September 21, 2001

Gas Masks Sell Out but May Not Fully Protect Buyers

ARDENA, Calif., Sept. 20 - Damon Hall, a 28-year-old student, walked past the bare shelves at Major Surplus and Survival, an army supply and emergency gear store, dejectedly. A section once filled with gas masks was cleaned out. A husband and wife had just bought the last six masks for their family.

"I've lived across the street for 15 years and haven't been here once," Mr. Hall said. "But now I want to get a gas mask in case anything happens."

At the counter, the store manager, Fred Morris, told the nonstop callers that he had no more left. Across the country, emergency survival, military surplus and spy technology stores are running out of gas masks as some Americans prepare for a future that suddenly seems uncertain after last week's terrorist attacks.

"We sold in excess of 20,000 gas masks in three days," said Pamela Pembroke, an account representative at CORP, which distributes disaster-relief gear. "Even our supplier overseas is out."

Standard Israeli gas masks, which used to be sold for $15, are commanding prices over $150 on eBay. Survival stores are swamped with orders for emergency food rations, water purification tablets, solar-powered radios and flashlights.

"This is something that's going to affect our business permanently," said Harry Weyandt, the owner of Nitro-Pak, an online company that sells emergency preparedness food and equipment.

Mr. Weyandt said his sales doubled last Tuesday and Wednesday, and then tripled on Thursday.

"By Friday they went up by 700 percent," he said, "and in the last two days, they've gone up 3,000 percent."

In Manhattan, store managers say the rush far exceeds the boom in sales before the new millennium. The Counter Spy Shop in Midtown is taking calls every 15 minutes asking for gas masks. They are out of stock. Jim Korn, a manager at Kaufman's Army and Navy in Midtown, said his store was also out of masks.

Mr. Korn said customers were told it was not clear what chemical and biological agents the masks could filter out. "We sell them as collectors' items only and to theaters as props," he said.

Experts say that in some cases biological and chemical agents may be just as harmful if they come in contact with the skin.

"A standard gas mask is better than nothing," said David Orth, an assistant fire chief for the City of Berkeley Fire Department.