From Los Angeles to British Columbia, West Coast residents are snapping up potassium iodide pills as protection against the radiation they fear could be coming their way from Japan. But medical experts say there's little chance such radiation will cross the Pacific, and the bigger threat may be to frightened people's pocketbooks.
"The amount of radiation, if any, that ever reaches the U.S. is going to be so small that it's probably going to be less than the radiation one could get in flying from Los Angeles to New York," says Dr. Glenn Braunstein, chairman of the Department of Medicine at L.A.'s Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
But caution from doctors like Braunstein has not stopped L.A. residents from swamping pharmacies with requests for potassium iodide, which is available over the counter, usually in pill form.
"I think I would describe it as subclinical panic," Braunstein says. "I think there's a lot of concern out there because radiation -- you can't see it, you can't feel it, but everybody knows it has potentially disastrous results."
The pills provide some protection against iodine radiation, which can cause thyroid cancer, particularly in children. According to the Centers for Disease Control, when the pills are ingested, "the stable iodine in the medicine gets absorbed by the thyroid. Because [potassium iodide] contains so much stable iodine, the thyroid gland becomes 'full' and cannot absorb any more iodine -- either stable or radioactive -- for the next 24 hours."
But that is nearly the extent of what potassium iodide can do. It can't protect against other forms of radiation that may also leak from damaged nuclear reactors.
What's more, potassium iodide certainly can't protect against radiation if there isn't any, and in this case, there's been no indication so far that measurable amounts will reach the U.S. Pacific coast. More than 5,000 miles of open ocean separate Tokyo and Los Angeles, and scientists say there is little current risk of increased radiation even in Japan, outside of a narrow swath of land within a few miles of the damaged plant.
The interim director of the California Department of Public Health, Dr. Howard Backer, and the acting secretary of the California Emergency Management Agency, Mike Dayton, issued a joint statement about the pills:
We urge Californians to not take potassium iodide as a precautionary measure. It is not necessary given the current circumstances in Japan, it can present a danger to people with allergies to iodine, shellfish or who have thyroid problems, and taken inappropriately it can have serious side effects including abnormal heart rhythms, nausea, vomiting, electrolyte abnormalities and bleeding.
Still, the recommendations of public health officials have not stopped people from swamping pharmacies and websites with requests for the pills. One staffer at a Brentwood pharmacy said it had received many requests for potassium iodide -- requests that couldn't be filled, since the pharmacy did not stock the normally clinically-inessential pills in the first place.
Demand may have spiked on comments by U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, who called buying iodide a "precaution."
[UPDATE: The Surgeon General's office did not immediately return a call for more information, but responded following this report's initial publication. "When she was asked by a reporter about people stocking up on Potassium Iodide, she commented that it is always important to be prepared however she wouldn’t recommend that anyone go out and purchase KI for themselves at this time. She further commented that it’s important for residents who have concerns to listen to state and local health authorities," spokeswoman Dori Salcido said.]
Vendor NukePills.com offers the pills at $9.99 for a pack of 14. The site warns: "We currently have a backlog of 3,000+ orders to fill. You will not get your order the same week you order it."
Where the pills are available, prices have sometimes soared. This week, suppliers on eBay have successfully sold similar packs for more than $500 -- with express shipping available, of course.
"Why am I not surprised?" Braunstein said of the skyrocketing prices. "There's going to be profiteering with any disaster."
An NPR story from 2009 on the man who runs NukePills.com offers some insight on the current run:
Fear turns out be a very good thing for certain businesses. When the National Weather Service warns of a hurricane, there's a run on plywood and water. A crime spree can send people to the gun store. And when North Korea or Iran mentions the word "nuclear," the orders pour in to a Web site in North Carolina.
One useful outcome of the iodide run, however, may lie in the fact that it has revived a debate over whether the pills should be made more readily available to those near U.S. reactors. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) has called for increased distribution.