An organic vapor respirator is more commonly known as a gas mask. Respirators are devices worn over the face to remove or filter dust or fumes from the air, thereby making the air safe to breathe. There are various respirators that can protect wearers from dust, allergens, airborne viruses and bacteria, and even tear gas, but an organic vapor respirator is specifically designed to remove fumes from organic compounds.
The term "organic" is often used to describe or classify produce, meat, milk, and other farm products that have been grown without any synthetic chemical input such as fertilizers, hormones, or pesticides. The use of the word organic when discussing an organic vapor respirator has an entirely different meaning, one based on what chemists refer to as organic or carbon chemistry. Organic chemistry is the study of chemical compounds that contain hydrogen and carbon.
Many organic compounds are quite toxic when inhaled, so wearing a vapor respirator would be a safety precaution for people working with such chemicals. A common place to witness this is in a nail salon. Fingernail polish contains the organic chemical known as toluene, which gives it the characteristic odor; and nail polish remover, also with a unique and easily identifiable smell, contains the organic compound acetone. Both toluene and acetone readily emit vapors into the air, both pose health hazards, and neither should be inhaled. Workers in nail salons can often be seen wearing thin cloth or paper masks, but these are not as effective as organic vapor respirators.
Wearing this type of vapor respirator prevents the toxic fumes of organic compounds from entering the body through inhalation. Organic toxins that enter the body as vapors may damage mucous membranes in the eyes, nose, and throat, causing painful irritation. The more dangerous toxins are the chemicals with vapors that do not cause irritation and may be less unpleasant to endure than having to wear an uncomfortable respirator or mask. These are the chemicals that are much more likely to be breathed in and begin building up in body tissues, where they may cause everything from cancer to infertility.
Organic vapor respirators work because they have a cartridge filled with active charcoal that air must pass through before entering the body. This charcoal is able to attract and absorb the fumes of organic compounds and prevent them from being inhaled. The charcoal filters do eventually become full and must be replaced. Thin paper or cloth masks will not remove organic fumes in the way that an organic vapor respirator with a charcoal filter can, because they are not able to chemically pull the vapors out of the air.