Last Thursday, after receiving hundreds of orders, “I had to shut it down almost completely,” Mr. Flanegin said from his home in Prescott, Ariz. Compared with the typical 20 orders a week, he said, “the demand has been so overwhelming.”
With small amounts of radiation from Japan’s damaged reactors wafting across the Pacific Ocean, relief crews, businesses and ordinary consumers have bought nearly every Geiger counter available from the few retailers that sell them. The run is a grim reminder of the scope of the disaster and the widespread concern about radiation contamination, including in the United States.
Many people buying the devices say they are worried about their food becoming contaminated. One customer, Mr. Flanegin said, was a theme park in Japan that wanted to check its food supplies as a precaution for its visitors.
Radiation detectors come as hand-held devices, wrist watches and pager-size gadgets that hang from the belt. Their cost varies from $150 for a self-assembled kit to $4,000 for a more sophisticated version that stores radiation readings along with the GPS coordinates of where those readings were taken.
Technically, Geiger counters are just one type of radiation detector. But many people use the term to describe all radiation detection equipment.
Law enforcement, fire departments, military, hospitals, scientific laboratories, schools and prospectors are the typical customers. Federal government agencies seem to be well enough stocked that they are not scrambling to buy more, according to the sellers interviewed.
Usually, the general public, other than a small group of hobbyists, has little interest in radiation.
But that changed after a devastating earthquake and tsunami set off Japan’s nuclear troubles. Demand for radiation detectors, along with potassium iodide pills, which can help prevent radiation-induced thyroid cancer, quickly outstripped supplies and the limited capacity to produce more.
Skepticism that the government will be forthcoming about radiation levels is driving some of the sales, said John Iovine, president of Images SI, a company in Staten Island that makes and sells Geiger counters and other scientific instruments.