Getting ready for bioterrorism the boomer way

September 30, 2001|By Maureen Dowd

WASHINGTON - It was always a delusional vanity, this fixation boomers had about controlling their environment. They thought they could make life safe and healthy and fend off death and aging.

They would banish germs with anti-fungal toothbrushes, hand-sanitizing lotions, organic food, bottled water and Echinacea.

They would overcome flab with diet and exercise, wrinkles with collagen and Botox, sagging skin with surgery, impotence with Viagra, mood swings with antidepressants, myopia with laser surgery, decay with human growth hormone, disease with stem cell research and bioengineering.

Anti-aging and antibacterial products flourished, from "age-defying" pantyhose to antibacterial ballpoint pens, sneakers and calculators.

The generation that came of age with psychedelic frolicking became ludicrously obsessed with creating a pure, risk-free atmosphere.

Even when microbiologists warned that the avid pursuit of germless homes was endangering the long-term health of children by contributing to the threat of antibiotic-resistant microbes, the anti-bacterial ads kept coming, depicting kitchens and bathrooms as dangerous places.

After all these finicky years of fighting everyday germs and inevitable mortality with fancy products, Americans are now confronted with the specter of terrorists in crop dusters and hazardous-waste trucks spreading really terrifying, deadly toxins like plague, smallpox, blister agents, nerve gas and botulism.

Women I know in New York and Washington debate whether to order Israeli vs. Marine Corps gas masks, half-hour lightweight gas masks vs. $400 eight-hour gas masks, baby gas masks and pet gas masks, with the same meticulous attention they gave to ordering no-foam-no-fat-no-whip lattes in more innocent days. They share information on which pharmacies still have Cipro, Zithromax and Doxycycline, all antibiotics that can be used for anthrax, the way they once traded tips on designer shoe bargains. They talk more now about real botulism than its trendy cosmetic derivative Botox.

They are toting around flats and sneakers in case they have to run, and stocking up on canned tuna, salmon and oysters, batteries and bottled water.

"People are carrying survival packs to fine restaurants," said Patricia Wexler, a Manhattan dermatologist who has been prescribing antibiotics and sleeping pills for her jittery patients. "Women are taking their little black Prada techno-nylon bags and slipping in gas masks for the couple, Cipro, a flashlight, a silicone gel tube - you smear the silicone on your skin so hopefully it doesn't absorb the spores as fast. It's truly scary. We worry about crop dusters over Midtown. It would be so easy to contaminate the reservoir."

My friend Sally Quinn, a Washington writer, has been trying to order gas masks for her family for several days, only to find sold-out stores, with new orders not expected until late October. "We had such a lapse of imagination before this happened," she said, "that now we have an overstimulation of imagination."

Judy Miller, a Times reporter who is one of the authors of the surprise new best seller Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War, said she had been deluged with calls from people asking how they can protect themselves.

"It's the ultimate freakout," she said. "I have to tell them that they cannot do a lot as individuals, that it won't work to take Cipro every time they get the sniffles. This narcissistic, us-me culture is slowly starting to understand that they will have to act as a collective on public health to get the vaccines and trained nurses.

"The government doesn't have a clue about how to get the terrorism situation under control. We can't take anything on faith anymore."

Osama bin Laden, Ms. Miller says, has been experimenting with lethal toxins, and satellites have picked up pictures of little dead animals around his camp. "Bunnies, dogs," she murmured. "This guy is relentless."

Ms. Miller agreed there were many scenarios that would "cause you trouble sleeping," including Muslim martyrs willing to be infected with smallpox or Marburg, a cousin of Ebola, who could then walk around our malls and cause an epidemic.

Other experts say the chances of bioterrorism attacks are small.

Don't try telling that to the Perrier-and-Purell generation.

Maureen Dowd is a columnist for the New York Times

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