As the situation continues to deteriorate in Japan’s Fukushima nuclear complex, health concerns are rising here in Washington state – especially in Mountain Country.
According to the New York Times and other media outlets, the Fukushima facility has six nuclear reactors and all are in varying degrees of trouble, including a partial meltdown in one reactor and fires in several others.
Although there have been several explosions at Fukushima, it is currently believed that only one containment vessel has been breached, thus allowing contamination into the atmosphere. In addition, multiple venting exercises designed to reduce pressure within the containment structures of the other reactors have also released radioactive materials.
All this material is blowing towards the western hemisphere on westerly winds, and the questions Washingtonians are asking are: how much radiation is coming, how bad will it get if all the reactors at Fukushima melt down, and what should we do to protect ourselves.
The foremost anxiety expressed is the whether Washingtonians need to start ingesting Potassium Iodide to counter the harmful affects of radioactive iodine constituting part of the fallout cloud heading toward us.
One Mountain Country pharmacy reports it has received over 30 inquires in the past few days on the availability of potassium iodide, called KI by most pharmacists, as they use the scientific symbols for the two basic components – K for potassium and I for iodine.
Even though the fallout cloud is suspected of carrying many dangerous contaminants, such as radioactive isotopes of plutonium and cesium, the most problematic to humans is an isotope of iodine known as Iodine 131, or I-131 in scientific shorthand.
I-131 has several troubling characteristics, but the most disturbing is its unique ability to concentrate itself in the thyroid gland. Since I-131 continues to emit radiation for about 80 days before it completes its half-life cycle of decay, its residency in the thyroid for that length of time can cause havoc – from upsetting bodily functions to fatal bouts of thyroid cancer.
I-131 has other pernicious qualities, such as being able to enter a person’s body easily and in a variety of ways, most notably by breathing irradiated dust particles or consuming contaminated foodstuffs, especially milk.
To counter those effects, doctors recommend taking KI before any I-131 exposure. A daily regimen of KI will fill the thyroid’s tissues with a maximum amount of iodine, in effect blocking the gland’s ability to uptake any radioactive iodine if ingested.
Once the thyroid is filled with safe iodine, the I-131 is simply eliminated from the body through the digestive system, causing no ill effects in most people.
Further, although exposure to I-131 without a KI treatment is dangerous for all, children are most at risk, particularly of developing thyroid cancer.
Ascertaining the level of danger here in Washington is now a priority for governmental agencies and individuals alike.
The State of Washington’s Department of Health has an atmospheric radiation monitoring station atop its building in Tumwater, and DOH Media Relations Manager Donn Moyer told The Mountain News that current levels are within normal limits.
“There is always some ‘background’ radiation,” Moyer said, “but that’s all we’re seeing at this time.”
Further, Moyer declared emphatically that the DOH does not see any danger coming toward us.
“Of all the scenarios that are being projected for what could happen in Japan, none of them will impact Washington in a negative manner,” he said.
Moyer also said any releases of contamination that might reach the upper atmosphere would be sufficiently diluted by the time they reached the western United States.
“The distances they would have to travel are simply too great…the wind, rain and gravity would dissipate the contaminants.”
Any contamination released from Fukushima will take an estimated four days to cross the nearly 5,000 miles of the Pacific Ocean between Japan and the west coast of the United States.
Moyer also said that the need to take KI only exists in Japan, and then only in a 20-mile radius around the endangered facility.
“There’s no need for people to take KI unless they’re within 20 miles of the source of contamination and cannot evacuate,” he stated.
Continuing, Moyer said that serious contaminants like plutonium are not a factor at great distances because they are very heavy and drop from the fallout cloud soon after release.
Sensing the growing public concern, the DOH’s web site announced their findings today in stark terms:
“We don’t expect significant levels of radioactivity in our state, and there’s no health risk…The events in Japan do not indicate a need for anyone in Washington to take protective action like using KI.
Lastly, Mr. Moyer sent The Mountain News a more comprehensive update Tuesday evening.
“The bottom line is that every credible authority on radiation in the state and the nation says there’s no scenario that would send enough radioactive material from Japan to the U.S. to cause a health risk…No one in Washington is in need of KI for this.”
Supporting this perspective, the private radiation monitoring site, Radiation Network, http://radiationnetwork.com/ , reports no elevated radiation reading throughout the western United States.
However, the United States Surgeon General Regina Benjamin today told an NBC reporter that it was a good idea to stock up on KI.
“It would not be an over-reaction” Dr. Benjamin told NBC TV journalist Damian Trujillo.
Following her heed – and their own knowingness – many area residents are seeking KI. However, they may not find it. The Walgreen’s in Graham and Parkland, along with the Rite-Aid in Gem Heights, do not stock KI, and staff in those stores said that they do not anticipate receiving any shipments.
The local pharmacy that does stock KI says that it is hoping for a shipment by the end of the week, but is that potential is iffy.
“Our supplier said they’re sold out, so we’ll see,” said the owner, who asked the Mountain News to keep his store’s name anonymous until he has KI available.
If and when he receives some, he expects to have a variety of KI available: in liquid, powder, or tablet form. Prices, too, are problematic.
“One supplier has raised his price for 16 capsules from $5.99 to $99,” said the abovementioned pharmacist.
As for the recommended dosages, most sources claim that adults should take one 130 ml dose a day for up to a couple weeks, and children would take about 65 ml per day during that time as well.
A product similar to KI, called Potassium Iodate, KIO-3, is advertised on Internet pharmaceutical web sites, but reports exist that this iodate form of iodine is irritating to the intestine. In addition, they claim that greater doses of iodate are required than KI for optimum benefit.
In addition, the local pharmacist quoted above told the Mountain News that claims that iodine-based disinfectants, such as Betadine®, will not provide any I-131 protection. Some Internet sites suggest that topical applications of these disinfectants, such as painting one’s belly with them, could supply the needed iodine to the thyroid.
“The skin barrier is just too great for the iodine to get there,” the pharmacist said.
For more information on the unfolding disaster in Japan, visit:
For more information on KI:
© 2011 Bruce A. Smith
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