Scandinavian design: a gas mask for every man, woman, and child

THERE is something decidedly unusual in the parking garage underneath the McDonald's restaurant in downtown Helsinki. Along the walls, at regular intervals between the parking spaces, are wash basins.

There's also something odd about the Lilla Bjorn (Little Bear) Child Care Center in a suburb of Stockholm.

Most of the rooms are open and sunny, but one at the center of the building has relatively tiny windows, set deep into walls that are more than a foot thick.

These kinds of architectural details are evident in countless buildings across Finland, Sweden, and other Scandinavian countries. They're subtle, and easily missed if you don't know what to look for.

But they have a very specific purpose.

The parking garage and the day-care center are specially constructed to double as shelters from, among other things, chemical and biological weapons attacks.

Sweden, in particular, has gone an extraordinary step further in protecting its citizenry from wind-borne poisons. The government is well along in a plan to purchase and stockpile a gas mask or protective respirator for every man, woman, and child in Sweden - 8.4 million people.

To that end, Swedish companies have perfected a range of protective devices unparalleled in the world. Among them: special respirators for children and infants.

Finland, on the other hand, has opted for collective rather than individual protection; it has spaces for 2.6 million people in shelters scattered across the country, each equipped with special air-filtration systems to trap every known chemical and biological warfare agent.

No other country even approaches these two nations when it comes to preparedness.

But other nations are noting the example. Civil defense officials from a number of countries, including China, have visited in the past year. They have toured the shelters, peered through the gas masks - and come away impressed.

The interest has been a boon to some of the companies that make the specialized protection equipment.

``It's been like this abroad,'' says Rolf Palmaeus, moving his hand in a steep upward arc to indicate the rising interest. Mr. Palmaeus is product manager for defense products of Sweden's Trelleborg Group, a chief supplier of gas masks to the country's civil defense program.

He says there's no doubt it's because of the Iran-Iraq war, which saw the most extensive use of chemical weapons since World War I.

Sweden and Finland have their own reasons for taking civilian protection so seriously. Both are neutral nations. Both have openly declared that they possess no chemical or biological weapons, and therefore could not retaliate in kind if attacked with these substances. And they have a long tradition of emphasizing civil protection.

But the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union underscored the need for protecting against wind-borne poisons. That explosion, at a civilian nuclear reactor in the Soviet Ukraine, rained radioactive particles on vast stretches of Finnish and Swedish territory, causing millions of dollars in damage to agriculture in both countries. It also caused no small alarm among the unprotected civilian populace.

Finland's options

`WE had to do a lot of rethinking after Chernobyl ... we decided we had to provide more shelter places,'' says Janne Koivukoski, chief inspector of the rescue department of Finland's Ministry of the Interior.

Although Finland's civil defense plans are centered on nuclear protection, Mr. Koivukoski says that in the process of drawing them up, ``We've planned a lot for chemical warfare.''

All of the nation's civil defense detachments have gas masks. But, as Koivukoski admits, that's only 40,000 to 50,000 people.

``We are planning to get gas masks for every citizen in Finland,'' he says, ``but we don't have the money.''

That rules out mass evacuations from contaminated areas. Instead, the Finnish planning is shifting emphasis to making sure there are shelters near where the people are.

In fact, any dwelling in Finland larger than 3,000 cubic meters must, by law, include a shelter in the basement. The national government reimburses builders or residents for the extra costs incurred to provide such shelters.

In addition, Finnish municipalities are required to provide shelters for anyone in a building without one. The national government budgets some 140 million Finnmarks annually (about $30 million) to build shelters large enough to serve entire neighborhoods.

All have activated-charcoal air filters and are equipped with overpressure devices that inhibit the inflow of contaminated air. All are kept ready for use 24 hours a day. And each shelter is fitted with an air lock at the entrance, and decontamination areas to rinse off any person coming from the outside.

In the capital city, Helsinki, 34 large shelters were blasted out of bedrock under the city. Theoretically, they would accommodate 90 percent of the city's population.

In fact, there are practical problems. The city's population swells during the day by 110,000 commuters, students, tourists, and businesspeople. And while some neighborhoods have a surplus of shelter space, others suffer from a deficit.

``It will take, I would say, at least 20 years' time'' to balance supply with demand across the city, says Niilo Kohonen, civil defense chief in Helsinki.

In peacetime, civil defense officials make the shelters available for other community activities.

The cavernous 9,000-person rock shelter in the suburb of Kontula is being used as a youth center. Young people repair autos, do woodworking, or fire ceramics; there are squash courts and weight-lifting rooms below hundreds of feet of solid rock.

Shelters, Swedish-style

STOCKHOLM's Lilla Bjorn Child Care Center is another shelter doing double duty.

Though there are few obvious signs of its intended purpose, in the event of conflict, temporary partitions would be knocked down, exposing heavy steel doors. Vents would be sealed up; air filters would be bolted to pre-wired and ducted walls; and an emergency radio would be connected to an outside antenna.

Sweden has taken particular interest in the threat posed by chemical and biological agents in recent years, says Rune Dahlen, head of civilian protection at Sweden's National Rescue Services Board.

The reasons, Mr. Dahlen says, are the use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war, proliferation of these weapons among other countries, and the growing use of toxic chemicals in Sweden's own chemical industry.

In 1982, the Swedish parliament decreed that every citizen have an emergency breathing apparatus in 10 years' time. That goal will be missed by two years, but every child will have a device two years before the deadline, Dahlen says.

Already, 5.6 million of 7.2 million adult Swedes have gas masks, as do 160,000 of the nation's 330,000 children, and 10,000 of the 100,000 infants.

To meet the need, manufacturers had to come up with five sizes of masks.

Fitting growing, active children presented a particular problem. The solution was a protective cloak with a respirator in a coatlike overgarment. A special ``baby lift'' has been created for infants; resembling a clear-plastic basinette, it has a zipper hood and a battery-powered gas filter.

These breathing devices are kept at special depots, and would be distributed in the event of need.

Civil defense authorities have also trained roughly half the country's 600 rescue platoons to work in a chemically contaminated environment; the rest are slated to undergo training.

Still, in the event of a chemical weapons attack, the contamination of facilities would be very difficult to manage, says Bjorn Ekengren, a civil engineer at the Rescue Services Board. Vulnerable spots

SWEDEN has also stockpiled certain vaccines in the event of a clandestine attack with biological weapons. But officials admit that a surprise attack involving biological or even the most elementary of chemical agents - mustard gas - might wreak havoc, especially if it occurred along with a conventional artillery attack. The country's medical facilities would simply be overwhelmed, and medical personnel might not know what kind of treatment to administer.

``To be frank,'' says Dr. Karl-Axel Norberg, medical director of the emergency and disaster planning division of the National Board of Health and Welfare, ``we'd have a problem dealing with burn patients, let alone this kind of [mustard gas] victim. The state of medical knowledge is fairly low.''

``We've recognized the need, and we're working in the field,'' he says.

But money is an ever-present problem.

Health officials asked parliament for 330 million kronor yearly (about $55 million) for emergency civilian medical protection supplies, equipment, and training, says Jan Hjelmstedt, an official in the emergency and wartime planning division of the Health and Welfare Board. They got 220 million (about $36 million).

``Of course, I would have to say that isn't enough,'' Mr. Hjelmstedt says.

Still, research has found that even unlimited funds wouldn't provide all the answers.

``If an aggressor uses these agents against a civilian population,'' Dr. Norberg says, ``that population can never be fully protected.''

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Scandinavian design: a gas mask for every man, woman, and child
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today