Bio-Terror Hucksters

Have you purchased your Israeli-style gas mask yet? You know, the model that "will filter out all airborne contaminants," according to its Internet-based seller.

What about the ultraviolet light bulb for your home heating and air conditioning system? A Web site claims it's an "anthrax killer."

Don't forget garlic and oil of oregano — the "potent natural antibiotics that have been proven to be effective against anthrax."

The good news for Internet hucksters is they can still sell these and other alleged protective devices and treatments for bio-terrorism. The bad news, though, is sales will be tougher now that the feds are finally cracking down on unproven claims.

The Federal Trade Commission this week warned Internet vendors to stop making unproven claims about bio-terrorism products. Many vendors have exploited public fears to hawk gas masks, ultraviolet lights and even dietary supplements.

As the FTC rightly points out: No gas mask will filter everything; there's no evidence ultraviolet light devices kill anthrax; and scientific testing shows that prescription antibiotics — not dietary supplements — are effective anthrax treatments.

"If [sellers] are making these kind of claims, they have to have scientific proof that the product actually works," said the FTC's director of consumer protection.

If only the federal government would take its own advice and apply the same standard of proof to it's own initiatives of fighting bio-terrorism by prescribing an anthrax vaccine and irradiating the mail.

Thousands of people were placed on a two-month course of antibiotics after last fall's anthrax attacks. Because some animal studies "suggest" anthrax may lurk in the body for longer than 60 days, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offered the anthrax vaccine to victims when they finished their antibiotics.

The problem? The CDC has no scientific proof to support such use of the vaccine.

The vaccine was approved in 1970, based on a study showing it prevented infection from skin exposure to anthrax. But the vaccine was never tested against inhaled anthrax in people — the form of anthrax infection that killed five and hospitalized more in the recent attacks. Studies have yet to prove the vaccine prevents inhalation anthrax infection in animals.

Moreover, there are no studies indicating the vaccine works as a post-exposure treatment as opposed to a measure to prevent infection.

Ironically, the reason the vaccine was never tested on humans for inhalation anthrax is that such testing is considered unethical.

Is the CDC taking advantage of the current situation to skirt the rules on human experimentation?

Why expose people to side effects of the vaccine — ranging from discomfort to fever, nausea and even serious allergic reactions — on an unproven and, so far, unnecessary treatment?

The Postal Service is asking Congress for $3 billion as a down payment to sanitize the mail and prevent future bio-terrorism. The effort would include irradiation devices costing as much as $5 million each.

No one knows what the total cost will be. Worse, no one knows whether the effort will work.

The Postal Service plans only to sanitize mail from public collection boxes — about 20 percent of daily mail volume. It seems the Postal Service is counting on terrorists not learning how to hijack the other 80 percent of the mail that would not be sanitized.

The Postal Service's vice president of engineering says recent tests showed that irradiation killed more than 99 percent of bacteria.

But University of Illinois microbiology professor Carl Woese told The Miami Herald that only a 100 percent kill rate would safely sanitize the mail. A gram of anthrax contains about 100 billion spores, so killing even 99.99 percent would leave enough to kill hundreds of people.

Other tests indicate that some mail has to be turned over for multiple passes through the irradiators. Even then spores may fall to the bottoms of envelopes and packages, thereby avoiding the beam on all passes.

No doubt the money-losing Postal Service sees sanitizing the mail as a way to beat back competitors and silence critics clamoring for its demise. No private company could afford to pour billions of dollars into sanitizing the mail. The Postal Service can simply reach for taxpayers' deep pockets.

The requirement of scientific proof for bio-terrorism solutions is a good one. It should apply to government as well as Internet hucksters.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).