Masks that Block Smell: What is the Best Respirator For Terrible Smells?

Masks that Block Smell: What is the Best Respirator For Terrible Smells?

A city worker recently wrote to find out which respirator would filter out the strong smells at the landfills best. He writes, "I work for sanitation in NYC. Sometimes I have to bring the garbage to landfills and dump it out the back of my truck. I am stepping in waste - horrible smelling - especially in the summer when the sun hits it. Rotten eggs, food, diapers, blood, cleaning chemicals, and sometimes dead animal bodies. What should I use that would mask out these smells? Should I consider a full mask or is a half-face mask okay?"

First of all, that is quite a list. The smell almost comes through the computer. I can see why he's looking for something to block that special aroma. For lower levels of organic vapors, I'd recommend a smaller, disposable respirator such as the Moldex 2400 N95 mask. This is a comfortable disposable respirator with an exhalation vent and a layer of activated carbon to block what are known as nuisance levels of ozone and organic vapor.

But let's face it, sun-baked diapers and dead animals are not what I'd call nuisance-level smells. Not only disgusting, but potentially dangerous, the air containing this combo-pack of organic vapors will need to travel over more surface area of the activated carbon to be scrubbed of the stench. We recommend the 3M 6001 Organic Vapor Cartridges which will get rid of a wide range of odors and are approved by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to protect against vapors from solvents, pesticides, and other noxious odors.

For lower levels of organic vapors, the Moldex 2400 N95 mask offers a comfortable and effective solution. However, as we venture into environments with significantly stronger odors, such as those encountered by sanitation workers in NYC, the 3M 6001 Organic Vapor Cartridges attached to a half-face mask provide broader protection against a range of odors. These cartridges are specifically designed to handle the odors of sun-baked diapers and deceased animals, transforming unbearable work conditions into more manageable ones.

It's important to note, as Reist & Rex (1977) explored, the relationship between odor detection and the effectiveness of respirator cartridges is crucial. If the odor threshold of a compound is higher than its permissible exposure limit, users might not detect breakthrough, posing a risk of overexposure. This critical insight underscores the necessity for regular cartridge replacement and the selection of respirators that provide both odor relief and protection against harmful concentrations of volatile compounds. Ensuring the safety of workers requires not only the right equipment but also an understanding of its limitations and proper use.

With this in mind, choosing the right respirator and cartridges is not just about comfort or immediate relief from bad smells—it's also about ensuring long-term health and safety. Whether considering a half-face or a full-face mask, the fit is crucial to ensure all air is filtered through the cartridges, providing maximum protection.

For work of a fairly short duration, attaching these cartridges to the inexpensive 3M 6000 Series half-face mask is suitable. If you need to spend more time, or even if you just prefer to be more comfortable while you work, the soft-silicon 7500 Series masks, also from 3M, conforms to the contours of a variety of face shapes better, and therefore generally creates a better seal. It's also far more comfortable over the long haul.

The fit of the respirator is important because any air that doesn't come through the cartridges is clearly not going to be filtered, and won't have the benefit of all that nice absorption of the unpleasant odors you're trying to get rid of.

We recommend the half-face masks to protect against most organic vapors because generally, in and of themselves, they don't pose a risk to the eyes. We always believe protective eyewear should be worn at all times while working. But the types of risks spelled out in our reader's response to our blog on choosing the right respirator cartridge didn't mention the types of dangers where we usually recommend full-face respirator protection such as mold remediation or work with asbestos.

If you have more questions about which respirator is right for you, please give us a call or visit us online at

And remember, a respirator mask works only as good as it fits. It won’t protect you from hazards (or smells) if it doesn’t fit your face properly.

Sources: Pc, R., & Rex, F. (1977). Odor detection and respirator cartridge replacement.. American Industrial Hygiene Association journal, 38 10, 563-6 .


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