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Fear, anxiety on increase in Valley, across nation

October 08, 2001|By LAURA MITCHELL, Staff Writer

The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 have caused fear and anxiety among some Americans because terrorists have shown they will attack using weapons of mass destruction such as bombs and biological or chemical warfare.

We can no longer sleep as soundly as we did before Osama bin Laden became a household name.

Bio- and chemical warfare are the use of chemicals or biological agents as weapons.

"Anthrax has been used a lot for terrorism and used unsuccessfully," county Emergency Medical Services Manager John Pritting said.

The Japanese terrorist group Aum Shinri Kyo tried seven times to release anthrax and was unsuccessful every time. That's why it turned to sarin gas, Pritting said.

Sarin gas is a nerve gas developed by the Nazis during World War II. The group's sarin attack a few years ago killed 12 people and injured thousands more in the Tokyo subway system.


"The most difficult thing with anthrax is delivering it, weaponizing it," Pritting said. "And Aum Shinri Kyo was a well-funded and well-educated group."

The public has responded to the threat of terrorism by becoming informed. The Red Cross provides disaster services and information on emergency preparedness.

Sylvia Preciado, director of Imperial County's Red Cross chapter, has seen an increase in requests for Red Cross presentations at schools, clubs, government agencies and more. In the three months before the terrorist attacks on the East Coast, she gave fewer than a dozen presentations. Since Sept. 11 she has given 19.

Some are taking preparedness to the next step and readying for a possible attack.


"I've been here for 23 years straight and I've never seen anything like this," said Abraham Reizin, co-owner of Tienda Del Army in Calexico.

Reizin said he used to sell about one or two gas masks a month, increasing to four or five the month before Halloween. He said the most he ever carried in stock was 10.

"They used to sell for $18.98 each," Reizin said. "Now my supplier is charging more, so I'm selling them for $125 each — and people are buying them."

Reizin said he'll be getting 32 gas masks next week and half are already sold. He had to call 20 distributors to find someone who has any in stock.

"Last week I had one person come in and take five for his family. That's all we had in stock," Reizin said. "People who buy this stuff, they bring in their kids. They're worried about their kids."

The problem with gas masks is they have to be fitted properly and the filters can be unreliable, said Pritting. Also, unless someone is wearing a gas mask 24 hours a day, the person will be exposed before getting a chance to put on the mask.

"There's an old saying," Pritting added, "there's no sense in closing the barn door after the horse has left."


Pritting said bioterrorism is less likely than other forms of terrorism such as suicide bombing.

"Over 95 percent of terrorists attacks are guns or bombs, including suicide bombs," Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesman James Schavel said. "How do you stop that?"

There is the temptation to think we're not a big target because of our small population compared to San Diego or Los Angeles, Pritting said. Then again, we could be used as a test or threat by some group that would say "See what we did in Imperial County? We'll do that to Los Angeles if you don't meet our demands."

Pritting said the attack on Sept. 11 shows the terrorists are going for a large number of victims, which would leave Imperial County out.

"Locally, a big concern is someone hijacking a truck containing hazardous material and slamming the truck into a sensitive building or area," Pritting said. "For example, in San Diego, someone could target San Onofre (a nuclear power plant)."

Sheriff Harold Carter said possible targets in Imperial County would most likely be field depots where gasoline is stored, power-generating plants and the water supply.

"We live in the desert. We think about water a lot," Carter said.


"It's almost impossible to protect against terrorism," county Director of Environmental Health Services Tom Wolf said. "A water supply could be contaminated rather quickly by just one person."

Wolf said water at local water plants is tested regularly using chemicals and fish in raw water ponds at the plant. There is a way to contaminate water outside the plant but it would be difficult because the system is pressurized, he said.

"They don't test chemically every day. They rely on the fish," Wolf said.

Catfish, bass, mosquito fish and shrimp are used to test water for chemical contamination, Wolf said.

"Fish may not be sensitive to the same pathogens as humans. If there's no dead fish out there, everything looks OK," he said.

Wolf said the system is not set up for monitoring of water supplies tainted by terrorists.

"I hate to say it, but detection will be when they find human cases," Wolf said.

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