Japan nuclear crisis triggers run on anti-radiation pills

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 16, 2011; 7:39 PM

The Japanese nuclear power plant crisis is triggering jitters about radioactive fallout hitting the United States, even though authorities say it is highly unlikely significant amounts of dangerous material will travel across the Pacific Ocean.

Fearful residents have flooded health officials in western states such as California, Washington and Oregon with anxious questions, and some authorities have begun issuing updates about air monitoring for radiation.

"We opened a hotline and have fielded hundreds of calls from the worried public," said Michael Sicilia of the California Department of Public Health.

The two U.S. companies that make potassium iodide, which can reduce the risk of thyroid cancer from exposure to iodine-131, are being overwhelmed by demands for the medication from individuals, pharmacies, hospitals, day-care centers and others.

"People are terrified," said Alan Morris, president of Anbex Inc., of Williamsburg, Va. "We're getting calls from people who are crying and saying things like, 'Please. Can't you help me? Can't you send me anything?' "

Both companies, along with state and federal officials and independent radiation experts, have been trying to reassure people that the chances of dangerous amounts of radiation reaching the United States from Japan are negligible, making such precautions unnecessary.

"All of the information available right now indicates there will be no harmful levels of radioactivity in the United States," said Scott Burnell, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "There's absolutely no reason for concern."

Nevertheless, as a precaution, the Environmental Protection Agency sent seven mobile air monitoring stations to Hawaii, Alaska and Guam to bolster capabilities to detect any radiation from Japan. The agency already has more than 100 permanent air monitoring stations around the United States, including in Alaska and Hawaii, but decided to deploy the additional equipment to heighten the early-warning system.

In the meantime, thousands of people are seeking potassium iodide. CVS's online pharmacy sold out of it over the weekend, a spokesperson said.

"I'm very concerned," said Laurie Akey, 58, of Newport Beach, Calif. After studying news reports and weather patterns, Akey ordered enough potassium iodide for her husband, four children, three grandchildren, grandparents and Lizzy, her 5-year-old King Charles Spaniel. "This thing is blowing apart over there. If this thing keeps blowing it could come over in a cloud and land on our shores."

Available without a prescription, potassium iodide blocks radioactive iodine from accumulating in the thyroid gland, where it would boost the risk for thyroid cancer. Thousands of cases of thyroid cancer occurred after the Chernobyl disaster, primarily among those who were children at the time and drank milk from contaminated cows.

People who think they might be exposed to radioactive iodine can start taking doses as soon as they fear they may be at risk for exposure. Potassium iodide is generally safe, although it can pose risks to people who are allergic to iodine and shellfish or have certain skin or other disorders, and can cause heart problems, nausea, vomiting and bleeding.

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