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Nukepills.com: A local business cashing in on fear

One of the products sold at Nukepills.com.

Fear turns out to be a very good thing for certain businesses. When the Weather Service warns of a hurricane off the coast, there's a run plywood and water. A crime spree in the neighborhood sends people to the gun store. And when North Korea or Iran starts making nuclear noise - as they're doing a lot lately - the orders come pouring in to a website run in Mooresville. WFAE's Julie Rose has the story: Just the name "Nukepills.com" makes it sound like a site for UFO chasers, conspiracy theorists and people Troy Jones calls "survivor-types." "You know the people that would stockpile all kinds of stuff," says Jones. "The dried foods and the bunkers and all of that stuff." But Jones says most of his customers are actually, "prudent people who recognize a product that in this day and age, they should probably have in the emergency kit." The product is nuke pills, officially known as potassium iodide. It's an FDA-approved drug that blocks the thyroid gland from absorbing radioactive iodine released in a nuclear incident. The federal government stockpiles it. Local governments distribute it to people who live near nuclear plants. Troy Jones first learned about it from a newspaper article back in 1999, shortly after he moved here. "There was one paragraph about this tiny white pill that they said might save your life one day - potassium iodide," recalls Jones. "And Y2K was coming, so that piqued my interest and that's when I got into it." Jones couldn't find the pills at the pharmacy. So he called the three companies with FDA approval to make it and started buying in bulk, thinking he'd get rich off the Y2K panic. That didn't amount to much. But 9-11 did. And it taught Jones a valuable lesson about his product: "People only buy it when they're scared," which America suddenly was. Since then, monthly sales for Nukepills.com have been hundreds, if not thousands of times, what they were before 9-11. Today, Troy Jones buys more potassium iodide from the manufacturers than just about anyone else in the world, next to the federal government. He pays about 25 cents a pill and resells it online for three times that. Google "potassium iodide" and Nukepills.com is always near the top. "Typically I'm three, four, five," says Jones, checking out the search results. "Now see the NRC jumped head of me. Well, we just can't have that." Even though the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is a government agency? "Yeah, but here's the thing," explains Jones. "You cannot find any information on their site you can't find on mine. And if you call them up and ask them about potassium iodide, good luck." I call the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to find out, and the operator transfers me to the public information office, which refers me to my local health department, which sends me to a local public library. It's one of several locations where people can get free potassium iodide pills . . . but only if you live within 10-miles of the two nuclear plants in the region. If you don't, county preparedness coordinator Bobby Kennedy says you should have plenty of time to evacuate and probably don't need the pills. If you still want some, he says, "it's available on the internet. It's not a prescribed drug." Which leads me right back to Nukepills.com, where Troy Jones is rifling through a stack of orders he's printed from overnight. "A lady in Franklin, Ohio needs four packs," he says, stuffing foil-wrapped tablets into a Priority Mail box. Jones is a one-man operation. He spends about two hours a day packing orders and only hires temp workers when he gets swamped. He won't say how much he's making, but it's clearly enough to keep him comfortable - and confident in his future. About 80 percent of his orders are from individuals. The rest come from government agencies, hospitals and power companies like Duke Energy, which operates two nuclear stations in the Charlotte area. One is on Lake Norman. The other is on Lake Wylie. On occasion Duke Energy places pretty large orders with Nukepills.com. It needs potassium iodide pills for its workers, in the event of an emergency. Which by the way, Valerie Patterson says has never happened. "We have not had to have any of our staff take it at any of our facilities," says Patterson, a spokesperson for Duke. In fact, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says there's never been an emergency in the U.S. that required the use of potassium iodide. But many health agencies say the pills did help prevent millions of children in Poland from getting thyroid cancer after Chernobyl. More recent nuclear concerns in the Middle East have been good for Nukepills.com. Earlier this year, Jones brokered a million dollar deal with the Ministry of Health in Kuwait for enough doses to protect the entire country. And lately, he's stumbled on another money-maker: The face masks he sells to protect against radiation are also popular right now because of the flu pandemic. He's having trouble keeping them in stock.