Government tells Web sites to stop peddling unproven bioterrorism protection

Wednesday, January 2nd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The government has warned dozens of Web site operators to stop making unproven claims about devices for bioterrorism protection including gas masks that may not work as advertised and ultraviolet lights falsely touted as anthrax killers.

Since the Sept. 11 hijackings and subsequent anthrax attacks, the Federal Trade Commission has found hundreds of Internet sites selling products targeted at new fears, the agency said Wednesday.

The FTC sent e-mail warnings in November to operators of 50 sites that peddled questionable treatments for anthrax, smallpox and other potential biological weapons. The ineffective remedies included dietary supplements such as oregano oil and zinc mineral water.

Half of those sites have dropped their claims and the rest may be prosecuted if they fail to do so, the agency said. Operators could be fined, banned from operating or required to repay consumers.

``If they're making these kind of claims, they have to have scientific proof that the product actually works,'' said Howard Beales, the FTC's director of consumer protection.

The agency didn't name the Web sites involved, but said 60 of the 71 warnings announced Wednesday involve devices such as gas masks and protective suits advertised as guarding against the effects of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.

Some of these items might work in certain circumstances, but the FTC suspects the Web sites of promoting the devices with misleading or unsupported claims that overstate the protection offered, Beales said.

``There's no such thing as a universal gas mask that will filter everything,'' he noted.

The government is particularly concerned about used and imported masks that may have expired filter cartridges, Beales said. He said consumers seeking a more reliable gas mask should look for such signs as certification by the Defense Department or the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health; the latter approves respirators for hazardous work environments.

The warning letters tell the Web site operators not to mislead consumers with claims of government certifications, Beales said.

The FTC has been working with the Food and Drug Administration and law enforcement officials in 30 states to scour the Internet for misleading claims. The agency found more than 200 sites selling bioterrorism-related products.

Dubious products that concern government investigators also include mail sterilizers, biohazard test kits and dietary supplements such as colloidal silver and thyme.

``People are extraordinarily vulnerable right now,'' said Jack Gillis, a spokesman for the Consumer Federation of America. ``If you buy one of these products and it's really fraudulent, it's going to be hard to get your money back. The claims are so vague it's hard to follow up and prove they were false.''

In December, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered Homeland Security Plus, of Gilbert, Ariz., and Testing Kits Inc., of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to stop the illegal sale of pesticides that they promoted as effective against anthrax but are not approved by the agency for such use. The companies removed their Internet advertisements, the EPA said.

New York authorities last month charged four businessmen who sold on the Internet an unproven gadget called the DeGERMinator, which they claimed used ultraviolet light to ``wipe out surface germs in less than five seconds, including anthrax.''

There is no evidence ultraviolet light devices can kill anthrax, Beales said, nor is there evidence supporting other Web site claims that ozone-producing machines can wipe out the deadly spores.

The government has approved prescription antibiotics _ not dietary supplements _ to prevent or treat anthrax, the FDA said. A smallpox vaccine exists, but there is no proven treatment for smallpox, nor any FDA-approved home anthrax test.