First, we expected takeout food on demand. Then we wanted groceries fast. Now, Amazon’s hottest products are bug-out bags, military meal replacement kits and iodine pills—taken in the event of a nuclear bomb dropping or a nuclear energy facility meltdown.
The threat of an escalation in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, now entering its third week, has pushed items more likely to be used in the event of nuclear war to the top of best-seller charts on the world’s largest e-commerce site.
One seller of U.S.-made potassium iodide capsules, which have been shown to temporarily protect against the dangers of exposure to some nuclear materials, has sold nearly as many bottles of pills—17,231—in the last month as the 18,143 in the last year, according to data collated by e-commerce analysis platform Helium 10 seen by TIME. That single seller, Performance Supplement Store, has made more than $400,000 of sales in the last month, in large part thanks to a price hike from $15.49 for 60 capsules on February 24—the day Russia invaded Ukraine. Today, the same potassium iodide tablets would cost $23.48, if you could get hold of them. They’re sold out: The result of a 662% year-on-year increase in sales.
All but one of eight potassium iodide products on sale at Amazon for which 90-day price data was available have seen increases in price of between 23% and 89%. Annual sales numbers have increased from 35% to 8,100%.
The public demand for these products is clear. But what’s less certain is the value they would provide someone exposed to nuclear materials. “One of the main things that can happen if you have radiation or a release of fission fragments—the things that react in nuclear reactors or weapons—is that in the short term there’s a set of radioactive materials of the element iodine, and a specific radioisotope, iodine-131,” says Patrick Regan, an expert on nuclear radiation at the University of Surrey, UK. Iodine-131 has a half-life of around eight days, but can become problematic if it enters the food chain.
In the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in April 1986, iodine-131 entered the food chain through cow’s milk and green vegetables left in the soil around the nuclear power plant that were subsequently drunk and eaten. “There was some evidence in children, after Chernobyl, of quite a big increase in radiation that induced thyroid cancers, most of which didn’t kill the children but meant they had to have their thyroids removed,” says Regan.
The shadow of Chernobyl’s children has haunted the world since—and is at the forefront of panicked preppers worldwide.
Near-real-time footage of Russian soldiers carelessly attacking the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant has raised concerns that nuclear radiation could accidentally leak into the atmosphere. Implied threats by Russian President Vladimir Putin to use nuclear weapons should the war escalate have done little to diffuse worries. And reports that workers tasked with keeping Chernobyl’s nuclear fuel safe are working overtime, held hostage by Russian invaders, are a cause concern. It’s little wonder that people have been stocking up on potassium iodide pills, which temporarily stop iodine-131 from entering the thyroid—though do little to protect against exposure to any other nuclear material.
Nor is it surprising that they’re also panic buying survival kits, such as this $300 Ready America four-person, three-day backpack of supplies that has seen a 2,042% increase in sales in the last 90 days, or this $28.99 Sure-Pak SOPAKCO pack of ready-to-eat meals (MREs), sales of which rose 2,036% since the start of the year.
“When we feel threatened as humans, we tend to look for what control we can take,” says clinical psychologist Marianne Trent. “Being prepared for what seems like a worst-case scenario can help people reduce heightened anxiety they might be experiencing. We saw this during the early stages of the pandemic too with bulk buying toilet roll, tins, and hand soap. We need to learn to be able to soothe ourselves and tolerate uncertainty, although this can be easier said than done when anxieties are already running high after a very tricky few years.” A 2021 study of British and Irish adults showed that, in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, three in four people over-purchased things like pulse oximeters, or blood oxygen level monitors, and bug sprays that contained an ingredient incorrectly believed to help tackle the coronavirus.
What is strange in the case of nuclear preparedness trends is how prices and sales have risen across the board, says e-commerce expert Ben Graham. Prices rising commensurate with sales across an entire product line—as has particularly happened with potassium iodide tablets—is out of the ordinary. “We would expect the brands to attempt to capitalize on that sudden increase in traffic, focusing on trying to convert as many leads as possible in a short period of time,” says Graham. “Instead, these brands have pushed their prices—significantly in some cases—which would usually have the opposite effect.”
When reached for comment about its rising prices, a representative for Performance Supplement Store said the market for potassium iodide tablets has gotten tight for everyone. “Our supply demand has gone up dramatically, and it’s harder to get the product,” they said. “We had to pay more to get our product, and also we had to pay significantly more money to get the bottles bottled up in a timely manner. To take care of the demand, a normal time is two months and I didn’t have two months, I only had days. It cost a considerable amount of money to do that rush. Then also, any time you have that kind of an increase, you have to hire on additional help. My fulfillment center cost more than normal. There were some additional costs. We’re actually cheaper than some of the brands out there.”
The success of such products is all the more extraordinary because of the way Amazon usually works. Typically, the e-commerce giant would intervene to stop product prices rising significantly in a short period of time by cutting back a product’s organic ranking on the site, according to Graham. That hasn’t happened here. “From what we can see on these products, they have gained visibility with rankings increasing after the initial sales and pricing spike,” says Graham.
An Amazon representative told TIME: “We are deeply saddened by the events unfolding in Ukraine. The prices on these products were set by third-party selling partners in our store. To protect customers and ensure products in our store remain fairly priced, we continuously compare the prices submitted by our selling partners with current and historical prices inside and outside our store. If we identify a price that violates our longstanding policy, we remove the offer and notify the seller.”
Panic buying may be a perfectly reasonable response to the imminent threat of the nuclear war. There’s just one problem: Iodine tablets aren’t going to do much for the majority of us, even if there is a nuclear incident.
“All those things make it an easy target to say: ‘Oh, this is radioactive, so we’ll block the thyroid gland, and that’ll be fine,’” says Regan. “But it doesn’t stop you getting exposed to normal radioactive material. They don’t wash away or get rid of radioactive material, if you’ve taken it in you.” Iodine tablets stop the thyroid taking in radioactive material from ingested food, but won’t do anything about potential fallout. Indeed, too much iodine itself can be harmful, so think twice before swallowing.
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