Russia's Nuclear Threat Produces Panicked Buying of Iodine in Europe

Europeans are rushing to buy iodine pills after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he was putting his nuclear deterrent system on high alert during the invasion of Ukraine.

Potassium iodide is used in case of a nuclear emergency to help protect people from developing thyroid cancer, according to the New York State Department of Health. Now, people in Central Europe are rushing to buy the medication for a potential nuclear war, but some pharmacies have already started selling out, Reuters reported.

After Putin called for his nuclear forces to be combat ready, the possibility of a nuclear attack concerned nations worldwide. Europeans have been rushing to buy medication that could potentially help with health concerns caused by radiation, such as thyroid cancer, but several governments believe a nuclear strike isn't likely to happen.

In Belgium, nearly 30,000 residents went to pharmacies for free iodine tablets following the announcement of Russian nuclear forces and reports of fighting near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, the Brussels Times reported.

Some pharmacies in Bulgaria are already out of stock.

"In the past six days, Bulgarian pharmacies have sold as much [iodine] as they sell for a year," said Nikolay Kostov, chair of the Pharmacies Union, according to Reuters. "We have ordered new quantities, but I am afraid they will not last very long."

Potassium iodine is a method used to protect the body in case of exposure to high levels of radioactive material during a nuclear event. When the medication is ingested, it fills the thyroid gland with a specific kind of iodine that protects against radioactive iodine from seeping in that could cause cancer, according to the department of health.

In Japan in 2011, an earthquake and tsunami damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, causing a radiation leak. Japanese authorities evacuated the area and handed out potassium iodine, which can help prevent the absorption of radioactive iodine for up to 24 hours.

In the case of a nuclear event, the medication should be taken just before or after exposure to radioiodine. It can be taken three to four hours later, but it won't be as effective, according to the New York State Department of Health.

The nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl plant in 1986, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, showed the dangers of exposure to high levels of nuclear material without iodine. An explosion at the plant released massive amounts of radioactive material into the environment, but people nearby weren't evacuated until the following day.

Ultimately, several hundred people were killed from radiation sickness. Some 20,000 more, including 6,000 children, were diagnosed with thyroid cancer caused by radioactive iodine released from the plant, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The Federal Agency for Nuclear Control (FANAC) said on Twitter that "the current situation in Ukraine does not require taking tablets of iodine." The agency said the medication is available in pharmacies but should be taken only when recommended by authorities.

Update 3/2/22, 2:30 p.m. ET: This article was updated with additional information.

Europe Buys Iodine Pills, Nuclear Scare
People in Europe are rushing to buy iodine pills after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he was putting his nuclear deterrent system on high alert. Above, iodine tablets, which can be used in a nuclear emergency, sit on a shelf October 17, 2002, at a Safe America store in New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Images