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Nuke pill frenzy fizzles in U.S. as Fukushima fades

Worries about fallout from Japan’s nuclear reactor disaster fueled a roller-coaster year for radiation protection drugs, sending U.S. sales soaring, then diving -- all despite expert warnings there was virtually no danger to Americans.

“The earthquake hit and all heck broke loose,” said George Love, vice president for the firm that manufactures ThyroShield, a liquid form of potassium iodide. “Then it really did die down very quickly.”

Suppliers of ThyroShield and two other government-approved types of potassium iodide, known as KI, say demand exhausted supply in the days and weeks after the Fukushima crisis. Consumers -- particularly on the West Coast but also across the nation -- clamored for the drug that can protect the thyroid from radiation damage, perhaps preventing cancer.


“It was absolutely crazy,” said Troy Jones, owner of NukePills.com, who had nine staffers shipping pills 20 hours a day at the height of the crisis in mid-March and April. The North Carolina-based business sells a 14-pill pack of 130 milligram tablets for about $10 online.

“I shipped 7,000 orders in four days. Normally, it’s under 100 a day,” Jones added.

It’s not clear exactly how much potassium iodide was sold in the U.S. in the early weeks after the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami that critically damaged Japan’s Fukushima nuclear reactors.

But Alan Morris, president of Anbex, Inc., a Williamsburg, Va., firm that makes IOSAT potassium iodide pills, estimated that the company produced 10 million pills in a month. "We got rid of them all," he said.

In addition, more than 400 people called the nation’s poison lines seeking advice about radiation and potassium iodide, said Loreeta Canton, spokeswoman for the American Association of Poison Control Centers. Some 38 people reported exposures to potassium iodide, including worries or problems after ingesting the drug. Nine reported mild reactions.

By early summer, however, demand for potassium iodide had fizzled, leaving some suppliers with extra inventory. Fleming Pharmaceuticals of Fenton, Mo., which makes ThyroShield, is now trying to sell the rights to the brand, Love said. It’s part of a larger company strategy that led to sales of the rights to other drugs last year, but the bust in the potassium iodide market was a factor, Love said.  

Peter Taylor / for msnbc.com

Troy Jones, owner of NukePills.com, said at one point last year, his business was only one in the U.S. with available supplies of potassium iodide.

“Had the boom part of that continued, would it have been a different outcome?” he said.

Jones, of NukePills.com, buys vast quantities of potassium iodide from manufacturers and then resells it to distributors and consumers. For him, demand leveled off after about four or five months, he said, but now remains about 50 percent higher than before the disaster.

The market for potassium iodide is still jittery, added Jones. Sales jumped after a 5.8-magnitude August earthquake rocked Virginia and cut power to two nuclear reactors outside Richmond.

“If the word 'radiation' is in some news report, I get orders,” Jones said.

In addition, some of the product he sold to consumers last year will be set to expire soon, perhaps prompting new sales. Potassium iodide pills expire seven years after manufacture, according to extended guidelines from the federal Food and Drug Administration. But there's no danger to taking outdated pills and they'll still be effective because the material is essentially stable according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Older pills simply might not dissolve as quickly, studies have shown.

Potassium iodide works during exposure by saturating the thyroid with iodine, preventing absorption of harmful radioactive iodine.

Morris, of Anbex, said he's still making potassium iodide, but mostly for European and Asian markets. "We are doing far more business these days with governments of other countries," he said.

The larger problem, said Morris, is that the disaster didn’t spark the kind of attention he’d hoped from state and federal government officials in the U.S.

There are no plans, for instance, to overturn a waiver that allows distribution of potassium iodide only within the 10-mile emergency planning zones around nuclear power plants, rather than the 20-mile range authorized by U.S. law.

“The public felt terribly threatened by this,” Morris said. “We better not pretend that it couldn’t happen here because, of course, it could happen here.”

Morris worries that without better planning, there won't be enough potassium iodide to treat people who need it during a disaster.

But federal officials -- along with medical experts at the time -- said that the danger from Fukushima to people in the U.S. was always very low. They note that the drug only protects against future thyroid cancer, not other radiation damage. They say they're confident in plans that largely call for people to evacuate and avoid contamination in case of a nuclear accident in this country.

“The staff has determined that the existing 10-mile distribution zone remains acceptable while we continue to evaluate information from Fukushima,” said David McIntyre, a spokesman for the NRC.

Twenty-two U.S. states have received potassium iodide from the NRC; none requested additional amounts as a result of the Japan disaster, he added.

Officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said KI is not a required medication in the Strategic National Stockpile, a resource for emergencies. The SNS contains some KI, in liquid form, but spokesman Jason McDonald said the agency is prohibited from disclosing how much.

For his part, McIntyre suggested that media “hysteria” was to blame for last year’s interest in potassium iodide.

“Any ‘demand’ for KI was driven by the media and alarmist Internet postings,’” he said.

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