Despite scary headlines, local radiation danger is negligible

Mar 16, 2011

From Chehalis to Chicago, local health food stores are seeing their stock of potassium iodide pills sell out, as public fear over radiation fallout from Japan's damaged nuclear plants continues.

The trouble is the fear doesn't match the risk, say numerous scientists and government officials, both here and across the nation, according to The News Tribune and other reports.

“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.”

Why Washington and West Coast Risk is Low

University of Washington atmospheric scientist Dan Jaffe tells The Seattle Times' Sandi Doughton: 

"I would say there's no risk for us in Washington, and I would not be concerned if I was in Alaska or Hawaii," he said.

Jaffe has spent much of the past week reiterating the point. The great distance between the West Coast and Japan means radiation from any potential meltdown of reactor's core would take two weeks to cross the Pacific. Jaffe tells The Times the particles would undergo decay and dilution. 

Jaffe estimates it would be diluted by a factor of at least 10,000 and possibly 1 million.

Still, a Rush to Supplements

The Trib's Rob Hotakainen and Debby Abe checked in with several South Sound retailers who said they have seen the rush on potassium iodide:

In Lakewood, Super Supplements ran out of its iodine supplements on Friday, and by Tuesday only had a couple of blended thyroid formula products that contain minute amounts of potassium iodide, sales associate Danielle Flynn said. “There’s definitely a concern,” Flynn said.

People are also buying products containing kelp, which contains iodine. The idea is by ingesting "clean" iodine, right before an exposure to radiation, you can prevent your body from absorbing radioactive iodine into the thyroid gland.

State Health Experts: Information Can Ease Fears

Potassium iodide only protects humans in the circumstance of exposure to radioactive iodine, according to state health officials. On the other hand, there are additional radioactive elements, such as cesium, that would still be absorbed. They've put together a list of frequently asked questions on a new web page dedicated to public health worries in the wake of the Japan disaster, including these:

  • Does the State stockpile Potassium Iodide (KI)? Answer: No, but the feds do. The Japan situation does not require such stockpiles here, they say.
  • How much radioactivity do you expect to come to Washington from Japan’s reactors? Answer:

"We don’t expect significant levels of radioactivity in our state, and there’s no health risk."

Even in Japan, potassium iodide is only being distributed to people living close to the burning reactors, as The Japan Times reports  -- not to residents of Tokyo, which is about 100 miles away.

A statement from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission says the U.S. is "not expected to experience any harmful levels of radioactivity," according to the Chicago Tribune. Reporter Ryan Haggerty found that beyond potassium iodide supplements, there's also been a big run on Geiger counters around the country. 

"The phone has been ringing off the hook," said Raphael Karunditu, president of California-based Gamma-Scout. "We have hundreds upon hundreds of orders, and our partner in Germany is talking about thousands of orders at his site."