A hazmat suit is a garment typically covering the entire body used to protect the wearer from hazardous materials. Hazmat is a portmanteau of hazardous and materials, and the term is almost only used when describing dangerous materials not intended for warfare or human harm, although the substances could certainly be used for these ends.
A person usually wears a hazmat suit as preventative attempt to avoid contact with a dangerous material present outside the suit, not to prevent other people from being exposed to the wearer. This type of garment is a common piece of equipment for emergency crews, researchers, firefighters, or any others working with materials that may harm humans.
There are many different hazardous materials, and as many different hazmat suits designed to protect humans from those materials. Toxins may be chemical, biological, or nuclear. Hazmat suits may also protect against extreme temperatures, such as fire. Some suits require steel-toed shoes, special fabrics, or self-contained breathing systems. These suits can be hot and difficult to wear, so most people are not required to use them for extended periods of time.
Hazmat suits are typically ranked according to the level of protection provided. Most regions have specific methods for classifying these suits. In Europe, hazmat suits are ranked from one to six, type one providing the greatest amount of protection, type six providing the least. In the United States, hazmat suits are ranked A through D, level A providing maximum protection, and level D providing the minimum. Each level of suit is appropriate for a different type of work involving different dangerous materials.
The hazmat suit is well recognized in most civilizations, as almost every location has had some dangerous situation from which people required protection. Unfortunately, because most people know what a hazmat suit is, the sight of someone in such a suit often inspires panic and makes the situation worse. The distinctive and necessarily alien appearance of hazmat suits have made them popular features of science fiction and disaster movies, furthering this panic reaction in many populations.
One of the problems with protective gear such as the hazmat suit is that science may not recognize all the possible elements capable of causing harm to humans. For instance, the cone-shaped mask worn by doctors during the bubonic plague might be considered an early hazmat suit, although it did not accurately assess the way in which diseases are spread, and thus did nothing to prevent doctors from getting sick. Likewise, current hazmat suits may account for more disease-causing factors, but there may still be methods of transmission and exposure as of yet unknown to humans. The hazmat suit represents the best effort by modern science to protect human beings from harm.