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Army Sits On Chem Attack Antidote

Irna Phillips, 1940
CBS Photo Archive
A New York City police department physician thinks she has found a promising antidote for emergency workers to use if terrorists launch a chemical weapons attack, but the federal government won't let the city buy it — even though the U.S. Army can.

The product, Reactive Skin Decontamination Lotion, was developed by the Canadian military years ago, won Food and Drug Administration approval in 2003 and is sold in other NATO countries for neutralizing sarin, mustard gas and other chemical agents.

It is being tested by the Army. But the companies that make it aren't permitted to sell it or even advertise it to state and local governments in the United States.

"Right now they have no product to decontaminate people other than soap and water," said Phil O'Dell, president of O'Dell Engineering, a Canadian-based company licensed by the Canadian government to sell the lotion. "There is only one FDA-approved. It's the RSDL. These first responders correctly have been trying to buy RSDL since FDA approval."

Dr. Dani Zavasky, deputy medical director for the New York Police Department's counterterrorism bureau, thinks the antidote is promising and wonders why her agency cannot buy it.

As described by the FDA at the time it approved it for the Army in April 2003, a lotion-soaked sponge is packaged in a special foil pouch that people can carry, ready to rip open and wipe on any exposed skin as soon as possible after exposure to a chemical attack.

Zavasky said she heard about the antidote from Marines, not from the Army or the Homeland Security Department, whose duties include tipping off state and local governments to new anti-terrorism technologies.

"I'm not aware of any substance other than this out there that has been used for so long by others that has this benefit," Zavasky said. "I've been hearing about it for a year and a half now and still it's not widely available."

The Army says it wants to do more testing on issues such as whether the lotion is safe to use with bleach, before it making it standard issue for its troops or letting police, firefighters and other first responders buy it.

"The manufacturer will have to be patient. Until the compatibility with bleach solutions is determined and can be clearly defined, we can't field it," said Maj. Gary Tallman, an Army spokesman. "It wouldn't be proper to field it to our war fighters and our first responders."

In the United States, the Army rather than O'Dell Engineering obtained the FDA's approval, meaning O'Dell cannot sell it to state and local governments without Army permission. But that doesn't preclude other federal agencies from trying to bring the drug to first responders.

Homeland Security Department spokesman Kirk Whitworth said the agency doesn't comment on specific products but is "committed as a department to speeding the access to the most effective products available."

Frustrated by the delay, O'Dell Engineering and its U.S. business partner, New York state-based E-Z-EM Inc., have started lobbying lawmakers and the Army.

"The companies are all part of the group that are approaching their members of Congress, number one to educate them about this issue and number two to give them their spin on it and basically say if we don't produce this in the United States, they're going to produce this overseas," said James Albertine, a Washington lobbyist coordinating the campaign.

The lobbying is paying off: At least two Republicans whose constituents include companies involved in the making of RSDL — Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and New York Rep. John Sweeney — have written the Army.

The Army could be at least two years away from buying RSDL in significant quantities.

That time lag could force companies that make RSDL ingredients to shut down or scale back their assembly lines, raising RSDL's cost or making it hard to produce large quantities quickly, said Tony Lombardo, chief executive of E-Z-EM, a health care company involved with the lotion.

Lombardo estimates the product, packaged in a pouch that can treat one person, would cost roughly $20 to $22 per pouch.

E-Z-EM and O'Dell Engineering said the product has been used safely in several countries, including NATO allies, for years and that they are considering seeking FDA approval themselves to market the lotion to first responders.

J.R. Thomas, director of the Franklin County Emergency Management Agency in Columbus, Ohio, past president of the International Association of Emergency Managers, said he wasn't aware of RSDL.

"That's one of our big beefs as local emergency management people, is we need to make sure there's a good wave of communication between the federal government, the states and the locals," Thomas said. "Not only policy but also these materials that are coming through the pipeline. Because we don't know what's good and what's bad."

Fire Chief Joe Wallin of Minnetonka, Minn., a Minneapolis suburb, said he too never heard of RSDL, but questions whether many communities would buy it when soap and water can remove chemical agents from many people.

The NYPD's Zavasky said that while removing contaminated clothes and using soap and water works, the lotion would be useful after showering to neutralize any chemical agent that penetrated the skin.

By Sharon Theimer