WASHINGTON -- Major suppliers of pills that provide protection from radiation say they're out of stock due to panic buying, even though experts say the Japanese nuclear catastrophe poses no health threat to Americans.
In Japan, 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 protect residents.
And in the U.S., Troy Jones of nukepills.com in Mooresville, N.C., said he had sold 6,500 orders of iodine pills in the last four days. In a normal four-day period, he said, he would sell only 100. He said most orders came from customers in Washington, Oregon and California who wanted to protect themselves from any Japanese radiation.
In the Tri-Cities, the pills are not available at most pharmacies, but two health food stores reported they had sold out their supplies since the Japanese disaster.
That comes even as state andMid-Columbia health officials said there is little health risk from radiation coming from Japan.
Still, people on the West Coast were seeking potassium iodide from sources such as nukepills.com.
"Everybody thinks it's going to just land in their backyard in Malibu or something," Jones said. He admitted his customers likely don't need his product because of the Japanese accident, but said the pills should be in everyone's emergency kit.
Potassium iodide prevents the thyroid gland from absorbing I-131, radioactive iodine, said Dr. Larry Jecha of the Benton-Franklin Health District.
But Jecha also said the risk of radiation danger in the Mid-Columbia from Japan is "far-fetched." He added, "There could not possibly be enough radiation coming to cause any health problems."
Jecha said the best place to go for information is the Washington State Department of Health website, www.doh.wa.gov and look for "nuclear event in Japan."
"You'd be better off spending your money on general preparedness water, food and those things you would need in an emergency. Your money would be better spent," Jecha said.
Representatives of Highland Health Foods in Kennewick and Richland Health Foods said they normally carry potassium iodide but their shelves are bare.
Lala Tonning, Highland Health Foods manager, said she first noticed people buying the products Sunday. "Anything that has any kind of iodine or potassium iodide is gone. People have bought everything," she said.
"People have been in every day since looking for it and just about every other call we get is about potassium iodide," Tonning added.
Tri-City pharmacies also have been getting calls about potassium iodide.
"There were a couple of calls yesterday, but we don't carry it," said Cassandra Leid, pharmacist at Malley's Pharmacy in Richland.
Neither does the Shopko pharmacy in Kennewick, where pharmacy manager Scott Lawless said he had two people ask about the pills.
If there was an accident at the Energy Northwest nuclear plant near Richland, the State Department of Health recommends that people living within 10 miles leave the area immediately without waiting to take potassium iodide.
In Washington, D.C., 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.
But experts in atmospheric science were saying very little radiation from Japan 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, and a former Pacific Northwest National Laboratory scientist. "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 is possible radiation from a major meltdown of one or more nuclear reactors in Japan could reach the Puget Sound, about 4,800 miles away. But he said, "I can't imagine a scenario where the radiation release would be big enough to be a health hazard."
And Ed Lyman, a physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists global securityprogram and an expert on nuclear plant design, said, "It's unlikely, even worst case, that there would be significant health effects for people."