March 14, 2011
As the world turns worried eyes toward Japan's quake-damaged nuclear power plants, some Monterey County residents are scrambling to protect their thyroids in the event radioactive fallout reaches the U.S. West Coast.
Potassium iodide ("KI" in chemistry shorthand) is a trending Google phrase, due to the supplement's ability to block the thyroid from absorbing radioactive iodine. Helicopters flying 60 miles from the Fukushima Daiichi plants may have detected the radioactive particles cesium-137 and iodine-121, according to The New York Times, and the cybersphere buzzed with speculation about a radioactive plume crossing the Pacific to California, Oregon and Washington.
By Monday morning, The Vitamin Shoppe in Seaside had sold out of KI supplements and was working to order more. An associate said suppliers were jammed with similar requests from pharmacies and vitamin retailers up and down the West Coast.
Whole Foods in Monterey and Star Care Pharmacy in Salinas were also sold out and fielding calls from people trying to track down the product.
Associates at Pharmaca in Monterey told inquirers they expected 19 boxes of ThyroShield (a liquid KI product) delivered at 3pm, to be sold on a first-come, first-served basis, with a one-per-customer limit. By 2:45pm, about a dozen people had queued up.
Helen Okada of Pebble Beach, third in line, planned to buy a box and FedEx it overnight to her daughter in Tokyo. "Oh my God. I made phone calls to 30 places," she said of her search for the product.
She was shocked by the extent of the disaster, despite Japan's strict seismic building codes. "Who would have expected 9.0 and a tsunami?" she asked. "No one expected."
Beside her in line was Joan Giguiere, who worried what would happen if a massive earthquake damaged one of California's two power plants--Diablo Canyon, near San Luis Obispo, or San Onofre, between L.A. and San Diego.
A young man who asked not to be named was in the store looking for Prussian blue dye, which he said binds to cesium-137, the other radioactive particulate associated with the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. (Pharmaca does not carry it.)
A Pharmaca associate, who also did not want to be identified, addressed the waiting customers. "We're out of harm's way," she said. "If you're near a microwave you're probably exposed to a lot more [radiation]." Media reports of the radiation threat were fueling public panic, she added later: "It's creating a hysteria that's not necessary."
The L.A. Times reports KI stocks running low, as radiation fears grow, particularly on the West Coast. (Although some web sites were sold out, potassium iodide products were still available online as of Monday night.) But authorities with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission maintain that the risk of exposure is low.
High doses of KI can impede thyroid function and cause side effects such as acne and swelling, and can be dangerous to people with existing thyroid disease or allergies to shellfish. The California Department of Public Health advises the public not to take KI unless authorities recommend it. Moreover, KI only protects the thyroid--not the rest of the body. Evacuation is the safest response to a nuclear disaster.
Meanwhile in Japan, nuclear plant workers are releasing radioactive steam into the atmosphere as one of several strategies to prevent disastrous full reactor meltdowns. An even greater threat is the combustion of spent fuel rods in nearby pools. The plant has already been rocked by three explosions, as of Monday evening.