Radiation fears unfounded for state residents

An over-the-counter drug used to prevent the thyroid gland from absorbing radioactive iodine has been flying off store shelves in the Rogue Valley — and across the nation — as fears rise about a nuclear meltdown following the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

The disaster spurred a multitude of calls to doctors and drug stores and widespread rumors about winds carrying radiation across the Pacific to the West Coast.

What does this drug do?

Potassium iodide, a salt also known as KI, shields the thyroid from radioactive iodine.

The drug, in either pill or liquid form, is sold over-the-counter and is considered safe, although Dr. Mel Kohn, Oregon health director, says "self-treatment with KI can be hazardous, especially to pregnant or lactating women or individuals with kidney disease."

Potassium iodide is most important for children and pregnant women, because a growing thyroid is much more active and more likely to absorb radioactive iodine, said Dr. Irwin Redlener, a pediatrician and disaster preparedness specialist at Columbia University. It should be given within a few hours of radiation exposure — but isn't considered that useful for people over age 40.

More online

The Health Physics Society has posted information about radiation risks at http://hps.org/newsandevents/societynews.html#717. The Health Physics Society, formed in 1956, is a scientific organization of professionals who specialize in radiation safety.

The Oregon Health Department, however, says there is no increase in radiation at monitoring stations in Corvallis and Portland and the drug is not needed here.

"Potassium Iodide, also known as KI, is NOT recommended as treatment for radiation exposure at this distance from the source," said Dr. Mel Kohn, Oregon health director, in a news release.

"In fact, self-treatment with KI can be hazardous, especially to pregnant or lactating women or individuals with kidney disease. KI is a nonprescription medication that is not stockpiled in Oregon. It is a part of the Strategic National Stockpile, but we do not expect to be requesting it. It is only used for people in the immediate area of the release."

Drug and health-food stores contacted in Ashland, Medford, Jacksonville, Phoenix, Central Point and Gold Hill said they had no KI left and most said they weren't able to get more. Shop 'N' Kart in Ashland reported supplies were gone on Friday, the day of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake that damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, releasing small amounts of radiation in Japan.

Edward Kruse of HealthWay Nutrition Center in Medford said he sold out of KI Saturday and that "suppliers are overwhelmed and can't give us any ETA for it."

He said buyers were calm and understood there was no need to ingest KI now, but that they wanted it in the event radiation got out of hand.

"Some are grabbing anything with iodine in it," he said. "Our kelp is sold out, though it would be of only limited value, with about one-thousandth of what's in KI."

A sign in the supplements aisle at the Ashland Food Cooperative notes that, because of high demand, all iodine products are sold out but store officials expect KI within the week. The store reported brisk sales of kelp and seaweed.

"I want potassium iodide because I heard there might be a meltdown and it helps flush out the radiation," said customer Don Streeter of Ashland. "It's gone, everywhere in the valley. I'm going to find it, no matter where I have to go. If we get radiation, it will mess up the thyroid and cause cancer."

The adult daily dose for KI is 130 milligrams, and one Ashland Co-op supplements clerk, who asked not to be named, warned it can be dangerous if taken in large quantities — with nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and even hyperthyroidism.

Ken Newfield, of All's Well Herb and Vitamin Shop in Ashland, said he sold out of KI quickly after the disaster and may get fresh supplies by Wednesday.

"Everyone is concerned about their health — and especially the health of children — and potassium iodide is a relatively cheap way to ward off radioactivity," said Newfield.

Mark Ottis of Ashland Drug reported dozens of calls for KI, adding that requests started tapering off after the Health Department bulletin. Its regularly updated bulletins can be viewed at www.mailtribune.com/statehealthbulletins.

Monday's bulletin said, "According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission the incident does not pose a radiation health threat to Oregonians. Given the thousands of miles between the two countries ... the U.S. West Coast is not expected to experience any harmful levels of radioactivity."

Monitors in the Willamette Valley, part of the Environmental Protection Agency's "RadNet," report fresh readings hourly, it said.

Karen Higley, of the Department of Nuclear Engineering at Oregon State University, said in a news release, "The events pose virtually no risk to people in the United States. ... The nature of the incident may ultimately be similar to that of Three Mile Island in the U.S. in 1979. ... No radioactive contaminants from this incident have been recorded in the U.S. and none are expected ...

"As things look at the moment, whatever impact there is from this event will almost certainly be very local. Any radioactive contaminants released will end up raining out of the atmosphere into the Pacific Ocean, where they will be diluted and absorbed."

About 100 people gathered Monday evening at Ashland's CultureWorks for an "emergency community dialogue," focusing, said organizer Acacia Land, on "nuclear fallout preparedness and short- and long-term impacts."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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