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Potassium iodide pills are suddenly in high demand across Europe as fears of radiation poisoning from a nuclear attack or accident intensify.

Some Europeans contacted by The Globe and Mail said they ran out to buy the pills when Russian President Vladimir Putin put his nuclear arsenal on high alert. His order came four days after he sent his troops into Ukraine, triggering battles in several cities and encouraging many countries, including Germany and Italy, to send military equipment to the Ukrainian army.

A pharmacy in central Brussels was offering free packs of iodide tablets and had already handed out about 20 to customers by early afternoon Tuesday, up from one or two before the war in Ukraine.

“Lots of people are asking for them because of the war and because they don’t trust the Russians,” said Christina Stantoz, one of the shop’s pharmacists.

Potassium iodide is similar in chemical composition to table salt. According to the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, it “protects the thyroid gland against internal uptake of radioiodines that may be released in the unlikely event of a nuclear reactor accident.”

Or a nuclear missile strike.

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An example of potassium iodide tablets available in Europe.The Associated Press

Belgium, among other European countries, typically hands out iodide tablets to anyone who lives within 10 kilometres or 15 kilometres of a nuclear power plant. The nuclear scare of the war in Ukraine, which was amplified Sunday when Russian ally Belarus voted to give up its nuclear-free status, has sent many European families scrambling for the pills.

In Brussels, Fiona Fanning, a digital policy director at a private company and a mother of two, has been loading up. “I know this sounds like absolutely surreal, crazy stuff, but there is a real sense of fear and we need to prepare,” she said. “My friend went to five pharmacies to find the pills, couldn’t, and went on a waiting list for them.”

Ms. Fanning also bought a radio that uses a crank to charge its battery or can be topped up by solar power, in case a war-related catastrophe brings down the electrical grid.

In Stavanger, Norway’s fourth-largest city, Poppy Kalesi said she was trying to find iodide tablets. “The pharmacies have run out and are restocking them because of the Ukraine war,” said the regional government employee.

Ms. Kalesi said the Norwegian government years ago recommended that its citizens put together an emergency survival kit that should include, among other things, bottled water, porridge and “iodide tablets in case of nuclear accidents.”

In Estonia, a NATO member that shares a border with Russia, pharmaceutical supplier Magnum Medial was planning to load up with iodide.

“Already on Friday, we placed an order for an over-the-counter medicine containing iodine, which is intended for use before or immediately after exposure to radioactive radiation,” said Timo Danilov, a member of the management board of Magnum.

In Berlin, some pharmacies were already out of potassium iodide tablets by Tuesday.

In an interview, Joerg Forbrig, director of Central and Eastern Europe for the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in northern Ukraine in 1986 was still ingrained in the public consciousness. The reactor meltdown contaminated much of Europe, reaching as far as Scandinavia, and sent many people scrambling for iodide tablets.

“So people are thinking, ‘If there’s fighting in an area like Chernobyl, surely there is radioactive dust being swept up,’” Dr. Forbrig said. “It’s something Ukrainians heard and thought: ‘Well, [the Russians] have small atomic bombs. What if they drop one of those on our territory to make their point?’”

He said Ukrainians are also likely to be concerned about radioactive fallout if fighting and indiscriminate bombing around the city of Energodar damages the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe.

With a report from Marieke Walsh in Estonia

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