Clallam County Health Officer Dr. Tom Locke is trying to calm fears about nuclear contamination from Japan causing health problems in Washington.
As workers continue to try to prevent a full-scale meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, which suffered damage after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck March 11, people living on the West Coast of the U.S. are asking what could happen to them in a worst-case scenario, Locke said.
“Nobody has been able to come up with a scenario that would bring devastation to any of the U.S. territories,” Locke said.
Locke said comparisons to the 1986 nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl are inaccurate and misleading.
The Chernobyl plant was active and exploded during the height of the nuclear reaction, sending radioactive particles into the atmosphere. The Japanese plant was not operating and is unlikely to send radioactive particles high enough to travel 5,000 miles through the jet streams to the U.S., Locke said.
Last week local drug stores reported they were running out of potassium iodine tablets, which can protect part of the body against specific kinds of radiation, but only under a very specific set of conditions.
“The rush on pharmacies for potassium iodine is unnecessary,” Locke said, cautioning against its use.
Potassium iodine can cause allergic reactions in a fair number of people who probably aren’t even aware they have an allergy to iodine compounds, he said. Additionally, it can cause severe skin rashes and in small children can shut down the thyroid gland entirely, he said.
“You never want to give this to children without close medical supervision,” he said.
Locke said he also is concerned people may be seeking out a remedy called Prussian Blue, which is an obscure treatment for cesium, which is absorbed through food and water.
The Prussian Blue that can slow the absorption of cesium is available by prescription only but there is an artist’s paint pigment with the same name that is extremely toxic, he said.
“If people started ingesting artist paint, they could really harm themselves,” he said.
Locke said radiation occurs naturally on Earth and is absorbed at low levels by people throughout their lives.
People are exposed to low levels of radiation through air travel, certain medical tests such as CT scans and even dirt, which occurs naturally, he said.
“The limits have been established for when it (radiation) will start impacting human health without causing cancers,” he said.
Radiation detection is very precise and even just a few atoms can be detected easily with modern equipment, he said.
“We don’t have to scramble to find a system to detect it because it is already in place,” he said.
The state Department of Health released a statement March 18 that all monitoring stations continually have shown normal background levels of radiation. “There are many health threats people should worry about,” Locke said. “At this point, this simply isn’t one of them.”
Reach Amanda Winters at firstname.lastname@example.org.