmat suit sprays disinfectant onto a taxi window in Istanbul, Turkey, on Saturday, March 14, 2020. Turkey confirmed three more coronavirus cases, taking its total to five. The country also announced it was suspending flights to several European countries to attempt to curb the outbreak. Photographer: Kerem Uzel/Bloomberg
Hazmat suits are officially hazardous material suits. Bloomberg

Type 1 (Level A) offers the highest level of safety against biological agents, radioactivity, gas, liquids, particles and mists, and comes in industrial brown, neon yellow and a heavy-duty aluminised fabric. Offering up to 30 minutes of protection against 320 chemical hazards, the seams are taped and heat-sealed inside and out, and the long back zip is sealed with a storm flap, hooks and Velcro. The suit comes with integrated socks, a built-in two-way radio and a fully enclosed, self-contained breathing apparatus, which also offers over-pressure protection by utilising the airflow to prevent contaminants entering the suit, even if ripped.

This suit is used for military clean-up and by first responders entering unknown chemical hazard zones. Made with layers of Teflon laminated with heavy-duty PVC, it can be cumbersome to move in.