Iodide tablets fly off shelves
Within days of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan, reports speculating on the possibility of a nuclear meltdown sent thousands of Californians running to the pharmacy for potassium iodide. While Japanese officials continue to work to secure their damaged nuclear reactors, health experts in the United States say there is no forseeable threat to American citizens and warn against the adverse health effects of taking iodide unnecessarily.
"The Department of Public Health takes the situation in Japan seriously, and we are monitoring it very closely," said Dr. Howard Backer, interim director of the California Department of Public Health. "As both President Obama and Gov. Brown have stated, there is no threat to California, and so people should not be taking precautionary health measures. Potassium iodide is only appropriate for much higher levels of radiation that may be generated within close proximity to a nuclear source. Using potassium iodide when inappropriate can result in significant side effects."
While potassium iodide tablets can help prevent the thyroid from absorbing radiation, it can also cause intestinal issues, allergic reactions, rashes and inflammation of the salivary glands if taken without a cause, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Taking unneeded iodide can also trick the thyroid into producing fewer hormones, a condition known as hypothyroidism, particularly in infants. Iodide does not prevent other parts of the body from absorbing radiation.
While U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin said potassium iodide could be a good investment for your emergency preparedness kit as a "precaution," health experts agree it's not something to be taken without provocation.
That didn't stop hundreds of Valley residents from snatching up all of the available supply in town. Pharmacists throughout Sonoma said they have been fielding multiple phone calls every hour from concerned citizens wanting to know when they can get more iodide.
"I would say dozens and dozens have called every day," said Paul Clark, assistant manager and herbalist at Pharmaca Integrative Pharmacy in Sonoma. "Normally, we get very little, if any at all, interest in iodide."
The earthquake hit on Friday, March 11, and Clark said by the end of the day on Saturday the pharmacy had sold out of all of its supply of iodine tablets and as of Friday had not been able to get more supply from distributors because the national demand is too high. Interest has also increased in natural products rich in iodide, such as seaweed, kelp and black tea.
"We encourage people to talk to their health professionals before taking anything," Clark said. "It's irresponsible to take it without needing it."
Researchers at UC Berkeley's Department of Nuclear Engineering monitored the plume of radiation from Japan that hit California Friday, and found the radiation levels were 1,000 times smaller than the natural levels of background radiation that people live with all the time.
"The California Department of Public Health and our Emergency Management Agency are in constant contact with the federal agencies responsible for monitoring radiation levels in California, and we will tell the public if any precautions become necessary. However, there is no cause for alarm," Gov. Jerry Brown said in a press release on Friday.