VC Health: In wake of Japanese nuclear crisis, do not take iodide

March 18, 2011
Santa Paula News

It’s been a week since a 9.0 magnitude earthquake rocked Japan, created a tsunami that might have killed as many as 10,000 people, and spread to the United States where lesser waves did $50 million in damage from Oregon and Northern California to Ventura County.

But it is the nuclear power plant crisis that now is prompting reassurances as well as warnings not to overdo what many believe is preventive medicine against the effects of radioactivity.

According to Ventura County Public Heath, “Many people on the West Coast of the United States are concerned about the risk that faces us from the radiation being released from damaged Japanese nuclear reactors.... The United States is familiar with monitoring and responding to distant source releases of radioactive materials,” as such releases have occurred frequently throughout the 20th century, beginning in the 1950s with the testing of nuclear weapons by countries throughout the world.

The Ventura County Department of Public Health “exists to promote the safety of all of our county’s residents. This is our highest priority.” The agency has “well-established mechanisms in place to stay informed by the state and federal agencies responsible for monitoring radiation levels across the West Coast.

The department stressed that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services “have all stated that there is no risk expected to California or its residents as a result of the situation in Japan.” The situation will continue to be monitored, and the department said it would take “all available steps necessary to protect our county’s residents. If we become aware of a radiation threat to our county’s residents we will recommend protective actions.”

Some people have jumped the gun on taking their own protective actions that might actually harm their health. Ventura County’s Public Health Officer and Medical Director Doctor Robert Levin issued a statement Wednesday warning residents not to take potassium iodide as a precautionary measure against possible exposure to radioactivity.

Not only is it not necessary given the current circumstances in Japan, “It can be harmful to people with allergies to iodine or shellfish and to people who have thyroid problems.” Taken inappropriately, Levin said potassium iodide could have serious side effects including abnormal heart rhythms, nausea, vomiting, electrolyte abnormalities and bleeding.

There are reports that panicked people are combing local pharmacies to stock up on potassium iodide tablets, and some have reported they are out of stock due to the surge in demand.

Officials say people should not panic: Experts insist that even if there were a complete meltdown of the Japanese nuclear power plants, the amount of radiation that would travel the 5,300 miles between Japan and California would be no more than a trace and would not pose health concerns.

A hotline has been set up to answer people’s questions and concerns.  It is 916-341-3947.

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