Biological, chemical terror threaten U.S.

Nearly three weeks after terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the focus has shifted from hijackers taking commercial jetliners on suicide flights to the threat of biological and chemical warfare.

Gas masks get prominent play on the covers of the most recent issues of Newsweek and Time, which hit the stands Monday. In Newsweek, the headline blares: "Biological and chemical terror -- How scared should you be?"

In rival Time magazine: "How real is the threat? - Germ and chemical warfare. Suicide bombers. Nuclear weapons."

Gas masks have been at a premium since the September 11 attacks with many companies, stores and Internet sites that stock them selling out.

A bioterrorism expert said there's not much point to the American public stocking up on supplies to protect themselves against germ and chemical warfare.

"Don't go and buy a gas mask and antibiotics. That is pretty ridiculous," said Ray Zilinskas with the Monterey Institute of International Studies, a former U.N. inspector in Iraq. "But what you can do that is useful is to work on your representatives to find out if your local hospitals have an adequate disaster plan to meet biological and chemical emergencies in general."

Zilinskas said hospitals most likely are not ready to deal with the threat.

"There was a study that was done this last summer that was published in the Journal of the American Public Health Association that showed that less than 20 percent of all the hospitals that they surveyed, which were on the East Coast, had adequate disaster plans, 80 percent didn't," he said, "So I think that is the first thing that would be really useful for citizens to do."

Bush administration officials have been sounding the warning about possible chemical and biological attacks in the days since New York and Washington were targeted.

"I am not trying to be an alarmist, but we know that these terrorists organizations like al Qaeda run by Osama bin Laden and others have probably found the means to use biological or chemical warfare and that is very bad for the world, but we have to be diligent," White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card told Fox News Sunday.

Also Sunday, Attorney General John Ashcroft said there is a continuing terrorist threat against the United States.

"It is my belief that we remain in a situation where there is a significant threat of additional terrorist activity in the United States. That that threat of additional terrorist activity may well escalate as the United States responds to the assault on the United States to the acts of war perpetrated against the United States and our people."

Masks may not ensure safety in an attack

STOCKBRIDGE, Georgia (CNN) -- When the masks arrive at the Army-Navy surplus store here these days, they're usually sold within the hour.
Since September, 200 to 300 people have called every day, desperate for any kind of mask.

"Even my mother called and said 'You did save one for me, right?' " store manager Russell Smith said.

Smith did save one for his mom, and one for himself. But he has doubts about whether they would help in a chemical or biological attack.

First of all, it can be hard to get it to fit right, and a mask that doesn't fit won't work properly. Second, you never know when an attack is going to happen.

"It would protect you, but you'd have to be wearing it. You can't go to work wearing a gas mask. It's not realistic," Smith said.

Third, different chemical and biological weapons require different filters, so a mask with the wrong filter won't help.

Furthermore, trying to put on a mask in a crisis can be dangerous.

"There certainly is a downside to the wearing of these masks," said Dr. Henry Siegelson of Disaster Planning International, who helps train the government to prepare for weapons of mass destruction. "In Israel during the Desert Storm War, eight people died because they wore their masks incorrectly."

They suffocated, which leads Siegelson to believe there's got to be a better alternative.

If you're worried about biological or chemical attacks, he said, consider sealing off doors and windows in a room in your house, as they do in Israel. Then, Siegelson said, you could seek refuge there, and wait until the gas cloud moves by.

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