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Swine flu: breathe easy?

When an outbreak like swine flu hits, certain public areas can start to feel more like scenes from "The Toxic Avenger."

Denizens start donning surgical face masks in the hope of avoiding the affliction. Remember the SARS virus? The masks flew off the shelves, particularly in east Asia.

Politicians are calling for calm. But the virus has done some damage: it is suspected in more than 150 deaths. And in the U.S., it has killed an infant in Texas and been confirmed in at least 94 people in 11 states.

One big-name standing to reap some benefits from all this is 3M, a major distributor of the N95, the type of mask recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

These protective devices are typically worn by guys wielding jackhammers on dust-plagued construction sites.

3M doesn't give out numbers on units shipped, but they have said that they have seen demand increase and are boosting production.

"We're adding more shifts," said a spokesperson, Jacqueline Berry.

They sell for between $3 and $5 a piece. 3M is fielding requests from all over the world, from health organizations to hospitals. "We have more orders than we can fill," Berry said.

The drug store chain Walgreens is also reporting a spike in sales.

But there's some conflicting information as to whether the CDC recommends donning the
"ER"-esque face masks in swine flu situations.

The CDC website says the following: "Very little is known about the benefits of wearing face masks and respirators to help control the spread of pandemic flu."

Medical Supplies Depot in Alabama, which earned some press during the SARS era, sold out of their supply of the N95s, and said they were told by their supplier that there was a three-month wait for more.

"The estimated time of arrival was August 10," said Julie Fields, who works in accounts receivable.

Until the situation flares up — or if the situation flares up — the best advice might be to breathe easy.