Potassium Iodide flies off shelves

An over-the-counter drug used to prevent the thyroid gland from absorbing radioactive iodine has been flying off the shelves in Rogue Valley stores — and across the nation — as fears rise about a nuclear meltdown following the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

Despite a multitude of calls to doctors and drug stores and widespread rumors about winds carrying radiation across the Pacific to the West Coast, the Oregon Health Department says there is no increase in radiation at monitoring stations in Corvallis and Portland and the drug is not needed here. "Potassium Iodide, also known as KI, is not recommended as treatment for radiation exposure at this distance from the source," said Dr. Mel Kohn, Oregon health director, in a news release.

"In fact, self-treatment with KI can be hazardous, especially to pregnant or lactating women or individuals with kidney disease. KI is a nonprescription medication that is not stockpiled in Oregon. It is a part of the Strategic National Stockpile, but we do not expect to be requesting it. It is only used for people in the immediate area of the release."

Drug and health-food stores contacted in Ashland, Medford, Jacksonville, Phoenix, Central Point and Gold Hill said they had no KI left and most said they weren't able to get more. Shop 'N' Kart in Ashland reported supplies were gone on Friday, the day of the magnitude-9.0 earthquake that damaged the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, releasing small amounts of radiation in Japan.

A sign in the supplements aisle at the Ashland Food Cooperative notes that, because of high demand, all iodine products are sold out but store officials expect KI within the week. The store reported brisk sales of kelp and seaweed, which contain varying levels of iodine.

"I want potassium iodide because I heard there might be a meltdown and it helps flush out the radiation," said customer Don Streeter of Ashland. "It's gone, everywhere in the valley. I'm going to find it, no matter where I have to go. If we get radiation, it will mess up the thyroid and cause cancer."

The adult daily dose for KI is 130 milligrams, and one co-op supplements clerk, who asked not to be named, warned it can be dangerous if taken in large quantities — with nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and even hyperthyroidism.

Ken Newfield of All's Well Herb and Vitamin Shop in Ashland, said he sold out of KI quickly after the disaster and may get fresh supplies by today.

"Everyone is concerned about their health — and especially the health of children — and potassium iodide is a relatively cheap way to ward off radioactivity," said Newfield.

Mark Ottis of Ashland Drug reported dozens of calls for KI, adding that requests started tapering off after the Health Department bulletin. Its regularly updated bulletins can be viewed at www.mailtribune.com/statehealthbulletins.

Monday's bulletin said, "According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission the incident does not pose a radiation health threat to Oregonians. Given the thousands of miles between the two countries ... the U.S. West Coast is not expected to experience any harmful levels of radioactivity."

Monitors in the Willamette Valley, part of the Environmental Protection Agency's "RadNet," report fresh readings hourly, it said.

Karen Higley, of the Department of Nuclear Engineering at Oregon State University, said in a news release, "The events pose virtually no risk to people in the United States. ... The nature of the incident may ultimately be similar to that of Three Mile Island in the U.S. in 1979. ... No radioactive contaminants from this incident have been recorded in the U.S. and none are expected ...

"As things look at the moment, whatever impact there is from this event will almost certainly be very local. Any radioactive contaminants released will end up raining out of the atmosphere into the Pacific Ocean, where they will be diluted and absorbed."

About 100 people gathered Monday evening at Ashland's CultureWorks for an "emergency community dialogue," focusing, said organizer Acacia Land, on "nuclear fallout preparedness and short and long-term impacts."

On the Web: The Health Physics Society has posted information about radiation risks at http://hps.org/newsandevents/societynews.html#717.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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