Americans have nothing to fear from Japan’s nuclear crisis — or don’t go buy potassium iodide tablets today

I’ve been sent a number of email notes from physicians in the U.S. advising their friends and patients to immediately buy potassium iodine tablets in case the radiation from Japan should be carried across the jet stream to the United States. I’m with the large number of experts saying that would be a waste of time and money.

Now doubt that the ongoing explosions and fires at a Japanese nuclear plant have increased fears of radiation exposure in Japan. But, should Americans be concerned? I think not. Should Americans buy potassium iodine tablets or Geiger counters? I think not. Here are some details to consider.

The Washington Post says the explosion at Unit 2 of Japan’s stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant Tuesday, which most likely “damaged the main protective shield around the uranium-filled core inside one of the plant’s six reactors,” would be the “first at a nuclear power plant since the Chernobyl catastrophe in the Soviet Union 25 years ago.”

However, in a front-page story, the New York Times notes that Daiichi is “not synonymous with Chernobyl.” Within three months, 28 of the plant employees and firefighters at Chernobyl “died from radiation exposure,” according to a recent report by a United Nations scientific committee. But those Chernobyl workers were exposed to radiation levels “far beyond what has been measured to date at Daiichi.”

The CBS Evening News reported last night, “US officials from the President on down are trying to reassure residents of Hawaii, Alaska, and the West Coast there is little chance dangerous levels of radiation from Japan will reach them.”

Also, on ABC World News, a Japanese physicist Michio Kaku, PhD, was shown saying, “Even if we had a Chernobyl-type accident, the impact on the United States would be minimal.” ABC added, “Experts are telling us tonight that there is no threat to us here.”

According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, American College of Radiology President Dr. James Thrall, of the Massachusetts General Hospital, “said anything more than about 50 millisieverts may be cause for alarm.”

Dr. Thrall explained that studies conducted after the “atomic bombing of Japan during World War II showed those exposed to 50 millisieverts or more of radiation were at increased risk for leukemia and cancer.”

The Washington Times adds that ACR Safety Committee Chair Richard L. Morin “said the fire appears to be the biggest hazard because it sent radioactive particulates into the air.” As for the “medical effects of ionizing radiation,” he said if any population “understands these biological effects, it certainly is the Japanese” population. Their “level of consciousness, I think, is very, very high,” said Morin, who “teaches radiological physics at the Mayo Clinic.”

According to a report in the Christian Science Monitor, at “midnight Tuesday UTC, readings had fallen to 11.9 mSv per hour, said the IAEA. Six hours later they had fallen to 0.6 mSv.” The AP (3/16) adds that the level of radiation at the plant “surged to 1,000 millisieverts early Wednesday before coming down to 800-600 millisieverts.”

Meanwhile, the New York Times notes that for Americans trying to buy potassium iodide pills, “experts say there is no need for them … because Americans are not being exposed to dangerous levels of radiation from the Japanese plants, nor are they likely to be.”

Still, the suppliers of the three versions of potassium iodide approved by the FDA “were struggling to keep up with demand.” The Chicago Tribune adds that companies that sell Geiger counters also “have been overwhelmed with orders.”

In this case, I think both the pills and the Geiger counters will go unused.

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