Public nervousness was up last week. The combination of a potential Gulf War and the arrest in Las Vegas of two men, suspected of plotting to use anthrax as a biological weapon, had left the threat of toxic terrorism in the air, as it were.
Mark Miclette was ready.
The 39-year-old self-styled "entrepreneur" from Vista, in San Diego County, was on the Web offering gas masks for sale to the general public.
The business management graduate of the University of Massachusetts, who has dabbled in several arenas including car rentals and commercial loans, had realized that almost anybody can whip up a batch of biological toxins. Therefore, he figured, anybody should be able to buy protection.
"I felt it was a crime that consumers have no access to gas masks," he said. "They are hard to buy. The only ones I could find on the Internet were surplus or used."
After gearing up for about six months, he and his wife, Toni, went on the Web on Tuesday, operating Gas Masks Inc. out of their home. They plan to move to an industrial setting if the business takes off as they hope. Miclette didn't want to provide numbers but said at the end of the week that sales so far had been excellent.
He and his wife are representing six American manufacturers with a full line of masks (small, medium and large) for adults and children and other protective clothing such as body suits that can filter out biological and chemical toxins.
"We even have a huge plastic liner that inflates to seal-proof a room where 10 to 20 people could retreat during a chemical or biological attack and be breathing the air without damage," Miclette noted. He envisions that item being used by schools, nursing homes or households with large families.
"I know it's a strange business," he said. "But I really believe in the coming years we will see more wackos or whatever, trying to antagonize their enemies by releasing these toxins."
Indeed, he said he can foresee a future in which gas masks are a part of daily life in the United States, as they already are in more volatile parts of the world.
"The government of Israel has been issuing them to their citizens and is having a supply problem," he said, adding that "we will have this Web site in Hebrew, Arabic and several other languages."
Consumers in Southern California interested in adding personal gas masks to their stash of earthquake supplies and El Nino sandbags will find them expensive.
"Prices start at about $129 and go up to $239--that's for a model used by the military with a hood and extra tinted inserts," said Miclette.
He knows that most people won't want to spend that much money. And, he said, "I'm not using scare tactics. But all you have to do is read the newspapers.
"When we have our first release of some type of biological chemical agent into the air, people will be wanting them."
Buying a gas mask now, he says, is just good planning. His Web site--which includes frequently asked questions, a glossary, links to other sites and other information--also posts a veiled warning:
"Attempting to purchase a mask after the first biological or chemical terrorist attack on your country will be the same as trying to buy life insurance on your death bed. Buy today . . .
"Tomorrow may be too late."
Gas Masks Inc. can be reached at http://www.gas-masks.com or by calling (888) 742-6275.