Many of the ads for "anti-radiation" potassium iodide pills flooding the Internet may be scams run by hucksters seeking to profit from the Japan nuclear scare, the Food and Drug Administration warned Thursday.
Public health officials say that people in the USA shouldn't be taking the pills anyway, because no radiation from the Fukushima reactors in Japan has been detected in the United States. Potassium iodide is a form of iodine that saturates the thyroid gland and keeps it from absorbing radioactive iodine, a cancer-causing component of fallout.
The FDA has approved three potassium iodide preparations to protect the thyroid against radiation, but the agency's chief fraud enforcer says that the atmosphere of fear that this week sent consumers streaming into drugstores and onto the Web to buy the pills has proven to be fertile ground for companies hawking unapproved products.
"We found many different offers for potassium iodide and other products that we're taking a look at," says Gary Coody, the FDA's national health fraud coordinator.
Jeffrey Garber, chief of endocrinology at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, says exhausted supplies of legitimate potassium iodide make it more likely that some people will buy fraudulent products.
Potassium iodide isn't safe for everybody, especially people who are allergic or who have thyroid diseases, Garber says.
"We're talking about 1,000 times more iodine than you normally consume in your diet," Garber says. "And who knows what it is? If it's a harmless counterfeit in a situation where you don't need anything, you've been duped. But what if it's not harmless?"
Coody says agency investigators "surf the Internet because that's the first place that some of these fraudulent products will appear," adding that the agency also is monitoring iodine-rich supplements and foods, including seaweed and kelp.
He wouldn't comment in detail about the FDA's probe. If the agency can demonstrate that a product is fraudulent, it can send a warning letter, halt sales through an injunction or launch a criminal investigation.
The American iodine rush is only one face of the radiation panic that has cropped up in Asia and across the Pacific. Chinese retiree Yan Zhenghua, 62, of Beijing, was one of thousands Thursday who turned out to find table salt, suddenly prized for its extra iodine. Another rumor is also driving China's salt rush.
"People worry that radiation will contaminate seawater and all future salt supplies," said Liu Shiping, a law lecturer in the southern city of Changsha.
In California, some sushi restaurants are dropping Japanese fresh food from their menus. "Our guests' safety is our top priority," said Sari Yong, a spokeswoman for Shangri-La Asia, the region's biggest luxury hotel company by market value with 71 locations worldwide. "As a precaution, we have temporarily stopped importing fresh food from Japan."
Fred Mettler, leader of the international team that investigated the health effects of the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986, says radiation does concentrate in fish, but the fish can be tested, and, if needed, can be pulled from the market.
Mettler says he's not worried about nuclear sushi. "My wife and I are sushi lovers and have no plans to slow down," he says.