Flu scare a boon to body-bag sales

(THE STAR)   As concerns grow of a possible flu pandemic onslaught this autumn, alert authorities worldwide have been stockpiling emergency supplies. Masks, gloves and anti-viral medications are on the list. And body bags.

Demand for the latter is prompting a surge of interest in the wares of a small Toronto custom bag manufacturer named Trevor Owen Ltd. Inquiries about its pandemic body bags are pouring in from as far away as the Sultanate of Oman on the Arabian Peninsula.

TREVOR OWEN recently shipped several thousand of the thick plastic bags – sewn in its Scarborough factory and touted for their ability to “prevent leakage and seepage of bodily fluids” – to Alberta. It is bidding on a contract to supply Ohio with 12,500 of the white woven polyethylene pandemic bags.

“Some seniors’ residences are starting to buy five, 10 or 15 at a time,” said Trevor Owen president Pierre Barcik.

“There are state and provincial governments that are starting to stockpile pandemic body bags … It’s a bad pun, but (the business) is growing.”

The general fear is that the traditional fall flu season will this time bring a surge in H1N1 swine flu cases – and deaths.

Microbiologist Dr. Allison McGeer, director of infection control for Mount Sinai Hospital, recently warned there would be more deaths and infections in the city as a result of the labour disruption at Toronto Public Health.

Trevor Owen is not the only supplier thriving because of the fears. Richard Miller, owner of the U.S.-based web portalToDieFor.Biz that sells a line of body bags, said demand has doubled this year.

Although the competition is considerable, Barcik’s company appears to have found a niche with its pandemic body bag, which differs from the bag typically used to transport and temporarily store the dead.

WHILE MORGUES and hospitals mostly use bags made of light-duty plastic – glorified garbage bags with a zipper down the middle – the pandemic body bag’s material is thicker and stronger, comparable to a light tarp.

It is coated on both sides with polyurethane for imperviousness and can be outfitted with six carry handles, an option that allows for the possibility of inexperienced personnel hastily hauling bodies at a time of crisis.

“It basically lets you handle bigger bodies with less care,” said Barcik.

“I don’t suggest we should handle the dead with anything but the utmost care, but if you’ve got a couple of volunteers moving people around in a pandemic centre, it’s a lot different than a morgue situation.”

HAULING DEATH ISN’T Trevor Owen’s stock and trade. Barcik’s company makes a variety of bags for everyday functions, from the giant padded envelopes that keep your pizza warm on its delivery route to the heavy-duty duffles in which hockey players like the Ontario Hockey League’s Soo Greyhounds tote their gear.

Still, Trevor Owen carries a substantial array of body bags; it’s a sector that appears to require a diversified product line.

Cindy Maguire, the controller of Centennial Products, a Jacksonville, Fla.-based distributor of body bags whose customers include public health centres in Nova Scotia, said that among coroners and other tenders to the departed, body bags “are like a fashion statement, almost.

“People are very particular about colour, style, the seal of the bag, the zipper.”

SOME CORONERS are partial to blue bags, which are known to provide a photo-friendly background for making a visual record of autopsies. Fluorescent orange bags are often the choice of urban police personnel who frequently work in darkness.

And manufacturers say there is growing demand for extra-large bags, such as the widely used Chinese-made bag known as the “Big Girtha” in the Trevor Owen catalogue.

Where a standard body bag runs about three feet wide and seven feet long, the Big Girtha is close to five feet by nine feet.

Said Miller at ToDieFor.Biz: “It’s for the 600-pounders. Our population is getting bigger. It’s made of very, very heavy-duty material.”

If death, by fat or by flu, is a heavy subject, some in the body-bag trade – the death-care industry, in its gentile parlance – see its lighter side. Maguire’s company designs and sells novelty T-shirts that have become popular among customers. One is emblazoned with the company’s slogan, “You tag it, we bag it.”

Another cribs a coroner’s theoretical lament during an obesity epidemic: “I think I need a bigger bag.”

Said Maguire: “The coroners do have a little bit of a morbid sense of humour. But I guess they use that to get through what they do.”

Barcik, whose company employs about 25 workers in an industrial mall near Eglinton and McCowan, said he expects body bags to remain a small part of his operation – currently about 10 per cent.

HE TAKES VISIBLE PRIDE in showing a visitor a custom tote manufactured in Scarborough for paramedics with Toronto Emergency Medical Services.

It’s a bag, he notes, that could help save a life rather than simply contain the remnants of a lost one.

Not that body bags don’t have various uses.

Quite apart from the spectre of the flu pandemic that got his phone ringing, Barcik said he has fielded calls from private citizens shopping for a single body bag for unstated purposes.

“There’s a bunch of nutty folks out there,” he said with a chuckle, recalling a summer hire at the plant “who was a little bit too goth – he wanted to get in a bag, take one home.

“It’s your party, man. Have a good time.”


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