Cashing in on people's worry, fear

Bioterror: Since recent anthrax attacks, sales have been brisk on items promising defense against infection, but scientists say some gadgets are outright phonies.

November 12, 2001|By Bob Lamendola | Bob Lamendola,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A $100 hand-held ultraviolet spore zapper. A $38 antibacterial filter for the home air conditioner. A $30 kit for testing dust or powder in the home. Sealed boxes for safely opening mail.

By Internet, e-mail and phone, merchants are pushing a slew of products designed to assuage the fear of bioterrorism fanned by the recent anthrax outbreaks.

Some items deliver what they promise, but others are outright phonies that employ technical jargon to sound impressive while doing nothing, anthrax scientists said.

And all of them trade on people's fear - even though the chance of being targeted for or touched by anthrax is infinitesimal.

"It's a shame people are taking advantage of people's fears to make money," said Christopher Woolverton, a medical microbiologist at Kent State University.

Sales are brisk at dozens of Internet sites - some of them new - that sell the products and the antibiotic, ciprofloxacin.

"Unfortunately, there's a sucker born every minute," said Amy Cheng Vollmer, a bacteria expert at Swarthmore College.

Scientists and government officials urge caution and skepticism when considering buying anti-bioterrorism products.

The e-mail and Web site pitch for the Anthrax Exterminator sounds reassuring. The battery-powered device looks like a flashlight. Its ultraviolet beam is supposed to fry any anthrax spores on your mail, kitchen counters or other surfaces.

Scientists laugh at the claim. Ultraviolet light can kill bacteria, but this low-powered beam wouldn't do any good even if used for several hours, Woolverton said. It surely wouldn't penetrate an envelope. And the light would be useless on anthrax in its protective spore state. Worse, the UV rays, as in sunshine, might burn the user.

"If it's inside the envelope, the paper will shield the bacteria. And the thing you're using is not good for you, either. This is silly," Vollmer said.

The manufacturer, KR Research Inc., could not be reached for comment. Its phone in Reno, Nev., was disconnected.

An Atlanta company claims its $38 Bioguardfilter for home air conditioners removes 89 to 93 percent of anthrax spores from the air, killing them with a coating that includes an unnamed "biocide."

Scientists said they question whether any such filter could be so effective against finely ground anthrax spores that would float in the air. Regular-sized spores settle to the ground.

Scientists have similar doubts about anthrax home tests. One sells for $99.25 for a one-time test strip, or $2,050 for a kit of 25. "Generally these kits are pretty insensitive," said Richard Moyer, chairman of molecular genetics and microbiology at University of Florida.

A Swedish company is pushing hyaluronic acid, a naturally occurring substance that supposedly helps cells repel invaders. Another company promotes the combination of garlic and oil of oregano, both of which have been known to kill bacteria. Experts said there's no evidence these would have any effect on anthrax.

Cooper City, Fla., aquarium store owner Gerry Calabrese said he designed and built a sealed mail-opening box, BioSafe Mail, that will hit the market this week. He has pre-sold several hundred, at $250 apiece, to offices and government agencies.

You drop your mail in the box, lock down the clear top, put your hands in the attached gloves that protrude into the box and open the letters with an attached slicing device. If anything looks suspicious, it stays inside the box until the authorities come.

A Miami firm markets the BioGuard911 filtration mask at $41 plus $5 per refill.

"HEPA filters are pretty good if you want to run around 24 hours a day with a mask on," Moyer said.

The government, meanwhile, does have a tried-and-true method to kill anthrax spores. And it costs pennies a dose: Household bleach.

Bob Lamendola is a reporter for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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