updated 9/22/2004 4:46:16 PM ET 2004-09-22T20:46:16

A chemical-attack treatment that many American allies have had for years will now be available to emergency responders in the United States under an Army decision announced Wednesday by the product’s manufacturer.

The Food and Drug Administration cleared Reactive Skin Decontamination Lotion for Army use in April 2003, a move that also gave the Army control over whether other federal agencies and state and local governments could buy it. For over a year, the Army declined to make the lotion available to first responders, saying more testing was needed.

On Wednesday, its manufacturer, O’Dell Engineering, said the Army had concluded the product was safe for use by emergency responders at all levels of government. Those now able to acquire it range from local police and fire departments to federal agencies such as the State Department and the U.S. Capitol police.

Other NATO countries have long stockpiled 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. Under the Army decision, emergency responder agencies can acquire 21-milliliter packets of the lotion.

Congress steps in
The Army action, which required modifying its contract with O’Dell to allow sales of RSDL to other agencies, comes 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.

Until the Army signed off, O’Dell, a Canadian-based company licensed by the Canadian government to sell the lotion, was 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 earlier this year, and they were considering seeking FDA approval themselves to sell the lotion to first responders.

O’Dell applauded the Army’s move. “The Army has responded in an area that’s not normally their responsibility,” Sweeney said, referring to the first-responder community.

New York police seek product
Those hoping to acquire RSDL include the New York Police Department’s counterterrorism bureau. Its 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, but the lotion would be useful especially after showering because it would neutralize any chemical agent that penetrated the skin.

Sweeney said the company would work with the Homeland Security Department to determine how best to make RSDL available to state and local governments, including whether communities at greatest risk for terror attacks should get it first and whether Homeland Security should buy it and distribute it to communities. O’Dell also plans to pursue federal funding to make the lotion widely available.

The company has no immediate plans to seek approval to sell RSDL to the public, but may do so later. Sweeney estimated first responders could get as many as 25 million RSDL packets.

The Army approval is worth millions of dollars to the companies that make and sell RSDL. E-Z-EM has estimated the product, packaged in a pouch that can treat one person, would cost roughly $20 to $22 per pouch.

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