WASHINGTON — Major suppliers of pills that provide protection from radiation say they're out of stock due to panic buying, even though experts say that the Japanese nuclear catastrophe poses no health threat to Americans.
It's a different story in Japan, where a failing nuclear plant spewed out more radiation on Tuesday, as the crisis concluded its fifth day. With thyroid cancer posing the most immediate health risk, Japanese officials made plans to distribute potassium iodide pills in an attempt to prevent it.
Troy Jones, president of nukepills.com in Mooresville N.C., said he has sold 6,500 orders of iodine pills in the last four days. In a normal four-day period, he said he'd sell only 100. He said most of the orders came from customers in Washington State, Oregon and California who want to protect themselves from Japanese radiation.
"Everybody thinks it's going to just land in their backyard in Malibu or something," Jones said.
On Capitol Hill, Democratic Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts called on the Obama administration to supply all U.S. citizens living within 20 miles of a nuclear plant with emergency pills.
The World Health Organization said that taking iodine tablets could be an important action to reduce the risk of thyroid cancer from radiation exposure. But it said that the decision should only be made by national health authorities.
Most experts in atmospheric science say very little radiation could end up in the U.S.
"Even though the winds are blowing radiation out into the Pacific, they're (thousands of) miles from the U.S.," said Thomas Tenforde, president of the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements. "Plumes of radiation are going to get dispersed pretty widely. They're not just going to travel in a straight line to North America."
Dan Jaffe, a University of Washington Bothell atmospheric chemist who has studied pollution patterns crossing the Pacific from Asia for 20 years, said it's possible that radiation from a major meltdown of one or more nuclear reactors in Japan could reach the Puget Sound, 4,800 miles away. But he said there would be no health risk.
"I can't imagine a scenario where the radiation release would be big enough to be a health hazard," he said.
But some said that trying to measure radiation could get tricky.
David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer who directs the Union of Concerned Scientists' nuclear safety program, said that contamination levels are not necessarily lower the farther away people are from the source. In the Chernobyl disaster, some places 100 miles away had more radiation than other points 10 to 15 miles away. The distribution depends on how winds carry it and where rains wash it down, he said.
Ed Lyman, a physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists global security program and an expert on nuclear plant design, said that there were some reports that Japanese officials hadn't handed out potassium iodide pills immediately. If true, that would be a concern, because people need to take the pills several hours before they're exposed to the radiation, he said.
As for the United States, Lyman said "it's unlikely, even worst case, that there would be significant health effects for people."
"No amount of additional radiation is a good amount, but I would think that would not be significant or anything for the U.S. to be concerned about," he said.
With the public jittery over nuclear fears, Energy Secretary Steven Chu went to the Capitol to tell a House subcommittee that Americans "should have full confidence that the United States has rigorous safety regulations in place to ensure that our nuclear power is generated safely and responsibly."
And while governments in Switzerland and Germany took steps to curtail their nuclear energy programs, Chu told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development that the U.S. "must rely" on nuclear power and that the administration will continue to push $36 billion in loan guarantees to help power companies build more plants.
Both the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Department of Energy (DOE) said the U.S. is stepping up its aid to Japan. Chu said the DOE has sent 34 people and 7,200 pounds of gear, including firefighting equipment and airborne equipment that will be used to monitor growing radiation levels caused by the partial meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex.
"No expense should be spared (in helping Japan)," Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Chaka Fattah told Chu, adding that the U.S. should not be deterred in moving forward with its nuclear plans because of the explosions in the Japanese plant: "We need to make sure they're safe."
Washington Rep. Norm Dicks, the top-ranked Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, asked whether nuclear plants in the United States could withstand very large earthquakes. He told Chu that his home state has "the potential for a 9" on the Richter Scale.
Chu said that the government insists that all plants be assessed for their "maximum geological risk" and that they be designed at a level above that.
At nukepills.com, Jones no longer was selling pills but was advising customers to buy liquid iodine, which he said has the same effect. A bottle, which has enough iodine to protect one adult for 15 days, sells for $24.99, while a 14-packet of pills goes for $10.
Jones, who started the business in 1999 when he moved near a nuclear plant in Charlotte, said his phone was ringing every 10 seconds. And he said he understood what was prompting the demand from customers.
"To them, it's cheap insurance, it's FDA approved, it's proven science," he said. "We know how it works, we know why it works, we know it does work. ... We are so slammed with orders. It's the busiest I've seen it in 12 years."
Jones was excited when he ordered another 5,000 bottles on Tuesday and was told that he'd get it by Friday.
But like other health officials, he said he knew his product wasn't needed by his West Coast customers for the Japanese explosions.
"I think it's unnecessary," he said. "It's necessary for people to stockpile potassium iodine on a normal everyday basis have it in your emergency kit, but I do not believe it will be needed on the West Coast for the events that are happening in Japan."
(Mike Archbold of The Tacoma News Tribune contributed to this article.)
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