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4/10/2003

Denver firm develops device to detect gases

The Associated Press

DENVER — The threat of biological and chemical warfare in Iraq has motivated a small Denver company to help safeguard America’s troops.

PocketSpec Technologies Inc., a publicly held company with eight employees, has developed a handheld device that identifies poisonous gas.

The “personal color measurement device,” as described by PocketSpec President Jeff Krupka, will allow military and domestic emergency personnel to set up miniature field laboratories. The “lab” equipment consists of three elements — a condensation unit about the size of a backpack, a credit card-size chemical detector, and a PDA-size color sensor.

It is the color sensor that PocketSpec adds to the mix.

The technology could still be months or even years away — certainly not imminent enough to help the first wave of American troops in Iraq. But here is how PocketSpec foresees it will work:

A military unit that encounters an attack of gas or biological weapons, operating with gas masks, will condense the air in the portable condensation unit. That device will squeeze out some drops of chemicals that technicians (with a minimum of training) can apply to the “credit card” chemical sensor. The sensor turns different colors, like a litmus test, depending upon the nature of the chemical.

But the colors might be too indistinct for the technicians to measure by eye.

That’s where PocketSpec comes in. The company’s product uses electronic impulses to measure the exact gradients of colors.

The colors could allow identification of thousands of chemicals or biological agents, Krupka said.

Identification of the contaminants could help treat victims.

“Poison gas isn’t visible,” he said. “You have no clue what it is. So you don’t know what antidote to give them (victims) until you identify the gas.”

Krupka envisions law enforcement officers in this country using the devices, then radioing ahead to the hospital with the information, thus expediting treatment.

One Denver-area health care expert, Greg Bogdan of the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center, is skeptical about the device’s capabilities.

“Most clinicians I talk to believe it’s the training they’ve received to recognize symptoms that will be more useful to identify what the gas was,” he said.

He acknowledged, however, that a reliable detector, able to distinguish a combination of chemical and biological agents, would give a health care worker a good head start toward treatment.

Bogdan also speculated that the device would be useful in detecting gas that remains trapped in the victim’s clothes or lungs, thus protecting health care workers.

PocketSpec is working with an unidentified government contractor, hoping to forge a deal soon. Krupka said his company has several prototypes.

He said PocketSpec could begin outfitting the military within six months of an agreement; the unidentified partner in the deal says more like two years.

“We have to go through a whole process before we release something like that on the market,” said the contractor. “There’s a lot of testing to prove it out.”

Krupka expects the handheld units to sell for about $1,000 each, and he would like to begin with an order “in the thousands.”

“For instance, Denver International Airport could have one in every terminal,” he said. “That’s what I’m thinking. It’s a preparedness device.”