Is this neon hazmat suit designed to protect concertgoers a game changer for live events? Epidemiologists weigh in

A design company in California is working on an "offshoot of a hazmat suit" that would allow people to go to concerts during the coronavirus pandemic. Here's why it may not be safe. (Courtesy of Production Club)
A design company in California is working on an "offshoot of a hazmat suit" that would allow people to go to concerts during the coronavirus pandemic. Here's why it may not be safe. (Courtesy of Production Club)

As many states across the U.S. remain under shelter-in-place orders, the future of the live entertainment industry remains in flux. Major music events — including Bonnaroo and Coachella — have been rescheduled, and dozens of artists, from Shania Twain to Justin Bieber, have postponed their tours. Given these changes, it may seem like the days of packing into a venue for a show are behind us.

But Production Club, a Los Angeles-based “multidisciplinary creative studio” known for working with EDM stars like Skrillex, hopes to change that. In an Instagram post on Wednesday, the company shared a futuristic-looking “air-tight top suit” dubbed the Micrashell. Production Club describes it as an “offshoot of a Hazmat suit” and “a personal protective suit” that “allows you to safely socialize in times of pandemic.” (Read: go to concerts and raves.)

Made of “high-performance cut-resistant fabric” and “lightweight film composite” the suit contains two lithium-ion batteries for charging a phone, as well as a “supply system” with disposable canisters that allow users to vape or drink. The company states that the design is a “socially responsible solution” that uses an “air filtration and breathing system based on worldwide standard regulations using N95 filters.” Among Micrashell’s other features are a built-in camera, built-in speaker, external voice system and multicolored LED lighting that wearers can use to communicate their mood.

While the suit has earned attention from the tech world, epidemiologists tell Yahoo Life they aren’t so convinced of its potential. “It looks like something out of a space movie,” says William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University. “Obviously an extraordinary amount of thought has gone into this, but I can't imagine that hoards of concertgoers will want to get into one of these contraptions. They don't look very comfortable.”

Aside from comfort, Saskia Popescu, a renowned infection prevention epidemiologist with a doctorate in biodefense from George Mason University, believes the suit itself has many flaws. For one, she’s dubious of the company’s claims that the air-filtration and breathing systems are informed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), as the website implies.

“The respirator component is nondescript and claims to be N95 particulate but I’m not seeing any NIOSH approval, which filters they’re using, or why it would require fit-testing,” Popescu tells Yahoo Life. “[That] leads me to believe they’re not fulling understanding the aspects of a respirator that requires fit-testing.”

In an email to Yahoo Life, Production Club said it wanted to emphasize that “this is not a suit for sick people to party or a suit intended for medical activities. This is a suit to improve the safety of the person who doesn't feel safe with the current guidelines.”

But equally concerned is Angela Rasmussen, a virologist and scientist at the Columbia University School of Public Health’s Center for Infection and Immunity. “I am hard-pressed to see how they are ‘fit-tested to OSHA guidelines,’ since as far as I know, [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] doesn’t have fit testing guidelines for Daft Punk-inspired astronaut tops,” Rasmussen says.

Both experts are also extremely wary of the feature that allows people to vape inside the suit. “That’s not really the point for PPE, so I think there’s a lot of evaluation that would need to go into the processes to make sure there’s no cross-contamination or breakdown in the integrity of the suit to allow unfiltered air in,” says Popescu. “Also, is there a cooling system for the wearer? As these can easily get hot.”

“Equipping this thing with a module for vaping seems like an accident waiting to happen — depending on the air-filtration system, I’d worry that people could actually become hypoxic [deprived of oxygen] if they are filling the helmet with nicotine or cannabis vapor,” Rasmussen says to Yahoo Life. “Even if the vaping attachment isn’t used, what happens if the batteries die and the airflow stops? Would people be at risk of oxygen deprivation because of CO2 buildup in the helmet?”

The concerns that Popescu and Rasmussen have don’t end there. Both worry about how easy the fabric will be to sanitize and that there appears to be no easy way to remove the gloves in order to use the restroom. “Using the bathroom with non-removable gloves means you can’t clean your hands after doing so, so those gloves could get dirty fast,” says Rasmussen. “And we know that some infected people shed SARS-CoV-2 in their stool. So ... it’s gross as well as potentially hazardous.” Production Club says that the suit can be sanitized and that although the gloves are possible to remove through elbow straps, doing so is “not recommended.” The company adds that the cooling is “based on the venue's A/C, as this is meant to be purchased by venues for patrons to use.”

Overall, Rasmussen considers the suit “absurd,” while Popescu characterizes it as “impractical and unsafe” — and a far cry from actual protective gear. “Frankly, I wouldn’t call this PPE in the sense that it should be used for infectious disease protection,” says Popescu. “While I appreciate their desire to make PPE more comfortable with the ability to have a drink during it, I’m not sure how people could safely do it without cross-contamination as it looks quite tight-fitting.”

If the Micrashell, as both imply, is inherently flawed, will we ever be able to attend concerts again? Popescu doesn’t seem to doubt that we will, but says at the moment it mostly boils down to being patient. “It’s important to know that this is temporary and an emergent measure during emergent times. The more we work to break the chain of infection and flatten the curve, the sooner we can hopefully do these activities,” she says. “Relaxation of restrictions will be an incremental process, but that’s because we need to do it right. Should these events occur, I would still encourage social distancing, hand hygiene, trying to avoid crowded areas for prolonged periods of time, and making sure to stay home if you’re sick.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides. 

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