U.S. government agencies in the Washington area ordered 350,000 potassium iodide pills Monday and Tuesday from a company that sells the medicine intended to protect the thyroid gland from radioactive iodine.
The government orders this week represent nearly 9 percent of NukePills.com’s sales this year and are 17.5 times more than its total sales in 2000, said Troy Jones, president of the Mooresville, N.C., company.
The sales followed the FBI’s announcement on Monday of the arrest of a Chicago man, Abdullah al Muhajir, born Jose Padilla, who is suspected of working with al Qaeda terrorists to detonate a “dirty bomb” in a major U.S. city. A dirty bomb is a conventional explosive surrounded by radioactive material that is released when the bomb explodes.
Mr. Jones would not identify the agencies that purchased the potassium iodide pills, citing protection of customer privacy.
“I think that what happened is that these people are privy to information that neither you or I know,” Mr. Jones said. “Anytime an unsolicited government agency calls to make a mass purchase of potassium iodide, that’s a signal to me something is amiss.”
A spokesman for the Office of Homeland Security acknowledged the government is making large purchases of potassium iodide but said that they are part of an “ongoing effort” not directly tied to the arrest of al Muhajir.
“You bet we are, and we have been for some time,” said Gordon Johndroe, Homeland Security spokesman.
Most of the purchases were made by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Health and Human Services, he said.
The NRC has regularly purchased potassium iodide to give to nuclear power plant workers nationwide. Under a contract in February, the NRC purchased 9 million doses from manufacturer and distributor Anbex Inc., based in Florida
Government agencies are stockpiling the medicine “in case it’s necessary to be shipped because of some kind of a radiological event,” Mr. Johndroe said. He mentioned an attack on a nuclear power plant or a dirty bomb as the likely scenarios.
The Food and Drug Administration approved over-the-counter sales of potassium iodide in 1982. It recommends that anyone exposed to radioactive iodine take one tablet daily for 10 to 14 days.
Additional doses are optional and harmless for anyone who is not allergic to them.
“This is an incredibly safe drug,” said Anbex President Alan Morris.
The thyroid is a gland in the neck that secretes growth hormones. Radioactive iodine concentrates in the thyroid, where it can cause cell damage leading to cancer. In a nuclear catastrophe, radioactive iodine represents the greatest threat from radioactivity because of its tendency to spread perhaps hundreds of miles away in a vaporized form.
“The younger you are, the more susceptible you are to damage,” Mr. Morris said.
Doctors administering radiation treatment to cancer patients take it regularly. After the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant meltdown in the Soviet Union, 30 million people who might have been exposed to radiation took potassium iodide.
Most sales are over the Internet, although pharmacies are increasingly stocking it.
Mr. Morris said three or four pharmacies in the Washington area sell potassium iodide.
Federal officials acknowledge risk has given urgency to their decision to stockpile the medicine.
“We know that al Qaeda has been attempting to obtain nuclear or radiological material to use it as part of a bomb,” Mr. Johndroe said. “We have no information that they have been successful. We are not going to let our guard down.”
Until recently, most of NukePills.com’s customers consisted of workers at the nation’s 65 nuclear power plants and nearby residents.
The closest nuclear power plant to the Washington area is about 40 miles away at Calvert Cliffs, Md., on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Others in the region are at North Anna and Surry, both in Virginia.
Iodine is only one of several radioactive substances that could be released either in a nuclear explosion or by a conventional explosion that spreads radioactive material. The potassium iodide pills would be ineffective against other radioactive substances, such as plutonium, strontium or tritium.
NukePills.com has sold about 4 million pills nationally and internationally this year. About half of them were sold to U.S. government agencies. In 2000, NukePills.com sold 20,000 pills.
The pills are sold in packages of 14 for $9.95. The company, which sells only over the Internet, is running a sale allowing customers to buy 10 packs and get one free.
Anbex’s sales of potassium iodide also are up sharply, Mr. Morris said.
“This week has been the biggest week we have had by far,” he said. “There seems to be a recognition that radiation weapons by terrorists are a reality.”
The biggest markets for the companies are in the District and New York. In the Washington area, typical customers include “defense contractors, federal employees and branches of the federal government,” Mr. Jones said. “They won’t tell me what they’re going to do with it.”
The largest one-day sales for the 3-year-old NukePills.com came Monday through yesterday.
“People have been putting it off, but now there’s someone who was actually preparing to detonate a dirty bomb in the United States,” Mr. Jones said. “That was the wake-up call.”