Waiting To

Exhale

Consumers holding their breath in fear of what comes next surprise a small business with orders for gas masks.

Consumer worries about further terrorist attacks have one small Maryland company busier than expected.

October 02, 2001|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

In a cramped office piled high with papers, her ear to the phone, Rebecca Vaughan is describing two versions of the NBC14, an adult gas mask suitable against nuclear, biological or chemical attack.

The $105 version has a traditional look, she tells a caller to her company's tiny Woodsboro firm, and the $169 model has more vision clearance and anti-fog features. Plus, $46 for the canister.

She pauses while the caller asks a question. "The canister? That's a filter. You need one with a gas mask."

Another pause. "Can't give you a concrete answer. Maybe 8 to 20 hours for a chemical attack, days, even weeks for a biological attack."

In a converted 1917 roller skating rink in a rural Frederick County town, the future has arrived, and with it, all its anxieties.

"I can't believe I am talking to you about this," the caller is saying on the other end of the phone.

The first hint that life here could change came the Friday after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, when a man drove down from Connecticut to buy gas masks for his son, a student in New York City, and the rest of his family. A saleswoman kept the plant open, reassuring him repeatedly every time he called from the road that she'd stay until he arrived. He drove back the same night.

In the days since, the phone lines at Neoterik Health Technologies have rung through the night with calls from people seeking advice, some of them in tears, about how to protect themselves from the unimaginable - weapons of mass destruction.

"What do I need? What are the hazards? The risks? Should I buy one?" they ask.

"Can a child wear a mask?"

Nobody is more surprised than Ken Vaughan, the CEO of Neoterik, a 30-person manufacturer better known for designing respirators to protect workers against such hazards as asbestos, spray paint and chlorine.

"These are stress calls," he says. "There is no joy in it, literally no joy." He's had to tell some panicked customers to "take a deep breath" and call back.

While he reassures callers, his partner of 20 years, engineer Jim Wiggins, is redesigning $500 baby and child masks so they can be assembled rapidly. Then, he guesses, he'll look at ways to protect cats and dogs - since people are asking for that, too. The factory-tested masks are similar to military ones except they are made from material suited for emergency get-aways, not long-term operations in extreme temperatures.

"I kinda hope everybody gets back to normal," he says as he looks up from his research on the computer.

Gas masks were a blip in the company's product line since they were first produced in 1999 to appease a distributor who wanted to stock them for the millennium madness.

Only a month ago production supervisor Jackie Ebbertz was thinking about dismantling a batch of child gas masks that had sat on a shelf since January. The motors could be used for other units she makes by hand, like the popular MB14 Mini-Breezer, a $300 battery-powered respirator for particulate like asbestos, or the CF60 Careflo, which protects doctors against tuberculosis and other pathogens.

Never for a minute did the partners or sales people connect the events of Sept. 11 to their business. They deal mainly with professionals in hazardous industries, and their health and safety products are sold mainly through distributors.

For `first responders'

Eighteen months ago, though, Neoterik did develop a new gas mask product for "first responders" - firefighters, police, emergency medical teams and chemical clean-up crews. This was a mask with a filter that protected not only against industrial hazards like ammonia and lead, but also against nerve gas and other weapons.

The filter was tested against sarin, a nerve gas, at Edgewood Arsenal and approved by the government in August 2000. It has the standard "hepa filter" - a fiberglass pleated paper that blocks against industrial chemicals - and an additional wall of activated charcoal, which contains additives that remove certain gases.

Civilian preparedness agencies haven't ordered any yet, partly because the full body suit by the main contractor, DuPont, isn't ready. But a distributor put them on a Web site six months ago, and in the past two weeks Neoterik has sold more of the $475 items than in the last year, mostly to professionals. A doctor in Virginia ordered four for his hospital and regular masks for himself and his family.

Through the Web site and other referrals, regular folks have ordered 750 adult gas masks and 3,000 canisters. Many ordered spares.

The 25 "child-hood protectors" on the shelf are long gone; in two days last week, the list of people waiting for new ones grew from 100 to 700.

Usually, 100 sales for any type respirator would be a good week.

Non-stop

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