Fears of a nuclear disaster in Japan have sparked panicked buying around the world of medicines that offer protection from radioactivity. From Russia to Finland, the United States and Canada, people are running to drug stores and calling manufacturers to try to get their hands on potassium iodide pills and liquids.
"It's insanity," said Deborah Fleming Wurdack, who co-owns Fleming Pharmaceuticals in St. Louis, which makes ThyroShield, one of the few medicines available. "We are inundated with telephone calls and e-mails."
Fleming specializes in nasal sprays but the company started making ThryoShield five years ago as a sideline. The syrup has been prepared mainly for government agencies, which stockpile it for use in emergencies. But with fears spreading of a nuclear meltdown in Japan, Ms. Fleming Wurdack's phone hasn't stopped ringing.
"I really haven't seen anything like this," she said Tuesday. "We have ramped up everything that we possibly can."
Dangerous levels of radiation have been leaking from a nuclear power plant in Japan crippled by last Friday's earthquake. The situation worsened with reports of an explosion and fire at the plant Monday.
The news has prompted people in dozens of countries to seek ThryoShield and other products containing potassium iodide. The compound saturates the thyroid with iodine, preventing the absorption of radioactive iodine, known as iodine 131, which can be released during a nuclear emergency.
"Monday morning it was like, wow," said Colin Holyk, who owns two drugstores in Vancouver. Mr. Holyk said his stores carry only small amounts of Lugol's solution, an iodine supplement used mainly by people who have a thyroid condition. He got more than a dozen calls and visits Monday from customers eager to buy pills to protect themselves from fallout in the case of a nuclear meltdown in Japan. The calls kept pouring in Tuesday, with some from doctors and other retailers asking for information about pills and liquids.
"There's been a shocking amount of interest," he said. "Some people just coming in saying, 'Do you have this product?' They want to buy it right away."
The panic buying worries Mr. Holyk because the pills and liquids can be harmful if taken incorrectly. Nor do they always offer appropriate protection from radiation.
That's also a worry for health officials, who have been trying to ease public concerns. "Consult your doctor before taking iodine pills," the World Health Organization said in a Twitter post Tuesday. "Do not self-medicate!"
On Monday, Perry Kendall, B.C.'s provincial health officer, asked the public and pharmacies not to stockpile the medication. "The consumption of iodide tablets is not a necessary precaution as there is no current risk of radiological I131 exposure," Dr. Kendall said in a statement. "Even if radiation from Japan ever made it to British Columbia, our prediction based on current information, is that it would not prose any significant health risk."
So far those warnings haven't done much to ease demand.
"This is the busiest past few days I have ever seen," said Troy Jones, who runs Nukepills.com in North Carolina. The website sells a variety of radiation emergency equipment including potassium iodide pills and liquids. A pack of 10 pills costs about $10 and is good for 14 adult doses. A bottle of ThyroShield sells for $24.99 and lasts for 15 doses.
Mr. Jones has sold out of the pills and ThryoShield. Buyers are also loading up on his other equipment including radiation detectors, de-contamination solutions, kits and even gloves.
Nukepills said on Tuesday it had donated about 50,000 potassium iodide tablets to Tokushukai Hospital in Tokyo, a donation arranged by a radiologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital, a teaching facility of Harvard Medical School.
Mr. Jones said one reason supplies are tight is that there aren't many makers of potassium iodide pills or liquids. Most of the major pharmaceutical companies got out of the business years ago because the market was too small. Several large chemical companies make potassium iodide, but for use in other manufactured goods such as some films, nylon products and screens.
Mr. Jones said some emergency buying is worthwhile, but the current frenzy has gone too far. "I think it's overblown. I just don't think it is warranted."