Army OKs Chemical Antidote Sales

Firemen spray down people leaving the mall after having been exposed to an unknown type of contamination during "Operation Dark Cloud," a terrorism training exercise which simulates a hazardous materials incident in an indoor shopping mall such as the Northridge Fashion Center in Northridge, Calif., Sunday, Aug. 3, 2003. AP

A chemical-attack antidote the government had restricted to U.S. military use will now be made available to state and local emergency responders.

The Food and Drug Administration in April 2003 approved Reactive Skin Decontamination Lotion for the Army's use. That decision also gave the Army control over whether other federal agencies and state and local governments could buy the product.

For over a year, the Army declined to make the lotion available to first responders, saying more testing was needed.

On Wednesday, manufacturer O'Dell Engineering said the Army had concluded the product was safe for use by emergency responders at all levels of government. It is now available to local police and fire departments as well as federal agencies such as the State Department and the Capitol Police.

NATO countries long have kept stockpiles of the lotion, also known as RSDL, to treat victims of chemical attacks. The Canadian military developed it several years ago to neutralize mustard gas, sarin and other chemical agents. Emergency responders in Japan acquired it after the 1995 sarin-gas attacks in the Tokyo subway system.

In the United States, however, "the protocol for treating victims of a chemical attack would be copious quantities of water," said Rand Sweeney, director of U.S. government contracting for O'Dell Engineering. "The problem that they have is water does not neutralize the chemical agent."

RSDL comes as a lotion-soaked sponge packaged in a foil pouch that can be carried and ripped open to wipe on the skin after a chemical attack, giving first responders a treatment option beyond soap and water.

The Army's decision came after lobbying by two companies involved in the RSDL sales and after members of Congress questioned the delay in making the lotion available to state and local governments.

O'Dell, a Canadian-based company licensed by the Canadian government to sell the lotion, had been barred from even advertising it to state and local governments in the United States. The Army said more testing was needed to determine such matters as whether it was safe to use with solutions containing bleach. High concentrations of chlorine can cause combustion when put in contact with some substances.

Frustrated by the delay, O'Dell and its U.S. business partner, New York state-based E-Z-EM Inc., began lobbying lawmakers and the Army this year, and were considering seeking FDA approval themselves to sell the lotion to first responders.

Rep. John Sweeney, R-N.Y., has a company in his district, AngioDynamics, that makes a component of RSDL.

"I think it does point out that we need to continually press, push, communicate with each other at all levels of government and all sectors in our society just to be sure we are on the same pages and we do know what's out there" in terms of anti-terrorism products, Sweeney said.

Those hoping to acquire RSDL include the New York Police Department's counterterrorism bureau. Deputy medical director Dr. Dani Zavasky said removing contaminated clothes and using soap and water is a quick way to provide initial treatment to victims. Zavasky said the lotion would be useful especially after showering because it would neutralize any chemical agent that penetrated the skin.

The company has no immediate plans to seek approval to sell RSDL to the public, but may do so later.

The Army approval is worth millions of dollars to the companies that make and sell RSDL. E-Z-EM has estimated that each 0.6 ounce packet that can treat one person would cost roughly $20 to $22.

By Sharon Theimer
  • Lloyd Vries

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