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Monday, 24 September, 2001, 13:53 GMT 14:53 UK
Britons react to 'chemical threat'
Rescue workers
The Tokyo subway attack claimed eight lives
As military action looms in the wake of the US attacks, some Britons are making their own contingency plans to guard against possible further assaults.

Army surplus stores around the country are reporting a brisk business in the sale of gas masks and protective suits, as people start to raise fears about biological or chemical warfare.

Most people know they can call the government's terrorist hotline if they see a suspicious package, but most would not know what to do if there was a chemical attack

Alison Dale,
Centre for Defence Studies

Stores that normally sell such items to collectors and military enthusiasts say they have been deluged by calls in the last week from people wanting equipment more suited to the battlefield.

The upsurge in demand comes as emergency services meet government officials in London to make national contingency plans in the event of such an assault.

But on Monday ministers were urging the general public to stay calm and not to worry.

Unprecedented demand

US sales of gas masks rocketed in the wake of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, and now it seems the more usual British reserve is giving way to tangible concern.

Susan Reeve, manager of the Croydon Army Surplus store in Surrey, says she has answered "hundreds" of phone calls in the past two weeks.

"I've had a lot of women calling up, some have even been crying, worried about how they can protect their families if such an attack happened," she told BBC News Online.
Rescue workers in Tokyo
Some stores are reporting an unprecedented demand for gas masks

Highly protective NBC suits, such as those issued to British troops in danger of being exposed to bio-chemicals like anthrax, are also in demand.

Ms Reeve said: "In the past they have been popular with people for paintballing, but we have never seen this kind of demand before".

Not all UK army surplus stores are reporting such a frenzy of inquiries, with outlets in places like Yorkshire and Suffolk maintaining it was "business as usual".

Demand appears to be concentrated in the major cities, particularly London, which is seen as an obvious target for an attack.

Hardwear Clothing in central London says it more usually sells gas masks to protesters and to people with more "kinky" intentions.

The shop, which stocks among others, the current British issue F10 masks, says it has received about 70 calls since last Wednesday, and the phones are still ringing.

Hardwear Clothing's Steve Porter told BBC News Online: "Many people who are calling have done their homework and know what they want to buy.

"But we are very low on stocks at the moment."

Climate of fear

Few warfare experts will deny that gas masks and suits will afford protection against deadly weapons such as smallpox, but they may be of little use after the event.

Alison Dale, an expert in biological and chemical weapons at the Centre for Defence Studies at King's College, London, said: "Gas masks are effective if you are in a war zone and know that at any moment you could be attacked, but what we are dealing with here is one form of possible terrorist attack."

In the current climate of fear, many have been reminded of the deadly sarin attacks on the Tokyo subway system in 1995 which killed eight people and injured several hundred more.

As it takes a matter of minutes and just a few deadly drops to launch such attacks, Ms Dale says there is a limit to the measures the public can take to protect themselves.

She said: "Ordinary civilians are not going to wear these things (gas masks) all the time on the Tube, while they are shopping or are on the bus."

But there is, she feels, a need for more public information about the threat of attack and ensuing procedures.

"Most people know they can call the government's terrorist hotline if they see a suspicious package, but most would not know what to do if there was a chemical attack just outside their office block."

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The BBC's Sue Nelson
"The emergency services are on full alert"

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See also:

24 Sep 01 | Sci/Tech
Q&A: The threat from bio-terrorism
02 Sep 01 | Glasgow 2001
Biological warfare warning for UK
25 Jul 01 | Americas
Q&A: Germ warfare
20 Mar 00 | Asia-Pacific
Cult apologises for death gas attack
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