It sounds like a frat-house bumper sticker: In case of emergency, remove bra. For Dr. Elena Bodnar, the 47-year-old director of the Chicago-based Trauma Risk Management Research Institute, it’s the slogan behind her Emergency Bra (ebbra.com), a traditional-looking brassiere that converts into two respiratory face masks in case of fire, natural disaster or terrorist attack. The inspiration for a readily available breathing device came from two disasters. Fresh out of med school in Ukraine (then the Soviet Union) in 1986, she helped treat victims of the Chernobyl nuclear explosion. Years later, after Bodnar moved to Chicago, footage of September 11 victims using shirts to filter out debris got her thinking again about the Emergency Bra. The patented undergarment, which can be removed without taking off any clothing, earned Bodnar a 2009 Ig Nobel Prize, honoring unusual but worthwhile achievements. Two weeks ago, she put it on the market for $29.95.
At the Ig Nobel ceremony, you took off the Emergency Bra you were wearing and put one of the masks on Nobel Prize–winning New York Times economics columnist Paul Krugman.
He looked freaked out!
Well, that first prototype didn’t have any adjustable straps. I put it on Paul Krugman and it barely fit his head. That inspired me to add the straps. You know, he has a very big head! [Laughs]
Why make something as intimate as a bra into a face mask?
I knew it had to be something we always wear. More important, one bra can become two masks, which doubles availability. And the round shape and flexible material of a bra already had many features I needed to achieve fixation over the face. I added five layers of different filtering fabrics in the cup.
Who’s your ideal customer, besides paranoid women?
I see it as part of the ideal uniform for a military woman. She’s commonly in situations where there are explosions, and she could give it to a citizen. If my bra saves just one life, I will have served my purpose.
I’m excited you’re developing a male version.
It’s a dress shirt that you take off and tie around your head and neck.
Glad to know it’s not going to be a Seinfeld-esque manzier.
Agh! No! [Laughs] A lot of men have told me they don’t feel comfortable putting a bra of any kind on their face.
What is the probability of having to use the Emergency Bra?
Even if probability of a 9/11 in Chicago is low, the consequences are huge. So risk is never zero and can’t be neglected. It has to be managed.
The Emergency Bra is available for $29.95 at ebbra.com.
• More Around Town articles