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$1.2 Million CDC Grant for Respirator Study

Dr. Philip Harber and research team
Dr. Philip Harber and the respirator study team: (L to R) Jing Su, Philip Harber, Sarah Barrett, Robert J. Boumis, Gabriela Alongi (Seated).

Wildfire season in Arizona is a reminder of the dangers of smoke inhalation, a mixture of gases and fine particles from burning trees and other plant materials. Smoke can hurt your eyes, irritate your respiratory system, and worsen chronic heart and lung diseases.

“Respirators, even the simple N95 type, can be very effective in reducing smoke inhalation,” says Dr. Philip Harber, a research professor at the University of Arizona’s Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health.

The problem is that many people who don’t work in the health professions, don’t know how to use respirators properly, explains Dr. Harber.

“I see it all the time in the news after a natural disaster or epidemic. I can spot the people in a video or photo who are not using them correctly.”

Harber is board certified in internal medicine, pulmonary diseases, and occupational-environmental medicine. His latest research project is to come up with a way to rapidly train people on how to use respiratory personal protective equipment.

He is the Principal Investigator of a $1.2 million, three-year research project to improve the ability to rapidly enable community members to use respirators in case of a natural disaster such as a large brush fire or an epidemic such as influenza. The grant is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

The grant was transferred to the University of Arizona from UCLA, where Harber is a professor emeritus and former chief of the Division of Occupational-Environmental Medicine and directed the occupational-environmental medicine residency.

In the past, respirators were used in very select occupations such as foundry workers and firefighters. Over the last decade, there has been greater concern about the need for rapid rollout to large populations, said Harber.

A respirator is a device to protect you from inhaling dangerous substances, such as chemicals and infectious particles. If used correctly, a respirator can reduce the exposure you might otherwise receive.

“Respirators may be used for protection in the event of epidemics, natural disasters, and terrorism. Part of this research will be to evaluate the best way to train community members to properly choose and use respirators,” said Dr. Harber.

“There are several different types of respirators. Just as people come in different sizes and shapes, one mask does not fit all. There are face masks that filter particles and masks that filter gas and chemicals. You have to know the right one to use and how to use it to get the full protective benefits. But there is very little guidance on how to use them properly.”

Since most health-care workers are trained in using respirators, this research project will focus on training the general community.

The study will be held on the campus of the University of Arizona in Tucson. Harber is looking to recruit volunteers for his research. Participants will receive training on how to use respirators and compensation for their time. Interested individuals should send an email to: or call (520) 626-1263.

The University of Arizona red triangle graphic