Welcome to Tulipomania circa 2011.
In 1624, a tulip bulb became so valuable that some wealthy merchants were willing to pay a sum roughly equal to their annual income for it.
And so now it is with potassium iodide on the West Coast in the wake of the recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami.
Anbex, the main American manufacturer of potassium iodide tablets, ran out of stock on Friday because of overwhelming demand from panicking Americans.
Why are Americans acting irrationally?
To give you some perspective, the International Atomic Energy Agency has rated the radiation release at Japan’s Fukushima plant as a 4 on a scale of 1 to 7. It rated the partial nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island a 5 and the disaster at Chernobyl a 7. Each point on the scale represents a factor of 10 increase in radiation release. Thus, Fukushima has released about one-tenth as much radiation as the incident at Three Mile Island.
In 1979, I was four years old when the Three Mile Island incident ocurred. According to Google Maps, I lived exactly 78.2 driving miles from the site. No one in my immediate family has developed cancer, and my younger brother, who was born after 1979, is not a mutant (at least not that I can tell).
As of March 14, only one Japanese plant worker had been exposed to 10 rems of radiation. To provide a sense of perspective, the average person is exposed to 0.3 rem of background radiation each year and the annual limit for an American nuclear worker is 5 rem. People start to experience nausea at 50 rem and begin hemorrhaging at 100 rem. Half the people exposed to radiation levels of 500 rem die within 30 days. Exposure of 2,000 rem will kill a person within hours or days.
Even in the event that a significant amount of radiation were to make its way over to the United States via the jet stream, about 98 percent of a person’s dosage would come from drinking contaminated milk. The solution, therefore, would be to stop drinking milk for a while until authorities deem milk supplies safe.
Additionally, radioactive iodine only has a half-life of about eight days, so most of it would be gone within about two months.
As a former military officer, I have my own cache in the event of a more plausible emergency such as the detonation of a dirty bomb built with common household products.
As a capitalist, given the irrational hysteria surrounding the Japanese nuclear reactor crisis, I have to ask myself: at what price would I be willing to sell my private stash on eBay?
Right now, potassium iodide appears to be selling at roughly more than twice the amount I paid for mine. At this price, I will hold on to my stash, but if prices rise to about 50 times what I paid, I might considering selling. However, at that point, it is likely I will need the potassium iodide myself.