Watch CBSN Live

Bioterrorism Worries on Rise

Like all new mothers, Eviva Dubin, a 31-year-old New Yorker, wants her 8-week-old baby, Harrison, to have everything he could possibly need.

So Harrison has his very own gas mask, as does every member of the family. Dubin also is stockpiling antibiotics, all as protection against a chemical or biological terrorist attack.

"I think it can be seen as hysterically humorous. I think it can seem extreme," Dubin tells 48 Hours Correspondent Susan Spencer. "But in the event of a chemical or biological emergency, I don't want to wait for the Feds to send in the antibiotics and masks to get help. I don't feel like waiting on line with my child and husband for a mask; it might be too late by then."

This reaction is not restricted to New York. Gas masks are flying off store shelves around the country. Not only do experts say many masks don't work, but they think, scary as it is, that the probability of a successful mass attack - chemical or biological - is very, very low.

In fact, experts say you are more likely to get hit by lightning than you are to be the victim of a chemical or biological attack.

"It's not like going into your kitchen, grabbing something out of the freezer, sticking it in the microwave and punching a button, says terrorism expert Amy Smithson, who has written a book on the subject.

"This is tough science. A bunch of guys running around from cave to cave in the Afghani desert, I sincerely doubt, are going to be able to crack this one."

Fanning the frenzy is the government, which has formed a bioterrorism task force, sped up some vaccine production, asked for $1 billion dollars to counter the threat, and then told people to relax.

There are signs terrorists may have crude biological weapons, but there's no evidence they have the scariest: highly contagious smallpox. Or even anthrax, spread by breathing deadly spores.

The FAA's ban on crop dusters fed that fear, but infecting the masses with a duster is not easy. A mechanical sprayer kills about 95 percent of most biological agents, and when it's out there, in the air, more is going to die.

As the 1995 nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway showed, a small chemical attack - 12 people died there - might be a bit easier. But in this case, urban areas gave an advantage.

Cities, like Houston, are at least used to dealing with dangerous chemicals. In fact, its haz-mat team showed 48 Hours a routine decontamination.

Before Sept. 11, many people thought such an attack was possible, but not probable. Now, the rules have changed.

Cities have enough equipment and supplies to handle a chemical attack on hundreds of people, but when it comes to thousands, experts aren't sure any city is prepared.

But what most worries them, says Dr. David Peerce, Houston's chief of emergency medical services, is what the experts say is least likely - a successful biological attack

"The real challenge is gonna be detection," he says. The scenario he finds most troubling, though he knows there's no evidence these terrorists have access to such germs, is deadly smallpox.

"They'll be carrying it for a couple of days and potentially spreading it before they develop any symptoms, and it will be difficult to get ahead of it," Peerce says.

To help doctors at least know what they are seeing, Houston doctors two years ago made up pocketsize checklists.

Other physicians think they'll have to do much more than that to stop an epidemic.

Dr. Hugh McGlaughlin of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, says he's had no training for what to do with biological threats and terrorism ...

But having now boned up on it, he's prescribing patients high-strength antibiotics, thought effective in early stages of anthrax, just in case. He's getting a hundred calls a day.

To his critics, he says, "If we have a plan and we rated them 0 - 10 and my plan's a 1, well it surbeats the hell out of a zero, because that's what we've got right now."

Peerce says the incredible challenge is to try to predict what a terrorist might do. But terrorism expert Smithson says if you're going to worry, worry about the familiar.

"Terrorists use the weapons they know best, " she says. " Time and time again, what do they return to: bombs, bombs, bombs - truck, pipe, boat, and now they've turned commercial jetliners into bombs. This whole business about chemical or biological agent - they've got a huge learning curve to scale there."

None of this deters Eviva Dubin. Her escape route is planned and full body suits for everyone are on order.

"I'm a risk-averse person who wants to increase my statistical odds of survival, however I can," she says.

©MMII CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue