A New Fear About Bird Flu; Masks could prove vital in an outbreak. Here's why there may not be enough of them
An epidemic of asbestos lawsuits has felled dozens of
Since 2002, mask makers have been targeted by workers seeking redress for lung ailments caused by exposure to asbestos and silica. More than 300,000 lawsuits in state courts across the country claim that masks worn by industrial workers didn't protect them from inhaling tiny, potentially deadly airborne particles. Defendants, ranging from industry giant 3M Co. to a clutch of closely held manufacturers, say the respirators aren't designed for use in certain industrial settings, such as steel mills or during sandblasting, a claim backed by federal safety regulators.
Courts have dismissed thousands of the complaints, but companies have spent millions of dollars defending or settling tens of thousands more. In 2004 one of those manufacturers, Pittsburgh-based Mine Safety Appliances Co., decided that it had had enough. "We just pulled the trigger" and stopped making the masks, says William Berner, the company's risk manager. "There was just too much liability."
Now the mask industry is playing up avian flu worries. The goal is to press Congress for legislation that would insulate companies from lawsuits as long as their masks aren't defective and meet the strict standards set by the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health. That would effectively shield respirator makers from nearly all litigation, given that NIOSH must approve every type of mask before it's allowed on the market. The proposal has support from Senators John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), but with Congress embroiled in immigration and other hot election-year issues, the legislation has drawn no other co-sponsors and its chances are iffy.
Plaintiffs' lawyers say malfunctioning masks aren't the problem. They contend that manufacturers improperly marketed the disposable, paper-like face masks to workers and employers as a cheap and safe alternative to much more expensive equipment. "It's not that the products were defective per se," says Brent Coon of Brent Coon & Associates in
Mask makers are counting on
Merits of the cases aside, mask production is cooling just as demand spikes. If the nation is hit with a flu pandemic that resists drug treatment, respirators would be one of very few ways to reduce transmission. The fluid-resistant disposable masks, which sell for less than $1 each, could be critical equipment for health-care workers. Replacing the respirators at a steady clip, they would be able to treat patients with less risk of infecting themselves or others.
In early April, the Health & Human Services Dept. said it would pay $34.8 million to buy some 62 million respirators to stockpile for use in the event of a pandemic or bioterrorism attack. Michael Bell, a doctor in the
The global rush on respirators is, well, breathtaking. In January, the French government announced a 2 1/2-year plan to acquire 685 million masks, requiring that most of them be made in
Many companies are ramping up non-U.S. production. But if a pandemic occurs, the
The big government demand has left hospitals, fire departments, and other first responders in the lurch. When the Baltimore City Fire Dept. went shopping for 100,000 respirators in March, it came up empty-handed. The city believes it finally has found a supplier, but other fire departments haven't been so lucky. "There are shortages around the country," says Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Assn., a
"I'm not sure this pandemic will ever come, but if it does, the world will not have masks," says AllHeart.com's McGrew. "When the first sparrow dies in the