The phone keeps ringing off the hook at the Mine Safety Appliance Co. plant in Smithfield, R.I., where everybody's after a hot new item: gas masks, in the event of a war in the Persian Gulf.
"We get inquiries like, can you supply 100,000 gas masks?" said an incredulous Richard Miller, the head of defense products for the Pittsburgh- based company, the sole American company that manufactures military regulation gas masks for the US Armed Forces. "No, we can't, because we're at capacity." From Army and Navy stores to military surplus shops, from Boston to San Francisco, from Israel to Belgium, the world's entrepreneurs and black-market profiteers are in pursuit of gas masks, wanted by civilians and the military alike in case of a conflict with Iraq.
But while the world market is flooded with requests for the masks, there aren't many stockpiles of them to be found.
"I'm still trying to fill an order for 2 million," said Michael Sherman, the owner of South Coast Army and Navy in Newport Beach, Calif. "But they are in incredibly short supply." Added Jeff Lindblad, a spokesman for the Army's Chemical Research Development and Engineering Center in Maryland: "There is a tremendous demand."
Demand for gas masks soared just a few weeks after the arrival of American forces in Saudi Arabia on Aug. 7. Some Americans began buying gas masks for business travel in the Middle East. A few plunked down their dollars for gas masks just to keep up with the latest in desert combat chic.
But demand peaked again in early October, after Israel began its largest distribution of gas masks to civilians in 45 years. Now, the majority of sales and inquiries are from Middle Eastern businessmen who are buying the masks in the hundreds.
"I have a Saudi businessman looking for gas masks," said Arthur Licata, a Boston lawyer and partner in ARDCOM, an international import and export business. "I got a call over the weekend and he wants them A.S.A.P."
Some Saudis visiting in Massachusetts have bought up stocks of gas masks to bring home to friends and relatives, military surplus store owners say.
Even the Saudi military is seeking more masks. In September, the US Department of Defense sold more than 5,000 gas masks to the Saudi forces, according to a Defense Department spokesman in Washington. But the Saudi government has said it wants to supply masks and suits to all civilians.
Today's gas mask is more streamlined than the goggle-eyed variety used during World War I. The state-of-the-art model is the M-17, made by Mine Safety, which sells for about $150. It features a rubber protective mask that sports two cheek-mounted filters, which screen for poisonous chemicals or biological agents. There is also a protective hood.
These are the masks used by US troops, who are also equipped with two full body suits that protect against a wide array of chemical hazards, according to Maj. Joe Padilla, a spokesman for the Army in Washington.
Surplus stores cannot legally sell the Mine Safety masks, which are limited to military use. Instead, most sell Israeli made masks, which have only one air filter. Joe Shepard, the manager of G.I. Joe's Genuine Surplus in Malden, said he luckily stumbled on a supply of West German government surplus gas masks.
There is also a British mask, the S-10. An executive for the Maryland-based Racal Health and Safety Inc., who did not want to be identified, said he could deliver an order of 10,000 such masks in about two weeks. Effectiveness varies greatly from mask to mask. Some masks protect better than others against chemical weapons, such as nerve gas, that have been used by Iraq. A full body suit would be necessary to protect against mustard gas, believed to be part of the Iraqi arsenal.
The increased demand for gas masks has meant a jolt of activity for some defense companies that expected that the fall of the Berlin Wall would mean an end to business.
In Barcelona, workers are toiling around the clock at Llorca Protective Systems to keep up with calls for gas masks from Saudia Arabia, Jordan, Israel, and other countries, according to Associated Press reports.
British Aerospace recently brokered a multibillion-pound deal with the Saudi government for chemical protection equipment.
One growing source of supply is Eastern bloc countries. In his worldwide search for gas masks, Boston attorney Licata found some in Czechoslovakia. "They can supply 300,000, at approximately $55 apiece, from their stocks," he said.
Some say the gas-mask market has fallen into the hands of profiteers who have bought huge quantities of masks in an effort to drive up the price.
In any case, the surging call for gas masks has certainly altered the face of today's military surplus store. "I've been getting calls from Belgium, Germany and Japan," said California store owner Sherman.
"I don't just sell gas masks at Halloween any longer," said Shepard.
The Boston, Massachusetts Personal Injury Law firm of Arthur F. Licata, P.C. handles Boston Globe Press for clients throughout Massachusetts
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