A smattering of small businesses selling potassium iodide--an FDA-approved drug that mitigates potential effects from radiation exposure--have witnessed sales of the drug skyrocket over the past few days. Individuals and government agencies flocked to the Internet to purchase mass quantities of pills on the news that the U.S. government had thwarted a terrorist plot to detonate a "dirty bomb," an explosive that spreads radioactive material.
"Since Monday, when this dirty-bomb scare came about, (sales) increased almost a thousandfold," said Troy Jones, founder of NukePills.com, based in Mooresville, N.C. "Heaven forbid if there's ever a real radiation disaster in this country, because one can only imagine a huge reaction to this product."
With the spotlight on terrorism and the U.S. Department of Justice's recent detainment of a suspected al-Qaida operative who allegedly planned to detonate a dirty bomb in a major city, a cottage industry has formed around the morbid idea of protection against a radioactive blast. Soon after the attacks of Sept. 11, questions about the security of the nation's nuclear power plants also caused a brief surge in sales of drugs and equipment to protect against radiation.
Potassium iodide is administered in the form of a pill. The properties of the drug prevent the uptake of radioactive iodine, which can cause many forms of cancer, into the thyroid gland. If a nuclear plant were to melt down or if a nuclear device were detonated, radioactive iodine has a long enough lifespan to spread hundreds of miles in certain weather conditions.
Still, even though the drug helps protect against one form of radiation, it by no means covers the wider spectrum of damage that arises from a nuclear blast. Potassium iodide will not protect people from the immediate dangers of gamma radiation, for instance.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in January 2001 required states to consider issuing potassium iodide as a supplement to standard sheltering and evacuation procedures for people within a 10-mile radius of a nuclear power plant. To date, only 14 states out of the 34 states home to nuclear power plants have responded, California being the most recent one.
Still, NukePills' Jones and other purveyors of the drug have seen online sales mushroom in conjunction with breaking news about potential terrorism attacks. Jones said that its online orders were coming in once every 20 seconds for 20 hours a day since the news of the dirty-bomb plot surfaced Monday.
Many other small businesses specializing in post-radiological attack products have seen their sales surge online as well.
Last spring, Shane Connor, who operates KI4U.com, rented 12 tractor trailers and hauled away 120,000 Geiger counters that had been shelved in a federal depot in Ft. Worth, Texas. Geiger counters measure the amount of radiation in the air.
Conner hired a few former technicians from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to recalibrate and recertify the counters. Since Sept. 11, the bet has been paying off; online sales of the counters, among other products on Conner's Web site, have taken off.
"I'm thrilled we're selling as much we're selling, but I've got kids too," Conner said. "We hope it sits on their shelf gathering much dust over the years."
Even fallout shelters, which seem like relics from the Cold War, are making a comeback. Two Tigers Radiological of Wilmington, N.C., which uses "Tools for Nuclear Emergencies" as its tagline, has seen sales of its $3,200 fallout shelters reach five to seven units a week, an exponential rise from pre-Sept. 11 levels.
Steven Aukstakalnis, founder of the company, said recent fears of a dirty-bomb attack caused a spike not only in sales, but also in traffic to the general information pages throughout his site. Aukstakalnis has turned the site into a full-fledged information hub to answer any questions surrounding a nuclear or radiological attack. The home page features the color-coded chart of the homeland Advisory Security System, domestic terror alerts, and an information database about radiation and nuclear attacks.
The site even has a question-and-answer section about what to do during a nuclear attack or meltdown. Some questions include, "What are the Nuclear Blast and Thermal Pulse Effects?" and "So, how much blast or overpressure is too much to survive?" Answers are accompanied with diagrams.
For entrepreneurs such as Aukstakalnis, current events are bittersweet. On the one hand, business has never been better; but on the other hand, the idea of selling products meant to protect against the unthinkable has been an odd paradox.
"It's great on a personal level to have something successful, but on the other side I hope to hell no one has to use the products that they're buying," he said. "It's an odd state of mind to be in."