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Thousands buy gas masks -- and a false sense of security

Thousands of people who fear biological warfare are purchasing gas masks...

Thousands of people who fear biological warfare are purchasing gas masks -- but experts say they may also be buying a false sense of security.

"American people want to be able to do something, and having a mask empowers them," said Dr. Luciana Borio, of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies. "It arises from the wish to do something, to protect one's self -- but there's very little you can do."

Since terrorists toppled the World Trade Center with hijacked airplanes, killing some 5,000 people, distributors and retailers say they have seen gas mask sales multiply.

Military Outdoor, a major distributor of military surplus items based in Texas, reported sales of 39,000 masks to army surplus stores and other retail outlets since Sept. 11. During that same one-month period last year, the company reported just 250 sales.

The spike in sales has been reported throughout the country, from Connecticut to South Dakota.

Interest in so-called Israeli masks -- distributed to Israelis before the 1991 Gulf War in anticipation of a possible chemical attack from Iraq -- has been particularly high.

The dark rubber masks with glass eyelets and large, green canisters containing a breathing filter normally run for about $35 but are selling for $80 or more now depending on the shop, said Paul Brensic, manager of Manhattan-based Weiss & Mahoney, an army surplus store.

The store, which typically sold about 25 masks per year, has sold more than 1,000 since Sept. 11, Brensic said.

But the masks generally found at army surplus stores are effective only against smoke and, sometimes, tear gas, he said.

The masks' effectiveness against biological warfare, such as anthrax, isn't guaranteed, said David Crouch, Military Outdoor's vice president.

Industrial and military masks are rated by manufacturers, independent labs and some governments. An "NBC" rating means the mask can withstand nuclear, biological and chemical particles for several hours.

Ratings aren't the only issue; users must be careful to follow all directions.

For a gas mask to fully protect a person from harmful particles, it has to fit flush against the skin, which means no facial hair or glasses; the filter canister must not have been opened or damaged; and the breathing valves must not be removed or worn out, according to Wes Kenneweg, president of Draeger Safety, Inc., a manufacturer of safety gear based in Pittsburgh.

Customers must also check expiration dates for the mask and canister, said Kennewig, whose company reports a 50 percent increase in sales for gas masks and other preparedness products.

"Sometimes it's hard to tell the dates on them, but you should at least look inside them," Kenneweg said. "Make sure that it's supple, soft, and hasn't been stored improperly -- otherwise it will crinkle at the edges or the mask part could have dry rot."

The Johns Hopkins center does not advocate gas mask purchases for the public. Unless one wears a mask all the time, it would do little good; by the time toxins were detected in the air and reported to the public, it would be too late to gain protection from a mask.

"On a scale of a zero to 10 value, I'd say this is of zero value," Borio said.