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By Miriam Raftery
March 15, 2011 – Vendors of potassium iodide pills report a rush of sales, with at least one website are sold out. Consumers are ordering the pills amid fears of nuclear fallout from Japanese reactors. Given within a short time from exposure to radiation for people close to a nuclear disaster, potassium iodide blocks absorption of radioactive iodine, preventing thyroid cancer.


But most health officials consulted warn that potassium iodide can be dangerous to pregnant women and nursing mothers, people with kidney or thyroid conditions, and anyone allergic to iodine or shellfish. It can also cause side effects and should not be taken except by doctor's orders or advice of government officials, experts said.


U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin sparked controversy today when she answered a reporter's question about potassium iodide, stating that stocking up on it as a "precaution" was reasonable.  Her statement was quickly criticized by medical professionals and government officials .


“The message we want to get out is there is no established risk to anyone in the U.S. right now from radiation. But taking potassium iodide can pose a health risk to certain individuals,” said Lee Cantrell at the San Diego office of the California Poison Control System, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.


David McEntyre with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission told ECM today, "We do not expect harmful levels."  He also stated that a quote attributed to him in a British publication, the Daily Mail, is inaccurate. The publication had claimed that McEntyre said radiation may already have reached the U.S.


California Department of Public Health spokesman Ken August agreed. "There are no increased levels of radiation reaching California.”  

Japan is around 5,0000 miles away from California’s coast. Following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the worst on record, increases in thyroid cancer occurred no more than 200 or, by some accounts, 500 miles from the reactor.

The World Health Organization advises that potassium iodide only provides protection if taken immediately before or after exposure, and provides only brief protection. “The decision to stockpile or take potassium iodide tablets should be based on information provided by national health authorities who will be in the best position to determine if there is enough evidence to warrant these steps,” WHO advises.

Pregnant women and people with thyroid or certain other health conditions are advised against taking potassium iodide except under the most dire circumstances, such as those within 12 miles of a nuclear facility producing dangerously high radiation levels.

The American Thyroid Association offers additional guidance:

Japan currently has at least five failing reactors, all at Fujushima Daiichi, including at least two that Japanese officials concede likely have core containment vessels damaged. Two fires at one reactor also exposed spent fuel rods in a cooling pond, sending radiation directly into the air. Radiation levels have spiked following explosions and fires at the plants, but levels subsequently began dropping again.


Tonight however yet another fire is burning, and officials have yet to resolve how to get water onto another reactor core to keep it cooled as radiation levels inside are now so high that all employees have been ordered out, for the time being. A low-level radioactive cloud reached Tokyo today, also forcing the USS Ronald Reagan to shift its position offshore. Low-level radiation has also been detected at U.S. military bases, prompting orders for personnel and their families to remain indoors.


Bill Patzert, a climatologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, contrasted the problems at Fukushima with the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 in the Ukraine, where a massive blast drove radioactive debris into the air and around the globe. "If we had multiple Chernobyl-type failures and it did go five to eight miles into the atmosphere and get into the jet stream, it could definitely impact the West Coast of the United States and Canada," Patzert said, according to the Los Angeles Times. "But we're not there yet."

Tony VanCuren, an atmospheric scientist with the California Air Resources Board in Sacramento, offered some reassurance. He said it would take a "catastrophic release" of radiation to carry dangerous levels across the ocean, and even then it would take five to 15 days for particles to reach California, the Los Angeles Times reported. California officials have indicated that monitoring of radiation levels is being conducted and that thus far, no abnormal levels have been detected.

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