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    Gas masks are newest fashion in fear

    Hundreds of area residents worried about biological and chemical terrorist attacks turn to military surplus stores.

    [Times photos: Mike Pease]
    Kevin Perkins, left, helps customer David Lewis, 19, try on a gas mask he just bought Thursday from Headquarters Military Surplus in Tampa.

    By TAMARA LUSH

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published September 28, 2001


    TAMPA -- The other day, Lynn Brown bought a gas mask, a canteen and three olive-green chemical warfare suits at the downtown Army Navy Trade Mart.

    She didn't even flinch when the store owner told her the price: $269.98.

    "If you watch the news, all nations are preparing for biological warfare," said Brown, who lives in Tampa. "Unless it's true, the government wouldn't panic us."

    Brown is not alone in her anxiety. In the weeks since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, hundreds of Tampa Bay residents have flocked to military surplus stores to buy anything they think will help them survive a terrorist attack.

    Experts, however, warn that many of the devices flying off store shelves could prove useless to untrained civilians.

    Sharry Steiner, right, digs through her purse looking for a ticket to buy a gas mask Thursday at Headquarters Military Surplus.

    Jacqueline Cattani, the director of the Center for Biological Defense at the University of South Florida, says it's an understandable reaction in this tense, uncertain time, but she urges restraint.

    "It's exactly what the terrorists want," Cattani said. "They want to see the disruption of daily life."

    No matter. News that those suspected of the terrorism showed an interest in a crop duster in Belle Glade made many people jittery about the possibility of chemical or biological warfare right here in Florida.

    "American people were too laid back before," said Mario Mitchell, who stood in a line of 100 people to buy a gas mask at Headquarters Military Surplus in Tampa on Wednesday.

    "Disaster can happen at any time. Those of us that are not prepared will suffer. Those of us that are prepared will prosper."

    Despite Mitchell's perseverance -- he took the day off from work as a painter so he could gather provisions for an attack -- he did not go home with a mask. The store sold 100 masks to 17 people within minutes; store owners say it might be weeks before new shipments arrive because the demand is so high.

    The Army Navy Store in St. Petersburg sold all 40 of its Israeli army gas masks within days of the Sept. 11 attacks.

    "They flew out of here -- gas masks, American flags, body armor, chemical suits, all that stuff. It's just crazy," said employee Eric Isengard.

    Lately, he said, customers have been buying dog tags so their bodies can be identified.

    Gas masks have become a scarce commodity in New York City, too.

    "When this panic hit, in one day alone, we sold over 2,000," said Larry Lopez, who manages an Army and Navy store on lower Fifth Avenue. "Right now, the tri-state suppliers are out of stock, so we're going out of state," he said, referring to wholesalers in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

    The people buying the masks are convinced they will be safe if terrorists release chemicals or diseases into the air. Some people have paid up to $450 for such masks, although most range from $30 to $100.

    Isengard, of the St. Petersburg store, told customers that the masks wouldn't protect them from biological weapons.

    "I tell them that, if it happens, you'd be better off having a nice meal while that stuff is going on," he said. "They still want them anyway. I guess they feel more secure. To me, it's false security."

    Chemical warfare experts agree that the chances a gas mask will save your life are slim.

    Cattani, at USF, said only masks with HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filters parse out the lethal fumes. And a mask must have an air-tight fit to be truly effective.

    Certain chemicals are absorbed by the skin, so you would need to be covered from head to toe in a chemical-resistant suit.

    Even if someone owned a gas mask and chemical suit, Cattani wondered, how would they know when to don all of the gear?

    "With a biological attack in particular, there's not going to be any warning," she said. "Are you going to walk around wearing a gas mask? Sleep with it?"

    Dr. James Bonner, an expert on biological and chemical weapons at Texas A & M University in Corpus Christi, said the deadly chemical agents work like Raid on a cockroach -- they are neurotoxins that seep into the skin, attack the central nervous system and kill quickly. He cited the 1995 Tokyo subway attack, when a religious cult unleashed the deadly nerve gas sarin. Twelve people were killed, and about 1,000 were injured.

    But most gas masks bought at military supply stores won't protect anyone from such a potent chemical.

    Bonner keeps a gas mask in his university laboratory because he works with chemicals in his job. He has no plans to keep a mask at home.

    "I just don't think that owning a gas mask today will protect you from a terrorist act," Bonner said. "If I thought it would, I would probably grab one on the way out."

    -- Times staff writer Mike Brassfield and correspondent Sheryl Kay contributed to this report, which includes information from the Chicago Tribune.

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