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West Coast Radiation Risk Low, But Fears Persist

Date: 18-Mar-11
Country: USA
Author: Mary Milliken and Allan Dowd

West Coast Radiation Risk Low, But Fears Persist Photo: Lucy Nicholson
A bottle of Potassium Iodide is seen in Los Angeles, California March 17, 2011.
Photo: Lucy Nicholson

North America is at little risk of receiving harmful levels of radiation from Japan's nuclear crisis, officials said on Thursday, but that has not stopped a scramble on the West Coast for items like potassium iodide and Geiger counters.

Low concentrations of radioactive particles from Japan's stricken nuclear plants are expected to drift over the Pacific Ocean, but nothing has been detected by U.S. or Canadian monitoring stations, officials said.

Health and safety authorities sought to reassure nervous residents that any radioactive particles would disperse as they cross the Pacific from Japan and not pose a public risk when they arrive. Even President Barack Obama weighed in.

"We do not expect harmful levels of radiation to reach the United States, whether it is the West Coast, Hawaii, Alaska or U.S. territories in the Pacific," Obama said in a televised statement. "That is the judgment of our Nuclear Regulatory Commission and many other experts."

Officials have said it would take five or six days for any particles to cross the ocean. Vancouver is more than 4,700 miles from Tokyo, while Los Angeles is over 5,400 miles away.

Public fear about the situation in Japan can be seen in prices being charged for online purchases of the potassium iodide antidote and Geiger counters that measure radiation.

At least five merchants on Amazon.com were selling packages of potassium iodide tablets for between $300 and $400, far above the usual list price of $10. Two big online sellers said on their websites they were sold out.

'NO NEED TO PROTECT YOURSELF'

Potassium iodide tablets can saturate the thyroid gland and prevent the absorption of radioactive iodine. When given before or shortly after exposure, that can reduce the risk of cancer in the long term.

Health officials warn potassium iodide can pose its own risks if misused.

"People should not take it anywhere in North America for the things that are happening in Japan," Donn Moyer of Washington state's Department of Health told Reuters.

Moyer also discouraged people from shopping online for home remedies they hope will protect them in case of a fallout emergency.

"Number one, there is no need to protect yourself because there is no threat. And number two, some of those things might make you sick," Moyer said.

The British Columbia Center for Disease Control warned people not to confuse iodide with iodine and told them not to take iodine solutions thinking they provide any protection against radiation.

"Iodine solutions are not meant for ingestion and can cause severe burns to the digestive tract," the agency said in a statement.

Perry Kendall, the Canadian province's chief medical officer, believes most people will heed warnings not to overreact, but acknowledges his office has received calls alleging the government is engaging in a cover-up.

(Additional reporting by Ross Kerber in Boston; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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